I have attended the Edinburgh Fringe for 33 consecutive years and seen a lot of changes over time. The meteoric rise of the Free Fringe is an example.
Initially a way for performers to avoid the often crippling overheads associated with playing big venues, the Free Fringe allows performers to at least avoid making a loss.
However, it seems now that some performers, far from doing a free show out of the kindness of their hearts, are doing it for considerable financial gain.
Of the six free shows I saw on Saturday, only one performer, appropriately at a spoken word piece on the evil of money, refused to accept any donations.
Two performers, both of whom delivered excellent shows, actually suggested putting £5 into the bucket. While not exactly being held to ransom, there’s a sense of indignation.
While the audience isn’t brave enough to say “Hang on, we thought this was free,” I did overhear someone say: “I’m not giving £5 to someone who’s admitted to getting a double first from Oxbridge.”
Who does the Free Fringe benefit? The venue makes money on drinks, while the performer gets cash-in-hand undeclared income.
If you do the maths, some acts in a big venue could be getting up to £300 a show, averaging £2 a punter. All this without paying for licenses and costs associated with the paid Fringe.
As the sharing economy is beginning to look less about caring and more like capitalism in disguise, HMRC is starting to look more closely into things like AirBnB, where landlords are operating businesses in direct competition with small hotels, yet could be avoiding paying tax.
Similarly, perhaps it’s time to set strict criteria as to who can perform at the Free Fringe. It should be a showcase for new acts who otherwise couldn’t afford to be at the Fringe.
Otherwise, if more professional performers switch to free venues, the viability of the Fringe itself becomes threatened.
Perhaps the whole thing needs a shake-up.
It’s the big venues that make the money in charging for their space, not the artists on stage.
There should be a more level playing field, a fairer distribution of the income that’s generated, otherwise the Fringe, like the Festival, becomes something only the well-off middle classes can afford to attend.
The Free Fringe should be free for both artists and punters, a democratic incubator of new talent, accessible to anyone, where money is taken out of the equation.
Long live the Free Fringe.