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The Edinburgh Fringe? - "It Is Called Show Business - Not Show Charity"

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In a recent Huffington Post piece, I wrote about two types of show at the Edinburgh Fringe.

In normal 'paid' shows, the audience pays for its tickets before seeing the show and reviewers and talent scouts for the media/showbiz industry mostly get free tickets because they potentially may publicise the show or further the performers' careers.

At 'free' shows, people do not buy tickets in advance, but are encouraged to pay on exit and reviewers/talent scouts may be scowled-at if they do not pay. In yesterday's blog, I suggested the fact that 'industry' people ironically do not pay for 'paid' shows but may be expected to pay for 'free' shows might discourage reviewers and talent scouts from attending free shows. They would, in effect, be paying to promote the shows/further the performers' careers.

I quoted Peter Buckley Hill, organiser of the PBH Free Fringe in Edinburgh, as saying: "This is not something that concerns me greatly... Our performers are strongly advised to concentrate on entertaining the people in front of them, whoever they are, and not to entertain unrealistic dreams of discovery and sudden fame... What happens at paid shows is nothing to me either.  But in my view, both (the employers of) reviewers and competition judges should pay for their show tickets."

There has been some reaction from other Fringe veterans to yesterday's blog.

Kate Copstick, doyenne of Fringe comedy reviewers, ITV Show Me The Funny judge and a Malcolm Hardee Awards judge, Facebooked me: "Shame on you, you skinflint Fleming. I make a POINT of seeing as many free shows as I can and, yes, they are the only ones I end up paying for but, to coin a literary term, SO THE FUCK WHAT ? It is the right thing to do. If we don't review goodly numbers of free shows then we are saying that money WILL buy you reviews. Not mine it won't."

American comedian Lewis Schaffer has used the Fringe's 'free' show model in his twice-weekly Free Until Famous shows in London and in a current mini-tour of UK arts centres which I blogged about recently. He says:

"Whether or not to let reviewers in for free is such a minor point and one easily addressed: give the promoters and industry people 'get out of show free' passes to drop in the performers' jars. Simple. If a performer doesn't want to accept them, he can post a notice at the entrance.

"Acts are willing to lose massive amounts of money just to be seen by entertainment industry people in Edinburgh. That's always been the main benefit of putting on shows at the Big Four venues. Industry people are corralled, cuddled and coddled at the Assembly, Gilded Balloon, Pleasance and Underbelly. Is it worth it? Well, for many shows, yes.

"Why shouldn't the free venues do the same?"

Alex Petty, who organises the Laughing Horse Free Festival at the Edinburgh Fringe (separately from PBH's Free Fringe) says:

"I like the idea of tokens. It would be good to come up with a zero maintenance solution to this."

Bob Slayer, who ran the Hive venue as part of the Laughing Horse Free Festival last year and who, this year, will be running his Alternative Edinburgh Fringe at the Hive with a mixture of 'free' shows in the afternoon and and 'paid' shows in the evening says:

"As a promoter I think, if this really is a problem, the free shows should look at a low-maintenance way to address it. Personally, I only really know one of the reviewers that 'does' my Fringe shows - Kate Copstick from The Scotsman - and she always drops in a fiver and buys me copious amounts of Jagermeister. I think the other reviewers may have heard how expensive it is to review me and sneak in quietly.

"Copstick is one of the good people. But the question is Do you only want to be reviewed by good people?? I am more than happy for evil, tight-fisted people to enjoy and review my show too. (I fear they might be my target audience.) So this year, instead of paying for PR I will offer a bottle of whisky and/or a hand-job to anyone who reviews my nonsense. And, just to keep this creatively pure, I will give extra for bad reviews.

"However, I think your blog has opened up some wider and bigger questions beyond reviewers.

"I cannot agree with your statement that, at the Fringe, performers (quite rightly) assume they will not make any profit. This is the biggest single problem at the Fringe today.

"Two million tickets are sold at the Edinburgh Fringe every year, so someone is making money. A lot of money. This myth that performers should expect to lose money has been very successfully spread by the people who are making the cash in order to protect their annual golden goose. If there is not enough money left for performers - after venues, PR people, poster people, publications, marketing services etc have taken their cut - then the obvious solution is that we cannot afford all these services and we should re-structure everything so that all the money doesn't disappear into these people's pockets.

"That is what we are aiming to do with the Alternative Fringe - paid shows with no rent/guarantee or other hidden costs, plus low ticket pricing and efficient marketing so that the performer earns from the first ticket sold.

"I also find myself totally agreeing with PBH and have very little to add when he says performers should concentrate on entertaining the people in front of them, whoever they are, and not to entertain unrealistic dreams of discovery and sudden fame. The former leads to satisfaction in a job well done; the latter to frustration and the sort of nervous breakdown behaviour often associated with Fringe performers.

"However, as admirable as PBH's non-profit stance is, this is still a business model that needs to be sustained and it is hardly wise to ignore the industry and reviewers altogether. Performers want to be able to keep performing and/or build a career.

"Reviews, along with word-of-mouth, recommendations, online activity, marketing etc, can all help them put bums-on-seats. But it is a question of balance and priorities. Find and develop an audience and the industry will come - Kunt and the Gang proved last year that, if you create a buzz amongst 'normal' people, then the industry and press will follow, no matter how inappropriate your act or name is!"

Lewis Schaffer adds:

"Someone in Edinburgh is certainly making money out of the free shows. It is the pub owner who sells alcohol to the punters coming in droves for free entertainment. The 'free' shows hinge on punters drinking. How British is that!?

"No punters drinking mean no shows, no PBH Free Fringe, no Laughing Horse Free Festival, no Lewis Schaffer is Free until Famous, 18th Year, Again, at the Counting House this August.

"Peter Buckley Hill provides entertainment that draws punters to the pubs, which makes Peter Buckley Hill a promoter for pubs in Edinburgh.

"I don't have an axe to grind with the dude. His existence doesn't hurt or harm what I do enough for it to matter. I am just a participant doing a free show. Though it does hurt me a little when he calls what he does a charity and holds benefits and makes free shows seem like charity cases, which my show isn't. I don't want people to feel sorry for me any more than is necessary!

"All performers at the free festivals are just alcohol salesmen, really. If PBH wants to sell himself as some saviour of entertainers or some charity for lost performers, that is one thing. The truth is something else.

"Everyone involved has a business model: the acts who want a venue at the lowest cost, the pubs who want drinkers in their pubs, the promoters who need money to conduct their businesses and live (... Oh, PBH isn't doing it for the money? But the Free Fringe needs money to operate. And PBH has a 'business plan' to have his needs met as the saviour of entertainers and the liberator of worker artists.)

"The Fringe is part of show business. It is called show business and not show charity."