Tuesday, 10 July 2012

A View on the Big Four and "The Alternatives"

In an effort to stop the blog becoming a list of the acts I follow on Twitter, I thought I'd try and tackle an issue that affects everyone who comes to the Fringe... Whether they realise it or not.

Newbies to the Fringe may not know what I am talking about, but any comic who has put any thought into which venue they will be performing at will know straight away what I mean... So, who are this "Big Four"... Let me explain, by starting off with a history lesson...

The Edinburgh Fringe Festival was created when a few people who wanted to perform at the official Festival but were told they couldn't, decided to come to Edinburgh anyway, hire a space, put on a show and try to get the reviewers who were there anyway to come and see them....

The following year, more people did the same and here we are, 65 years later with the worlds largest arts festival; the original "alternative" festival.

In the beginning the Fringe was spread over 100's of venues and essentially, that is still the case today. However, something has happened and the best analogy I can give as to how and why it has started is Supermarkets... (stick with me).

We all know that 50 years ago our grannies used to wander down to the high street, get meat from the butcher, bread from the baker etc etc... Nowadays that's all changed and the family will, instead, nip into the 4x4 for the weekly shop to the local edge of town monstrosity while the poor old butcher struggles to compete with a new "Sainsbury's Local", fighting for the well-to-do-town-centre-with-no-kids-yet couples and the dwindling number of other people with cash to throw around.

And whilst we all know that there are struggling corner shop owners, wine merchants and sweet shops out there, we can't turn down the value that the big supermarkets offer on a litre of milk or a pound of mince, so we all shop there and don't support the little guy as much as we want to.

The other things that the big four supermarkets have on their side as well as price is location, marketing, brand awareness and of course, lots of cash!

"But what does this have to do with the Fringe" I hear you say...

Well, the same thing has happened with Fringe venues! The four biggest have grown into behemoths that hoover up the punters and take them away from the little venues. Replace Asda, Tesco, Sainsbury's and Morrison's with The Pleasance, Assembly Theatre, the Underbelly (complete with the big purple cow) and the Gilded Balloon, and you have your Big Four!

So what makes these places unique? Well, first of all it's the space they have at their disposal! Each venue isn't custom built to be split into performance areas, but it may as well be... Especially The Pleasance with it's hundreds of little cubby holes. By having lots of performance areas in one venue, you create a hub with lots of choice so people see it as a one-stop-shop with everything on offer.

They are also established venues, people have been going there for years to see Fringe shows...

What else? Well, they have the big acts. No self respecting off-the-telly comic is going to hire out a church hall when they can pack in the punters, then sip a cold pint in the courtyard with their celebrity chums and TV Exec buddies, safe in the knowledge that they will get the punters in on the back of their appearance on Michael McIntyre's Comedy Roadshow!

(My pub owning buddy would also want me to point out that they also have a competitive advantage because they don't need to pay business rates on the temporary bars that they set up right next to his boozer).

But most importantly, they have the cash, and lots of it! Any act that wants to hire a tiny venue with room for 60-70 people crammed in has to pay around £4,000 for the privilege. That's £3 per seat per day... So If they are selling tickets for £6-7, they need to be at the very least half full every day to cover the venue cost.... Now keep in mind that this is just the venue cost... Not the cost to get to Edinburgh, sort accommodation, pay for their own marketing (including £400 just to get into the Fringe Guide). So if they want to cover those costs, they would need to be 3/4 full and heaven forbid if they were to make a profit they would need to be packing them in every single night....

Now, given that the average audience for a Fringe show is around 12 (I can't provide a source for that but I'm not plucking that figure out my arse... It's true), you can see how hard it can be for an act to make a profit!

But the acts do pay for these venues and they do walk away losing thousands. Why? Because they don't come to Edinburgh to make money, they come to get seen, reviewed, recognised, in short... to get famous.

