Edinburgh Jumps to the Beat

Top comics make a packet from the Fringe but for lesser lights it’s a real struggle. In this feature from last week’s Sunday Business Post I talked to artists in the black and the red after a month in Edinburgh.

Breaking Edinburgh Can Break the Bank
It is barely midday but already Edinburgh’s iconic Royal Mile is awash with people. A large crowd forms around a man with a bleached mohawk and tattered waistcoat juggling fire. Beneath their feet flyers for everything from one man Lord of the Rings to a stand-up show about Hitler’s moustache lie scattered like confetti on the cobbled stone. This is the fringe festival in full swing – and business has never been brisker.

Edinburgh’s fringe, already the world’s largest arts festival, has just announced a 20% increase on advance sales from 2007, previously considered the event’s most successful year. Some city centre venues have even reported sales up a staggering 38% on last August. And all this in the face of the biggest global recession in living memory.

Shane Langan 1Laughter is a popular escape from economic gloom, judging by the bright yellow ‘sold-out’ stickers emblazoned across promotional posters for established stand-ups such as Rhod Gilbert and David O’Doherty as well as young turks like Kevin Bridges.

Not all comics enjoy such success, however: the average fringe act loses around £6,000 at Edinburgh. Some, like Dubliner Shane Langan, take an even bigger hit in the pocket.

’This year the fringe is costing me something like £8,000, and that’s before living expenses,’ said the star of sketch group Diet of Worms, making his solo debut in Edinburgh this year. ‘That money is gone as far as I’m concerned. I’ll get some of it back through ticket sales but it’s best to just assume that it is all gone. Then anything you do get back is a bonus.’

Expenses and overheads for a standard month-long fringe run are vertiginous, especially for young comics without major backing. Renting a dank, dusty 80-seater room in an established fringe venue like the Gilded Balloon or the Pleasance for an hour a day comes in at upwards on £4,000. Add public relations fees, promotional material and living expenses and costs quickly spiral out of control.

An expensive city by European standards the other eleven months of the year, Edinburgh in August is definitely no place for the thrifty. Many students and residents vacate their tenement flats for the month, preferring to rent them out to fringe performers, often at exuberant rates – as Langan has discovered.

‘I’m paying £1,500 to share a two-bedroom flat with another comic and my girlfriend for the month. Which is obviously way over the odds but you need to have your own space,’ he explained.

So how can a struggling young Irish comic afford to put on a fringe show in the first place? ‘I’ve learned to live on very little at home,’ Langan remarked, slowly sipping a glass of tap water in a city centre bar. ‘I scrimp and save throughout the year. I also set up a separate Edinburgh account and put any extra money and savings into that.’

Eleanor Tiernan, another up and coming Irish act at this year’s fringe, has similar experiences. ‘I wouldn’t have a lot of money but I put as much as I can aside during the year to fund Edinburgh,’ she said.

Eleanor-012 copyBoth Langan and Tiernan are full-time comics, the latter quitting a steady job as a civil service engineer to follow her cousin Tommy into stand-up five years ago. ‘To be honest the thoughts then of how I live now would have frightened the life out of me. Now I don’t know on a Friday how I’ll pay the rent on a Monday morning.’

With cash in short supply the temptation to avoid excess expenses, like professional public relations, is strong, but Tiernan counsels against cutting corners. ‘Last year was my first year on the fringe and I did it all myself to try and save money. I had a double act with an American comic but he didn’t show up. So in the end I had to do the whole show myself, and I was doing my own PR. All told I lost about £9,000 – this year I’m paying for someone to do the promotion for me.’

As well as booking venues and co-ordinating crucial festival press, a dedicated PR assists with another integral part of any profitable Edinburgh run: flyers. With so much choice punters often buy tickets for shows they know next to nothing about – so encticing, preferably laugh-out-loud funny, flyers are vital promotional tools. Well-established fringe turns would not be seen dead flyering, but for emerging acts it remains one of most effective ways to get noticed.

