Don’t ask about dosh: The true cost of staging a Fringe show

IT WAS suddenly no laughing matter when Claire Smith decided to investigate what it really costs to put on a show at the Fringe.

IT WAS suddenly no laughing matter when Claire Smith decided to investigate what it really costs to put on a show at the Fringe.

As soon as I say I’m planning to write about the economics of the Fringe some very, very strange things start to happen. I’m warned there are some dangerous people out there, and that there are some things I can never say. I’m told I will never ever be able to write the truth.

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People who have barely given me the time of day before are suddenly desperate to talk to me. Others are clearly avoiding me. I’m being charmed, flattered, persuaded. I’m being told 
extraordinary gossip. I’m lied to. People are pulling me into pubs and showing me their accounts. And then, in the space of 24 hours, I’m threatened with legal action, not once, but twice – by two people I previously viewed with respect.

So what on earth is happening with Fringe economics to make it such a highly-charged topic? Well, as everyone now admits, it has been a difficult year. The Fringe has been hit by a perfect storm – the growth in the number of free shows, the Olympics and the recession have led to falling sales across the board. But in a Fringe tainted by a war of words between Stewart Lee, Bob Slayer and Tommy Sheppard’s Assembly Rooms on one side, and the “Big Four” venues (the Pleasance, the 
Underbelly, the Gilded Balloon and Assembly Festival) on the other, the main talking point is: where does all the ticket money go?

People who previously sold out have been selling to three-quarters full houses, well-respected performers have been struggling to find an audience. Well-known acts are considering putting on free shows next year, in what is increasingly being called the “real” Fringe. Writing on a comedy website, Richard Herring said: “The Fringe has got too big and there are too many comedians and the bubble is probably about to burst. It’s open to the same market forces as the rest of life and it can’t expand indefinitely and things can’t keep getting more expensive without something breaking.”

This year has seen the launch of the Alternative Fringe – where Bob Slayer is offering low prices for audiences, making no charge to performers and taking a stand against all the venues where performers lose money, branding them “pay to play”. And a fairer deal for performers has been pledged by Tommy Sheppard, who says no-one at his Stand venues, or at the Assembly Rooms, will end up with a bill at the end of the Fringe.

All the Big Four publish the financial deals they offer on their websites. However, anecdotal evidence suggests it is almost impossible for performers to work out how much will be deducted for the cost of equipment, in-house PR, posters and so on. Even if someone makes money the lion’s share can go to the venue. This week a famous TV comedian showed me a balance sheet from a major Fringe venue that showed £70,000 in ticket sales, of which just £7,000 was paid to the performer.

Among circuit comics, the cost of bringing a show to Edinburgh and staying here for three weeks – whether at a small venue or a big one – is reckoned at an average of £6,000. But if an act really wants to make a push for the big time, the costs start to escalate. PR alone can cost £6,000 and a big poster campaign for one artist last year was said to have cost £30,000.

If performers sign up to one of the big agents they can run up huge costs and effectively have to work for their management company all year to pay off the bill. The PR companies and the management companies are said to be pushing performers towards bigger venues and more spend on advertising.

Comedian Stewart Lee, who has played at numerous different venues and is now firmly in the Tommy Sheppard camp, says: “Lots of people end up £10,000 down and tied to their management companies. People should ask questions about whether it is necessary.”

Sheppard says performers know he will give them a fairer deal. “From the smallest show to the biggest show [in his venues], none of them are paying. They are all on a deal that gives them a split or nothing. If they do make a loss it is our risk, not theirs.”

However, despite this, the Assembly Rooms venture has been hit with difficulties. Issues with sound quality led to Russell Kane having to decamp to the Pleasance for one night, and there have been complaints about the unwelcoming behaviour and disorganisation of the front-of-house staff hired by Edinburgh City Council. On Wednesday night an electricity fault meant the audience for Stewart Lee had to be given refunds. Although the takings of the pop-up bar on George Street will allow Sheppard to underwrite shows, some still question whether he can create a programme for the Assembly Rooms which is an artistic and commercial success.

As others point out, there is much more to programming a venue for the Fringe than running a year-round comedy club. As Charlie Wood of the Underbelly says: “Cowgate has nothing – not even electricity. We put in everything – the power, the lights, the staging – everything. That cost us £1.5 million last year. Welcome to the brave new world of running a venue that is not a man and a microphone – it costs money.”

Wood emphasises that there is no such thing as a typical “Big Four” deal – different acts at the same venue will negotiate different deals. He denies performers whose shows do not do well end up owing thousands. “We always tell people to budget really carefully and be realistic about how much money they will make at the box office.”

Karen Koren of the Gilded Balloon says: “I am hurt when people think we are cashing in. I have never made a fortune – I wish. I do this because I love it and I have been doing it a long time. It is worthwhile because sometimes you find someone like Tim Minchin and introduce him to the world. That’s amazing. You don’t get that very often, and when you do it’s brilliant.”

Anthony Alderson at the Pleasance speaks passionately about helping performers to develop and to put on their best work. And he is happy to see performers moving into profit. “It makes me cross that there is an idea in this country that artists should be poor. I don’t know why we can’t celebrate success. There is a big difference between being commercial and being greedy.”

William Burdett-Coutts of Assembly Theatre has a reputation as the toughest businessman of the lot, but talks warmly about relationships with artists – many of whom come back to ­Assembly year after year. It is clear he cares deeply about the future of the Fringe. “It is a very 
fragile environment,” he says. “If you wanted to set up what has grown naturally here it would take millions [of pounds].”

There is no doubt the Fringe is changing. This year Peter Buckley Hill, founder of the Free Fringe, is on the board of the Fringe Society. Once again this year, free shows have been nominated for the Foster’s Edinburgh Comedy Awards – demonstrating what the award’s director, Nica Burns, calls “the ultimate artistic democracy”.

I have been covering the Fringe for The Scotsman for 20 years. I have seen comedy grow into a huge industry and the number of PR people increase to the extent they even have their own PR festival. I have had the chance to spend time with brilliant, talented, brave and clever people – some of whom have gone on to become hugely successful, some of whom have experienced abject failure.

I’m aware that in trying to write about the economics of the Fringe I have stirred up a hornets’ nest – and that I’ve only scratched the surface. But I have never seen so much paranoia as I have this year. The Fringe is changing, as it always does. The dynamics are changing. But a Fringe where journalists who ask questions about money get threatened with legal action? Don’t make me laugh.