A lot was written and discussed at the end of last year's Edinburgh Fringe about bubbles bursting, audiences voting with their feet and growing resistance to the commercialisation of the fringe. Whether you agree with these wider notions or not, it's easy to concede that on a more personal scale 'fringe spirit' has been on the wane over the last few years. It's not gone entirely, and anyone who claims it is only has to look at what's going on at the Free Fringe or admire the endeavours of mavericks like Bob Slayer for living proof that fringe spirit is not yet gone for good.
But as an act performing at one of the "big four" venues, last year we felt that the incremental rise in ticket prices each year had reached a tipping-point where it became a genuine obstacle to punters considering what shows to see. As an established act at one of these venues you're under pressure from agents, promoters and venues themselves to charge a certain price for tickets. For us this meant £14 at weekends and £12.50 on weekdays.
When I first came to the Fringe in 2001, there were 1462 shows on and tickets were generally seven pounds, or five pounds for concessions. The fringe was still considered a more experimental, raw, and ultimately cheaper alternative to what was on offer at professional theatres or London's West End. These days, at the big four venues, most shows hover around the twelve pound mark but it's not rare to find household names charging £17.50 a ticket. When you consider you can see a show at the National Theatre for a tenner... something doesn't quite add up.
Another area where pressure is put on acts is in choosing their venue size. The mantra of promoters who encourage you to choose a larger venue may well be to "be ambitious" and "increase you profile" but in reality they're often thinking more about the potential lining of their coffers, rather than what's best for the act, their show, and their fan base.
From personal experience it's a much better feeling to play a sold out 150-seater venue than to play to 180 people in a 260-seater venue. You may sell a few more tickets over the course of the festival by playing the larger venue, but you'll have to work harder on flyering, spend more on advertising and generally worry more about your weekday audience numbers than if you were in a smaller venue. Besides, if the fringe is about anything, it's about creating and sustaining a 'buzz' around your show. If playing a smaller venue means your show is always sold out, those people who struggle to get tickets on the night will book for the following night, your show will be talked about more, and it feels like a coup to get in. That effect is lost if people can walk up and buy tickets every night because your venue is so large.
I'd advise any act to embrace flyering. Don't see it as a chore; use it as a way to get your brand of show or humour in people's faces. Five years on from our first fringe as Late Night Gimp Fight we still take 'gimps' out on a lead for an hour before the show starts, regardless of whether it's sold out or not. It gets people talking, makes people laugh, puts a (masked) face to the name of the show and does sell tickets. You can read more about our flyering technique here.
We thought about these elements long and hard before returning to the fringe, as we wanted to make sure we were coming back for the right reasons and going about it the right way. So this year we're in a smaller venue than last year, all tickets are a tenner, we're doing our own PR and we've halved our advertising budget - we're lucky our agents were supportive of this. But if you have a good show, and we really hope we do, then nothing beats word-of-mouth anyway so this year we hope to recapture a bit of that fringe spirit by doing the fringe on our own terms.