So what do the venues do with all this cash? Well, they spend it on marketing and make sure the big shows are a success! The smaller shows at these venues usually make a loss, but they do get their name out there and after a few more years filling the venue's pocket with their hard earned cash, they may eventually see a return IF they are talented enough!

So far, so unsurprising.

What has happened in the last few years though has been a little more controversial and this is where the supermarket analogy well and truly ends!

The Big Four decided to get together and create the Edinburgh Comedy Festival which is essentially a marketing machine that only promotes their own shows. They create a great big glossy brochure and distribute it right next to the official brochure in a way that makes it as easy as possible for the punters to choose them. (They have added a 5th smaller company called Just The Tonic into the brochure who are, for the sake of this analogy, Waitrose... but the Big Four are still the key players).

If the five big supermarkets were to get together like this, then small business owners and the Competition Commission would have a serious problem with this, but Fringe venues are not large companies and the Fringe is only one month a year, in one city, so nothing is ever going to be done about this and I'm not suggesting anything should be.

What I do want to do though is let people know where their money is going at the end of all this. Just as I do my weekly shop at Asda, I also start my Fringe adventure every year at The Pleasance for the simple reason that you can pick up free/cheap tickets during the previews, (sadly I don't get press accreditation for doing this blog).

But I'm very much aware that every time I go to see one of these shows and blog about them (assuming I like them) that I'm helping the establishment and there are hundreds of smaller acts at the Fringe for the first time who have great shows, but can't get the punters or the reviewers in (even small fry amateur reviewers like me) to show them how good their show is and get the word of mouth out there!

Now, I'm not by any stretch of the imagination saying that you should not visit the big four... Go for it. If you've seen someone off the telly and you want to see then live then you should. Although I prefer to watch less established acts I know many people like a safe bet.

Just please be aware where your cash is going.

Be aware that you are lining the pockets of the agents and not helping "small business owners" in this case struggling actors or stand ups who still have a day job and are using a year's worth of annual leave to try and get their big break - just like you are not helping farmers or butchers when you but 10 chicken breasts for £9 at Asda.

And if you do go and see a big act, please also make an effort to get out and support everyone else too! Take a risk. Go and see a free show... Pick a 4-acts-for-1 type of gig... (Generally speaking you get two decent ones, an average one and a pretty poor but with sitting through one).

Here's who I think you should take some time to support:

The Stand Comedy Club... They must absolutely rake it in during the festival, but provide comedy all year round in Edinburgh (and still have staff to pay in January when the streets are deserted) so for that alone, they deserve to be supported and deserve their annual bumper month! That's before you even mention that they generally attract the best established but alternative acts, keen to play in a real comedy club. On top of that, owner Tommy Sheppard has got one over on one of the big four by securing the rights to host shows at the Assembly Rooms (previously run by Assembly Theatre who have run off to the South Side to be with their other three buddies) from 2012. Sheppard seems to have several admirable goals; to stop the Fringe becoming too tied to one area (South Side), to keep supporting local and/or up and coming acts as well as less commercial but established alternative comedians and to stop the rampant commercialism of the Fringe.

The Shack... A new all year round comedy club run by Edinburgh stand up Jojo Sutherland! A modern venue that turns into a 70's/80's themed disco at night. This is their first Fringe, and they only have a limited number of acts (who are not yet listed on their main website - get it sorted Jojo) so you have to do a venue search on the official site to find out what's going on there. I don't know enough about all the acts to comment on them but given how well connected Jojo is, I reckon there will be some very decent acts on at their late show.

Then you have the two free companies: PBH's Free Fringe and the Laughing Horse Free Festival. I should warn you, there's some history between these two... The politics in this situation is interesting to say the least and is well covered by Claire Smith in The Scotsman. I've always supported the Laughing Horse Free Festival because I know Alex Petty and many of his acts, but there are some equally good performers in the PBH Free Fringe... and it's not really about the promoters, it's about the performers! Both give platforms to a tremendous number of new acts. You do have to do your research more if you don't want to waste the odd hour on an absolute stinker of a show, but if you don't mind taking a risk (not that you're losing anything other than your time) then go an see as many acts as you can!

