Posted on September 24, 2012 by Xavier Toby

To Free or Not to Free. Or is that a stupid question? (Ed Fringe Diary – 2nd Last One)

Here’s me picking strawberries in Queensland, a month before the Ed Fringe. Look how happy I am! I was so happy then. I really like strawberries.

My Mum once told me, ‘If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.’

So really, I should stop writing about the Edinburgh Fringe. However I believe, ‘If you can’t say anything nice, say something mean. It’s usually much more entertaining.’

Also, my Mum never said that. She’s always been a big believer in just shouting out the truth. Which leads to comments such as, ‘Are you really going to go on stage looking like that?’ And, ‘Are there are check shirts left for anyone else? It seems that you’ve got all of them.’

Painful at the time, but helpful in the long-term.

So I’ve been a bit slack putting up the final two diary entries from the Edinburgh Fringe for a few reasons. First up, they were both really dark, and I wanted to give it a bit of distance. Secondly, I was in China and busy seeing tourist shit and eating food that went through me faster than a superfast train. Going to the toilet on one of those is surprisingly easy by the way, except when you hit a bump.

So anyway, here’s the second last diary entry. All about free events at the Edinburgh Fringe.

‘Is it free?’

‘No, but I can give you a two for one.’ I reply.

‘Why would I pay for your show, when I can see one for free?’

Flyering on the Royal Mile, I have this conversation far too many times a day. People say they’ve heard my show is good, that it sounds interesting. They like the name, ‘Binge Thinking’ and I’ve printed beer mats instead of flyers, which also get plenty of interest.

‘But why would I pay to see an unknown like you, when I can see someone else I haven’t heard of for free?’

I’ve resorted to giving out free tickets to every show, just so there’s an audience. Unlike the free fringe, I don’t pass around a bucket, and I’ve got much higher venue and staffing costs. After every show, people tell me how much they enjoyed the show, and promise to tell friends. One woman even pressed her spare change into my hand, and then when I refused it, she left it on a table.

‘That was such a great show. You’ve got to make a living,’ she said.

She’s right, but her one pound in change wasn’t going to make difference. Overall, I’m going to lose a lot of money. So why don’t I just stop whingeing and perform in a free venue?

Oh, but the way, I’m not going to differentiate between the two different arms of free shows. You hold a bucket after the show, that’s what I’m calling the free fringe.

If I went for the free fringe, I wouldn’t make anywhere near enough to cover my costs. Even if I sell just eight tickets per a show, I’m still making more than many of my friends at the free fringe. I’m Australian, getting here’s expensive and it’s nice to start with the dream of breaking even as a possibility.

Also, I consider myself to be an artist, not a beggar. As to the quality of my art, I’ll leave that up to the audience to decide. The bucket shaking, however, is the model used by some of the most successful artists at the fringe. A group of performers who’ve been smart enough to remove the need for a venue, and the associated costs, and in the process make a killing. Street performers.

Juggling three random objects while riding a unicycle and reciting old jokes, I don’t know if this qualifies as art. Then there are human statues, who don’t even have a smidgen of artistic creditability, but they’re not breaking any laws and making much more money than me, so good on them. Buskers who play original music, I think they’re amazing.

Anyway, I believe art should be committed to, and paid for prior to the performance. That spiel at the end of every free show where the artist basically begs the audience for money, it’s degrading and undermines the performance.

At one of my first ever shows, I was talking about what I did for a living, and at that time, it wasn’t comedy. An established act told me, ‘The audience wants to believe you’re a professional. Never pretend you’re anything else. Present yourself as a professional comic, and the audience will treat you like one.’

This isn’t just me ranting, I’ve gone and seen plenty at the free fringe. Most shows had full to overflowing audiences, but at every show I attended there were problems with people leaving early, arriving late, talking, ordering drinks, and heckling. One friend of mine even had someone vomit in his audience. All these issues are possible at paid shows, but in my experience, are far rarer and with venue staff on hand.

Also, I’ve noticed a different audience attitude at ticketed shows. With a free show, there’s the option to leave it its rubbish at no cost. With a bought ticket, they’re committed, and more willing to enjoy the show.

So what’s the answer? Well I think the Edinburgh Fringe is broken. The free fringe arose out of necessity. Venues charging way too much drove people to come up with an alternative.

It’s not just the case at the Edinburgh Fringe, but it’s become accepted practice at many comedy and fringe festivals that many artists will lose money. Which is ridiculous. Everyone along the way making money, apart from the artist. The people who create the art being celebrated, the reason the festival exists, are the people that lose the most. That’s like a farmer paying a butcher to sell his meat.

I’ve been told to stop complaining and put up with it. If you want touring opportunities, if you want to make the telly, or make it anywhere.

There are organizations like The Stand, who don’t charge performers who can’t cover their costs once it’s all over. That’s the way it should be, and I think it can be done even better. With smaller setup costs, and lower ticket prices, to make it a whole lot easier for both the performers and audience members.

As an artist, I’m not here to make a fortune. I’m here to make art, and make a living, so I can keep making art. Not a huge loss, so I have to go back to being a wage slave.

Venues only interested in making a profit, and profiteering from artists should just go away.

I think that my potential ticket sales have been decimated by the free fringe, but that’s possibly only part of the problem that includes factors like the economy and the Olympics. If I weren’t performing during the first week and a bit of the fringe, I would’ve been at home watching judo and badminton with everyone else.

Maybe the free fringe is bringing a larger overall audience to comedy, but is it the right sort of audience? Will this audience be willing to buy tickets to shows, or are we setting up a system where soon only the biggest names will be able to charge, and everyone will be shaking a bucket?

Next year performer numbers may be well down, if everyone does as badly as is being predicted. Apparently though, there are always two or three times the artists applying for venues, than there are venues. Maybe it’s the case at the larger venues, but I don’t know anyone at the free fringe who applied and missed out on a space.

Another argument is that the free fringe is a great stepping stone to a paid venue, but if it keeps growing like this, all the stones seem to be quickly disappearing, or are way too expensive.

Or perhaps there are just too many comedians. Too many people who want to get on stage and say, ‘look at me, listen to me, I’m important.’ It’s this obsession with being noticed, with having people’s attention, and I must admit it is nice, but I do comedy because I also have something to say. Not because I think anybody needs to know about my struggles with relationships, getting a job, or my views on the differences between men and women.

Free shows have cut right down on the costs. They use rooms in bars, where the costs to the performer are a fraction of what venues charge, and they also take some money from the bars for bringing in customers. I’m not sure exactly how this arrangement works, but it’s a much less expensive model for promoters, performers and the audience, but it’s also slashed potential takings.

The free fringe is probably here to stay, but I hope it doesn’t become the standard for comedy and performance, instead finds a place as an option for comedians just starting out.

I look at the lighting rig and sound system in my space, and know that it’s over the top. In the end, I hope a model emerges where venue costs and ticket prices become more reasonable, without undermining the performance with an ad hoc space and bucket shaking.