‘I’m out on the street literally everyday for two or three hours,’ said Colm O’Regan, a fresh stand-up talent from Dripsey, Co. Cork (‘Famous for having the world’s shortest St Patrick’s day parade.’).

‘I literally approach every stationary human being within walking distance of the box office and try and convince them to come see me. It’s not easy, having to go on about how great you are and why they must come to the show, but you have to do it.’

Unknown fringe acts fact myriad difficulties – from competing with major international names to not getting those all-important early reviews – but the thoughtful O’Regan, bicycle helmet in hand, reckons the biggest challenge is upstairs. ‘It is very easy to get here physically but in your mind it is a much, much bigger leap. You are never really ready, I guess, but in your mind you have to believe you are, that you are someone that people will pay to see,’ he remarked.

Many debutants are disappointed when a show is poorly attended or they lose more money than intended but O’Regan is refreshingly phlegmatic about the whole enterprise. ‘This is basically an investment in a small business. And like any small business in your first year you hope to break even or not to take too big a hosing and then to build on that the next year and the year after.

‘’It is a bit like doing a masters – the benefits aren’t up front and immediate, you just hope that they’ll accrue over time.’

Panel: Jason Byrne’s Tips from the Top

Jason Byrne is the undisputed king of the fringe. Irish audiences might recognise the affable ginger-haired southsider from Anonymous or The Jason Byrne Show but in Edinburgh he is a bona fide stand-up phenomeon. The most successful solo act in festival history – last year he sold in excess of 25,000 tickets and grossed well over £250,000 – he has some sage advice for new Irish comics trying to succeed in the cut-throat fringe world.

‘I’ve worked really hard here and the thing these guys need to understand is that it doesn’t happen overnight,’ explained Byrne, back for his thirteenth consecutive fringe. ‘Over the years I’ve climbed steadily from doing 100 seater venues to 150 to 180 to 360 and now I’m doing 800 seater venues,’ he said after another sold-out night in Edinburgh’s Assembly Hall.

Today’s newcomers might accept losing money at Edinburgh as a fact of life but Byrne has never seen it that way. ‘I’ve never paid to be here. I’ve always had a promoter to cover the costs. I remember getting £500 the first time I played and thinking ‘Oh boy, that’s something’. Though obviously things have moved on a bit since then.’

Along with compatriot Tommy Tiernan, Byrne made his fringe name as a finalist in the 1996 edition of ‘So You Think You’re Funny?’ (he finished runner-up behind the Navan man). He returned the following year as one half of a stand-up double bill – again sharing a stage with Tiernan – waiting until 1998 to make his solo fringe debut.

Byrne believes emerging Irish talents would be wise to follow this gradual route to the top. ‘A lot of people come here and go straight into the one-hour show. They’re not ready, get ripped to shreds in the press and never really recover. Edinburgh is vicious.

‘Also, they are playing a festival with too many acts already,’ he cautioned. ‘The only way to stand out is to do the competitions. That way you’ll build up a following and a name over the years and you’ll be able to get a good agent as well.’

With their onus on quick wit and confident delivery, competitions are an excellent barometer of whether a comic is ready for the fringe: ‘If you’re not getting into the final of one of these things then you shouldn’t be doing the one hour show. It’s a simple as that. You wouldn’t give someone in their first year in college a column in a national newspaper, would you?’

Byrne also suggests that new comics consider looking beyond the fringe proper. With over 460 shows in 33 venues across Edinburgh, the so-called ‘free fringe’ is bigger than ever this year. Here acts pay nothing for the performance space: apart from living expenses, the only cost incurred is a £370 charge for inclusion in the official fringe.

A plastic collection bucket lets audiences reward the comics they find funny – and punish those they don’t. A handful of rusty coppers might be a harsh reality check but it is a lot less painful than a massive fringe debt.