Finally, another venue that's claiming to be the new "alternative" is the Hive. They are running some free shows, but they have set aside the peak times for paid shows, with ticket money split with the performers, so that the acts don't have an initial outlay! John Fleming has spoke to the creator Bob Slayer and sums up how it will work here.

So, there you have it! As far as choice goes, Edinburgh has literally everything! It's a comedy and culture smorgasbord!

My advice... Spend your money wisely. Put fun first, but don't forget where your money is going!


Anonymous said...

Interesting blog, but I beg to differ in some cases.

As someone who worked for a Big 4 venue outside of the Fringe, I can assure you that MOST of the money goes towards rent and various licenses and fees. Certainly at least one of the Big 4 venues you mentioned hardly makes any money from the Festival and puts a lot of it back into supporting more up-and-coming acts throughout the rest of the year.

In fact, many of the people behind the Big 4 were once "local butchers", which just happened to grow and expand as their reputation for "good local and imported meat" grew. I would go as far as to argue that the Big 4 aren't necessarily massive supermarkets, but just really successful local stores, which in many cases, put the money back into the community.

Yes, there is truth in some of your article that the money isn't always going straight to the performer, but smart, independent performers can still break even, or make money back if they spend it wisely. I work my arse off doing all my own promotion, admin, etc, rather than paying various companies to do it and this has made performing in a Big 4 venue affordable.

To suggest all the acts in the Big 4 venues are from the telly, or with agents, is an incredibly big mis-interpretation and disrespectful to those of us who work really hard to perform in a good venue with good staff, support and facilities for the sake of our audiences.

I'm not saying there's anything wrong with the smaller venues, but just wanted to set the record straight that many of us are all struggling - no matter where we are. If you steer away our potential audience by suggesting their money is going to some big, evil corporation, how else will we ever make our money back if that becomes the general attitude?

Colin Scott said...

Thanks for the comment...

My view may be blinkered by spending too much time drinking with Free Festival comics who bitch about the big venues, so I'm happy for people to contradict me.

Firstly, let me be clear. Not all acts at big venues are agency represented TV comics. There are some young acts at paid venues for the first time and they most definitely should be supported. (Doug Segal gets too many mentions on this blog but he is a good example of someone taking out a paid venue for the first time and who, like you, does all his own marketing).

People should definitely not avoid him or acts like him (or you).

Your comment in the first paragraph sounds like you are talking about The Pleasance - even if you are not, then they are a good example to use....

I'm particularly biased to Edinburgh, I live here and don't have any involvement in the London bubble that more than 50% of people involved in the business side of the Fringe live in.

I call it like I see it and what I see is a big machine arriving, setting up a money making enterprise, paying its staff minimum wage, taking on acts who all complain they lose a fortune, and send me tweets and e-mails the rest of the year about shows in London.

They may well be losing money supporting up and coming London acts the rest of the year and if that's the case then they go up in my estimation. But I don't see that. I only see what goes on here.

But I do think my post was balanced and some of the points I make are not inconsistent with some of the points you have made and I'll agree with you some more...

The Pleasance (like the other big venues) does have an excellent infrastructure and they do give Fringe goers a good experience. I like them like I like my favourite supermarket. I like their staff, I like their courtyard and I like the acts they have on.

I like that you can get deals during the previews. I will be going to see shows there, spending money there and I hope that everyone else will do the same...

But I don't get the feeling that I am discovering the latest talent at the Fringe when I come to The Pleasance and I don't feel like I am watching "The Alternative". I feel like that has already been decided for me to a certain extent.

When I go the The Stand or a Free Festival show, I do feel like I'm supporting the underdog more and that was the general theme of my post.

I'm happy for more people to take me up on this. Am I being overly harsh on the bigger venues? Do the likes of Tommy Sheppard try to tarnish them with the corporate brush because they are competitors or is it a fair tag?