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Sun, 04 Apr 2004

Fringe Economy

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is a three-week extravaganza of performing arts, theatre, stand-up comedy, dance, music and just about any other form of live performance art known to humanity, that happens every August in Edinburgh and makes life a misery for those of us who happen to live in the city. The Fringe is big, arguably bigger than the mainstream Edinburgh Festival (which is itself one of the largest art festivals in Europe); last year 1,184,738 individual tickets were sold for performances. It has also launched a flotilla of successful careers: it is the place for alternative comedians to hit the mainstream, for example. Back in 2002 it was the big breakthrough for Puppetry of the Penis; this year ... who knows?

As it happens, I'm part of a local writer's group (Writer's Bloc) which does regular-ish spoken word events in Edinburgh. About once every three months we take over a large pub basement or similar den of iniquity, stand up behind microphones, and try to keep the audience amused for two or three hours. Usually it works; lately we've been having headaches finding pub venues with rooms large enough to hold the 80+ bodies we attract. You might think that if we're that successful we'd be signing up for a slot in the Fringe. But you'd be wrong.

We actually looked into the logistics of doing the Fringe, and it's a bit daunting. Despite being sold as a hotbed of hopeful amateurs, the Fringe isn't cheap. The first hurdle you need to leap is registering as an official Fringe act. This gets you a one line listing in the Fringe brochure, which is the main mechanism tourists (and yes, it is mostly tourists who do the fringe) use to find stuff: price? £249 until April 5th, then £299 until April 25th (when bookings close).

But that's only the first of your expenses. Let's consider the fact that there are upwards of 500 acts on in a given Fringe month. You might want to buy an advertisement in the brochure to raise your profile. That's cool: but an eighth-page ad will set you back £500 +VAT, rising to £1900 +VAT for a half-page. And that's just one publication. Local listings mags and newspapers tend to put their advertising rate sheet up (or rather, reduce their discounts) come August. You could easily blow a couple of grand on advertising and end up with two poxy quarter-pagers in the Fringe program and J. Random Free Sheet. To cover the bases properly you're talking about spending serious money. Handbills spring to mind, and they're relatively cheap to print compared to magazine advertising -- a couple of hundred quid in any local print shop will set you up decently -- but they don't hand themselves out to the tourists. You've got to get yourselves, and friends, and family, and the family dog, out on the pavements thrusting scraps of badly printed paper at people who will most likely throw them away unread.

Finally, you've got the problem of finding a venue. And that's the back-breaker. Every cafe, pub, hotel, theatre, and random square open patch of pavement in Edinburgh makes out like a bandit during August. And there are so many performers that they can charge whatever they like. Our investigations came up with one bar, normally reasonable -- like, we could borrow their back room every week for free if we wanted to, outside of Festival month -- who wanted £800 for seven one-hour slots at the same time on consecutive days during that month, for a room that holds up to 40 people. (Given that they're open 12 hours a day, they expect to clear the thick end of £10,000 a week in fees collected from the performers who're renting their basement room. Plus, of course, the drinks they sell to the punters at, oh, 10% over the normal September-to-July prices. Remember, they normally let us use the room for free because of the drinks we'll buy in a session: we're talking an operating profit after tax, labour, and materials of roughly £0.5 per pint of beer, 40 seats, average one pint per hour for 96 hours a week -- or up to £2000 in profit just for opening the doors and letting people sit down.)

Now. Put it all together and run the numbers ...

Suppose we do it simply, by word of mouth plus handbills for the advertising, use friends, and keep the print bill to £100 (enough for a few thousand colour flyers and maybe fifty color A4 posters to sneak up in various Fringe venue lobbies). We need another £300 to register, and £800 for the venue. That's a total spend of £1200 for a minimal Fringe presence which involves seven one-hour performances in front of an audience of up to 40 people -- a maximum of 280 faces.

We can't assume we'll get 280 visitors, though. That's a sell-out at the door: we're much more likely to get a 50% sell-out, meaning 140 visitors. From whom we'd have to recoup £1200, or make a loss. That implies a ticket price of £10 just to break even. Fringe ticket prices are on the order of £5-12, but the high end is strictly for the well-known acts or the performers who're making a breakthrough to the big time and who everyone wants to see.

So: we'd stand to lose up to £1200 for the sake of reaching an audience of up to 280 -- but more likely 140 -- people. While our normal out-of-season spoken word evenings usually do better than break-even and attract an audience of 80, and we could do better if we had a larger venue.

Which makes me wonder: just what is the attraction of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe for amateur performing arts groups? It sure ain't the money, and it probably can't be the audience, either -- while a lucky few will make the big time, for most performers a trip to the Fringe is doomed to obscurity, financial loss (on a scale which most artists can't afford -- the arts are notoriously under-paid), cramped venues owned by stone-squeezing landlords who will demand payment in blood, and the final insult: nobody even turns up to write a review of the act.

I'm beginning to wonder if the point of the Fringe hasn't shifted from a gathering of new performance artists to lining the pockets of the good Burghers of Edinburgh. Certainly if you read the Fringe 2003 report it sounds as if economic incentives (and the job of attracting more goddamn tourists to our already-seething city) are paramount. Where's it going to stop? Last year, one Sunday late in August saw 400,000 visitors on The Meadows. As Edinburgh has a resident population of some 540,000 people, they aren't all likely to be locals -- indeed, by some estimates the population of the city and its immediate environs doubles in August. It's like a huge, weird, arts-driven bubble economy, where more and more hapless hopeful performers are shovelled into the maw of a commercial tourism industry desperate to extract wallets from back-pockets, recycling the wreckage of a thousand doomed back-room acts as bait for beady-eyed Kodak-twitching tourists who in turn cram the boarding-houses and guest-rooms to bursting point and make it impossible to squeeze into any pub in town for a quiet pint or to find a table in a restaurant without booking two weeks in advance.

This isn't healthy. This isn't good. And I'm not sure it's stable, either. Last year we had a hot August. The local neds were at boiling point; two of my friends were assaulted in the street by random strangers, a friend-of-a-friend was threatened and, on reporting it to the police, was told that large areas of the run-down housing estates on the edge of the city were close to exploding. You've got rich but annoying tourists rubbing shoulders with pissed-off schemies who can't get into their local for a bevvy and who resent the hell out of the pretentious arty wank that goes on at this time of year. Add a hot summer and the whole thing begins to sweat like a pile of shelf-life expired dynamite. And the idiots in the counting-houses are encouraging this because big-number ticket sales are a good thing, even if successful local groups can't get a toe in the door, the quality of life in the city is going to hell in a handbasket, and natives are screaming just make it stop.

Colour me disenchanted. Maybe I'll move to Glasgow for August?

[Link] [Discuss Edinburgh Festival Fringe]

posted at: 12:20 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry


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