First off, lets get one thing straight;
no-one comes to Edinburgh to make money. Its a PR exercise, pure and simple. There
are those that do make money in Edinburgh, but they are the established acts, normally
promoted by large production houses. For the rest of us its about putting on a good
show, promoting yourself (or your act) and minimising the financial damage. Dont get
me wrong its a great place get noticed, but if you get it wrong - not
only will you end up with a bruised ego, youll also run the risk of having a bruised
This article is not about
bashing the paid platform and telling you about how the Free
Festival is so much better. Its about giving you some hard facts about my
first Edinburgh as a producer and how both platforms have their merits and their
disadvantages. As a performer, you need to consider what is best for you. This
article is about how the obvious is not necessarily the best option for you and how the
Free Festival plays an integral part in the Edinburgh Festival.
As a reasonably experienced producer, I
decided to brave Edinburgh this year with two acts I believed were green - but
One was called Piff the Magic Dragon and the
other act was a musical comedy act starring a 22 year old called Martin The
Falsetto Milnes. Both acts were relatively new to the circuit but had proved that
they had potential one had supported Alistair McGowan at his Stratford Edinburgh
preview and gained 4/5* reviews in the London press (Eve Standard and Time Out) for his
various lead performances in musical comedies, the other made the finals of the Hackney
Empire New Act of the Year and had a string of magic awards to his name. Both acts were at
a similar stage in their development.
As much as they were very different shows,
Id been informed that both had a place in Edinburgh. As I contacted numerous venues
trying to secure slots (this process starts in January) I ended up in an unusual situation
one act on a paid venue and one on a free venue. Both acts
had identical capitalisation (i.e. they would cost me the same amount to take to Edinburgh)
and they had similar venue capacities. They were both were new to Edinburgh.
My findings hopefully will
help you make an informed decision as to what options you have available to you when you
contemplate taking your act to Edinburgh. The last thing in the world I want as a producer
is to watch a future Eddie Izzard get burnt financially in Edinburgh and lose faith in the
Stick with what Im
about to say, because its worth thousands of pounds (I lost this on your behalf!),
hopefully thousands that you wont have to lose when you think about coming to Edinburgh
in the future. You think Im joking?! Read on
Back to Piff the Magic Dragon after
months of applying to the big four (if you dont know, theyre the Pleasance,
Gilded Balloon, Assembly and Underbelly) I ended up with two slots on the table
at 11am. Not what I wanted. I tried a few other venues (The Caves etc
) and managed
to get offered early afternoon slots. Then someone told me about the Free
Festival. At first I thought it sounded bonkers, why would I consider going onto the
free platform if I could get my act into one of the big four?
With the offer of a 50 seater big
four on the table (11am) and an unexpected offer of a 120 seater free
venue just off the Royal Mile (6pm) in the offing, I threw caution to the wind and
thought, sod it lets see what happens. Besides, to date the most
enthusiastic programmer Id spoken to was from the free platform.
Simultaneously Id been offered a 9:15pm slot with Musicals@George Square (who are
kind of part of the big four) for my other act. I already knew what I was doing would be
an experiment and I wanted to know how it would pan out.
As for my team I general managed my
acts, had a press rep for both and spent the same on marketing and on props. I had two
brilliant sales/flyering boys out for the first 10 days of the festival and another couple
of people lined up for the final push of flyering. I had one operator/technician up for
the whole of the festival opping both shows. Same team, two different shows
In short you NEED previews. Your show should
be in good shape as soon as you hit Edinburgh. Youll have enough to get your head
around without having the added pressure of an unfinished show to contend with.
Previews previews for both acts went
well. Piff secured Best Comedy at Buxton fringe and my other act was sold out
for both previews. PR wise, the dragon was in the lead man in a dragon outfit with
decks of cards seemed to capture the Edinburgh spirit. I wasnt concerned for
my other act though hed received standing ovations at several previews and
was a 5* show in my opinion.
Financially I was covering my costs. I
was up by £50 at this point.
Piff got ill. Very ill. We got him through the
shows, but he wasnt on form and with a nasty temperature it was a struggle. His
awarding winning Buxton show was slipping into the distance. The press rep managed to get
some great PR for him including a slot on BBC 1 TV Breakfast TV.
It was tough going and the show needed work.
