Andrew Eaton-Lewis: The free Fringe looks like the way of the future, for better or worse
A FEW days ago I ran into a PR person I know, who was having a tough time with a Fringe theatre show she was looking after.
Eighteen reviewers had seen it, and mostly given it glowing reviews (five stars in some cases) and it still wasn’t getting an audience of much more than ten people a night. The company was panicking. “Get more press!” they’d told her. She rolled her eyes. Eighteen glowing reviews and still no audience? Whatever the problem was, more press coverage wouldn’t fix it.
The problem in this case may have been the venue – off the beaten track and known mostly for comedy. It may also have been that five star reviews just don’t shift tickets the way they once did. (And why should they, when they now seem to be splashed on every poster in town, thanks to the vast numbers of reviewers out there from websites and freesheets – some of whom are perhaps more generous with their star ratings than they should be? Audiences are not stupid.)
More likely, though, it was just a typical Fringe 2012 experience. The Olympics and the recession both hit ticket sales hard this year. We’ll have a clearer picture this week once the Fringe publishes its final sales figures, but the evidence so far suggests that, across the board, people are buying fewer tickets, and buying them later and spontaneously on the day.
Perhaps this ever expanding festival – six per cent bigger again this year, lest we forget – has finally reached saturation point, with more shows than audiences willing to pay for them. As ever with the Fringe, though, the picture is complicated. Anecdotal evidence suggests the free Fringe has had another good year – or good enough, at least, to tempt even more established performers to make the switch.
Apart from the fact that audiences are strapped for cash, the free Fringe may stand to benefit from changes in the way that people discover shows. This year, for the first time, I tried out the Fringe’s app – a fantastic tool that tells your phone what shows are starting in the next few minutes, and how far away. Half an hour later I was watching a free, unticketed show at the Counting House. After all, if an app tells you two shows are starting shortly, a few minutes’ walk away, and that one costs £10 and one nothing, which one do you try? According to official Fringe figures, 45,000 people downloaded this app last year.
There are reasons to be cautious of the free Fringe – the quality is wildly variable, and the nature of the thing may mean this is always going to remain the case (the commitment involved in spending money on hiring a venue and proper PR does tend to sort the happy amateurs from the committed professionals).
Here’s the thing, though. Show-locating apps are the Fringe’s equivalent of an iPod, offering you a simple to navigate menu of experiences that are all available instantly. Fringe performers will have to adjust to this new world. The free Fringe already has – it is, after all, not really free at all, surviving on donations at the end of a show, echoing the “pay what you want” policy many musicians are now taking, as they try to find a way to earn a living in a world where nobody wants to pay for recorded music anymore, or reconcile themselves to becoming happy amateurs.
Is the Fringe in trouble? Depends on how you look at it. I suspect it’s just evolving, as it always has. You can think of falling ticket sales as economic disaster, or you can think of it as a road towards something less materialistic. But the free Fringe looks to me like the way of the future, for better or worse. Get used to it.
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Thursday 23 May 2013
Temperature: 5 C to 10 C
Wind Speed: 23 mph
Wind direction: North west
Temperature: 4 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 17 mph
Wind direction: North east