Another Edinburgh Festival Fringe ends.
It was my busiest ever, my first living back in Edinburgh since 2000, my first as a reviewer, my first as a promoter (of the Death on the Fringe series). I spent mornings cramming in regular, paid freelance work, too much work for too few hours, so that I had late afternoons and evenings at shows, either reviewing or supporting Death on the Fringe events. Even then, there was much I had to skip, more I wanted to do. If I said I’d attend or review your event and didn’t, I apologise.
Over the three weeks, I did much observing and ruminating on how the Fringe has progressed since my early Fringes in the late 90s.
I noted that shows at all levels seem busier than ever. Time was you used to fear being the only audience member. That hasn’t been the case for the last few years.
I noted that the Free Fringe and imitators are no poor relation now, if ever they were. Some very good mid-level performers are taking their chances on free shows rather than risk small-but-paying crowds in ‘name’ venues.
I noted that a lot of comedy is still posh boys shouting at each other in funny voices.
But the one thing that stands out the most as it always does is:
Someone is making a killing on this, and it ain’t the performers
2,183,591 tickets were issued for Fringe events. 2 million tickets. Not including all those people who attended non-ticketed events. That’s a hell of a lot of people, spending a hell of a lot of money. And yet, it is customary for performers to lose upwards of £5,000 being in Edinburgh. It is seen as a right of passage, something you have to do, but why? Where’s all that money going?
Well, we know landlords are raking it in. You can double, triple, quadruple standard prices. Rent your flat out for August and jet off to the Bahamas for the month. That’s OK, it’s supply and demand, innit? Well, yes, that’s one way of putting it. Profiteering, money-grabbing, exploitation. That’s some other ways of putting it. Here’s a thought – if you own a flat in Edinburgh, let your spare room at standard rates, or better still let a couple of worthy performers have it for peanuts. You never know, they could end up as the next Michael McIntyre. Then you can treat your mates to free arena comedy tickets for ever more. The name-dropping potential will pay back your rent over and over.
And the big venues are no financial slouches either. They charge performers deposits, guarantees against ticket sales. They’re taking no risks. We can’t quite accuse them of leaching on the performers the way landlords do. They are at least in the business of putting on performances. But there’s a lot of money swishing around the food and drink concessions and box offices of these places and not enough of it is finding its way to the performers. I’m not privy to the workings of the ‘Big Four’ Edinburgh venues, but the increasingly elaborate branding paraphenalia and increasingly corporate vibe do smack of people feathering their nests at performers’ expense.
What about the Free Fringe, the supposed saviour of the DIY spirit? Performers don’t pay to perform, they pass round a bucket at the end if you feel like contributing. It’s indoor busking. Well, I won’t knock it at all. I’ve had some great nights because of free events. But the following scenario is illuminating:
I saw Kieran Hodgson at popular free venue, The Voodoo Rooms. An orange juice and a lime and soda set me back £5. Say I chucked the performer a fiver at the end. I have paid £10 for a ‘free show’ and some cordial. The performer will still be out of pocket (see above about landlords). The only people laughing (outside of the performance, which was my funniest of the Fringe) are the Voodoo Rooms with their multi-thousand percent mark-up on soft drinks.
Flats, venues, bars – owners of stuff are the people making money during the Fringe. Doers of stuff – the people everyone is here to see – make nothing. And that’s not on.
“Well, they’re doing it for the love of it,” you say. “They enjoy it.” Ah, the justification for not paying artists throughout the ages. Listen, people enjoy buying houses, doing them up and selling them on. We don’t expect them to do that for free.
When we privilege people who own stuff over people who do stuff in this way, society is moribund. And when decent performers need to be bankrolled to the tune of thousands of pounds, the arts becomes another realm of life off limits to the poor, and it really shouldn’t be.