Piff couldnt do much during the day. He really was that sick and bed ridden. Add to
this the lighting rig went down at our venue The Hive and Piff had one show
where he was performing in silhouette (since only one spot light at the back of the stage
worked). The venue were really nice about it and it eventually was sorted out.
As a whole, the technical support isnt
as good at the free as on the paid venues. The same goes for the
front of house. Its tricky trying to set the stage when the audience are
coming in because no-one is out front telling them to take their seats. We got around this
by me assuming the role of front of house manager and also because we had some
lovely staff at out venue who would help us out. It would have been different had the
venue not been so co-operative.
Finally, you need to get your
donation pitch right to get the money in and also have people with buckets at
every exit. In short you just need to be organised.
That said we did have technical
problems in my paid venue. The only difference was that they had a support
team and front of house team to deal with everything. But as youll learn, this
doesnt come cheap!
Other act on paid
going well at this stage, perfect in fact, Theyd run it so much in London, they
stormed their press launch at their paid venue and I was in no doubt they were
at the top of their game. Big papers came in during that first week while I struggled
trying to get the magical dragon better with soup and pain killers (upon the advice of my
Sales were low for my paid act, but I
wasnt concerned. Then three days in - my paid act got 3 x 5* reviews in a row
Three Weeks, All the
Festivals and Remote Goat. Evening News came in and I thought Thats it! The low sales of 25
per night will turn around.
Piff on the Free Platform had about 40-60 in
per night at this stage, not bad at all. However, many of these people were there because
of my demon flyering team and the majority were skint students. They watched and then paid
very little (or nothing). The press avoided us for week one
Thats the negative week out of the way!
Past WEEK 1 it got a whole lot easier (for one show at least!)
Press started to trickle in for Piff and by
now he wasnt ill and had got his act sorted. He was also out on the Royal Mile (for
at least 2 hours) each day selling himself (he had a little dog/Chihuahua, which helped!).
Piff also did a lot of cabaret shows, averaging one each night.
My paid show continued to get 4/5
* reviews. However, their ticket sales were dropping off, we were down to 5-10 paid people
a night, even though we were getting amazing reviews and the word of mouth (from the few
people that saw it) was good.
My flyering team were sent to exit flyer
relevant shows. I paid for ads in publications etc
In London this is what you do
when something doesnt sell. I followed what I knew.
Part way though WEEK 2 something started
Piff was in great shape and people were beginning to pay after watching the
show. The hype took off (why pay when you can see a good 4* show for free?) and as he did
well, my other act was going in the opposite direction.
My paid act was down to 5 paying people per
show and the flyering wasnt helping.
My marketing guy (a brilliant young
entrepreneur who was no stranger to selling and flyering) seemed defeated. The venue was
hidden, the time slot too competitive, the product ill placed for Edinburgh etc
Edinburgh is a place for comedy and
new writing. If you have a musical product (that isnt sensationalist or sung by a
star) youll have problem (as a rule). If your act isnt eligible for any
awards, youve got a hard sell on your hands.
Piff went from strength to strength. On the
free platform he was now packing the venue out (at least 100 people each night, 140 on one
occasion, standing room only) and as time went on, the people we had watching the show
were there because theyd heard that it was good and our audience decided it was a
fine alternative to paying £10 a ticket. Some people even put £20 notes in our
As for my paid act, I ended up
doing the usual thing putting tickets on sale at the half-price hut. One morning
when I was outside the half-price hut I handed a flyer of my paid 5* show to a punter with
5* show, half-price tonight
PUNTER: half-price means half
the quality darling!
It hurt. Big time.
At least I didnt have to do that with my
THE FINAL FEW DAYS
Piff was packed. The Saturday before the final
week we took nearly £300 in donations.
Piff closed as a success on all fronts. My
other show did not. It was a critical success, but an example of how Edinburgh can go
I should add at this point that my other act
on the paid platform became ill on the final week and we ended up cancelling 5
shows. Since his act relied heavily on his vocal ability, a chest infection proved
disastrous. This said, when I cancelled the shows there were between 0-5 tickets sold for
In order not to bias this article too much
Im going to reflect on other shows I knew and saw during the festival. Like I said
at the start of this article, this is an informative guide regarding both platforms.
Back when Piff was doing some high profile London
magazine shows at Leicester Square Theatre (chortle fast fringe and the Frisky and Mannish
gala) there was a new act I spotted and liked. I wont name them, but they were new
to Edinburgh as a double act, got a late night slot with the big four. 5* review in Three
Weeks (on the same day as my other act got 5*) and I watched what happened to them with
Two weeks in I went to their show. There were
8 people watching. I estimated that only 5 had paid (the rest were like me, they had venue
passes, which means you can see the show for free). The next night I sent Piff to watch
their show and he reported the same in terms of audience numbers. These were weekday
shows. Having spoken to them since Edinburgh it appeared that they sold well for the
first two weeks and then the numbers fell rapidly. They didnt quite cover their
costs and had a venue capacity of less than half of The Hive
The stories of acts performing to one man and
his dog are not unfounded in Edinburgh. It happens more often than not. The problem
is people dont tend to tell you the truth, the only stories you hear are from people
who did ok. Those that got burnt wont talk about it because it makes them look bad.
On the other hand Frisky and Mannish
an act on their third (I think?) blitzed Edinburgh. Brilliant with solid 5*. It was
sold out every night at the Underbelly and deservedly so. Heres an example of how
the paid platform can work. It clearly did for them. But
established in terms of Edinburgh and brilliant to boot.
If you go with a paid venue, they
make you pay a venue guarantee. Admittedly you dont have to pay this all up front
but to think that youll reach this guarantee as a new act to
Edinburgh is naïve especially if the time slot is not suitable for your demographic and
your venue hidden.
My advance/guarantee for my paid
venue was £3,500. To put that in perspective, that was an 87 seater capacity. On top of
this you also have to pay the shared guide cost, which is £500, something you
dont have to do if youre on the free platform. Piffs
free venue was a 120 seater cap (and we managed to squeeze 140 in one night). It is not
unusual for an act in Edinburgh to sell 5 seats per night (especially if you are new). I
cannot emphasise this point enough!
On the last week of Edinburgh I got talking to
someone who had worked for several years as one of the few full time staff at one of the
big four. He told me a tale about how (when he used to work there many years ago) he had
three up-and-coming acts who were very good. They were new to Edinburgh so they could only
offer these acts late slots (past 10pm 11pm etc
). These three acts struggled.
He informed me of tears and low audience attendance (not that dissimilar to what I had
experienced with my act on the paid platform).
These three acts are now some of the highest
paid entertainers in the industry. All of them are millionaires. If I named them
youd know them.
As economic times get harsher the
luxury of gambling in Edinburgh and losing thousands simply wont be an option.
Instead you have to think about how you can gain a reputation as a performer without
haemorrhaging thousands and keep your head above water. Some acts make money on the paid
platforms; you just need to be smart enough to know if youre one of those acts!
I didnt meet my venue guarantee with my
paid act. In fact not only did I lose the cost of taking them to Edinburgh
I also lost £2,100 of my guarantee.
As for Piff takings were
disappointingly slow in the beginning. I couldnt help but think that the economic
situation had made people thriftier if they could get away without paying, they
would. However, as the show went on people were more generous. I had numerous people give
me notes each night saying that it was far better than many shows theyd seen on the
paid platform and therefore they thought it only fair to pay a similar cost.
We took £2,400 in cash over the course of the
So the maths my free show was
£4,500 better off than the show I put on the paid platform. Not only that
when you produce, cash-flow is king. I still had bills going out during August- fees for
my operator, per diems for my act and my London rent. By doing the free festival, it meant
that I always had cash coming in to pay the bills.
are various reasons why my other act failed financially which I could go into at
great length! Regardless, I didnt think there would be a £4.5k difference between
the two shows.
Piff had over 4,000 people see him in Edinburgh
(between his free show and the cabaret night he did). Nearly 2,000 people saw him at the
Hive alone (his free show). My other act had 303 paid people see them, which
Id up to 500 once I take papering and cabaret into account.
As I said at the start of
this, Edinburgh Festival is a great platform and as a performer you have options. Both
platforms have their merits and their disadvantages, you need to consider what is best for
you and what it is youre trying to achieve in Edinburgh. Both platforms have the
capability of helping you achieve great results; you just need to make sure you choose the
right platform for your show.
I wouldnt hesitate
putting another one of my acts on at the Free Festival. It was a thoroughly
enjoyable experience and I also felt that there was a general camaraderie between the
acts, the organisers and the venues which made even the darkest days that little