EDINBURGH — “We’re artists. We shouldn’t have to prostitute ourselves.” That battle cry came wafting over the high-walls of The Pear Tree’s outside courtyard. On-stage is The Anti-Poet, Paul Eccentric on clever beat-poetry vocals and Ian Newman keeping the upright bass beat flowing. It’s 4 pm on a Sunday afternoon and they are performing to about 100 lager-draining audience members with their humor-bent songs. It was a struggle to label what they do, so Mr. Eccentric gave me his own take: “beat-rantin’ rhythm n’ views with a flair for comedy.”
Walking into the Anti-Poet show was absolutely free. Why? Because they are part of the Laughing Horse Free Edinburgh Fringe. There are numerous Edinburgh Fringe festivals going on simultaneously. In fact, I think there is a Fringe festival happening inside my stomach – a lot of colorful, foreign expression and interesting experiences rife with local flavor. An American compadre of mine thinks there is a Scottish-bred microbial invasion going on inside everyone from the States. But that’s another story.
The Edinburgh Fringe Festival happens side-by-side with the Laughing Horse Free Fringe and the PBH Free Fringe through the entire run. The original Fringe was started as an alternative to the Edinburgh Arts Festival. When artists began to feel they were financially taken advantage of by the organizers and affiliated promoters, the first Free Fringe was born. In Free Fringe shows, your price of admission is based on your enjoyment of the show; your appreciation for the art. Paul Eccentric feels “the Free Fringe is what the Fringe is all about. It allows unknown artists to bring their work here and connect with audiences. They drop you some pounds, take your flyer, maybe buy some of your merchandise, and that’s it. Maybe they find you later on back home and come see you in their area or book you for other gigs because they enjoyed you at the Fringe.” Check out Eccentric in action, below:
Two years ago, the Anti-Poets came to the regular Fringe in a theatrical production. They lost 12,000 pounds (in money). This year, they are hoping to only lose 1,000 pounds. “You come to the Fringe expecting to lose money. But here at the Free Fringe, we already have had more people today see our performance than we did in the entire run of our theater piece.” Promoters are often hired to create a presence for the show, while the artist themselves put up the cash for the venue and marketing materials. The cost of the promoter takes a large chunk of the profits in a marketplace where audiences need to budget their tastes. Lesser-known artists stand to lose big.
“What’s destroying the Fringe are the big-name acts that use the festival to just kick-off a big tour. Big business interests have come in and ruined the opportunities for the artists coming from the bottom.” Sounds like the age-old battle when art meets commerce. While people at the Fringe are more open-minded to new experiences, they also have a limited amount of money they can spend on shows. Thus, they are drawn to buying tickets for guys they’ve seen on the “telly.”
Credits always fill seats and it’s never been more true than at the Fringe. Set List, for example, has been heavily buzzed-about and yet the most tickets are sold when we have a Phil Jupitus on the line-up (who’s entire run is already sold-out). “Why come to Edinburgh to see them when you can see them doing the same show at a theater near you? Come to the Fringe to see something new and spontaneous” opines Eccentric. The big guys are eclipsing the small guys. And so it goes.
It’s clear that comedians at the Fringe are, for the most part, not driven by profit. They seek exposure and experience…and a few pints of cider. One could assume that Free Fringe merely contains smaller acts that can’t afford to take on the regular Fringe. Indeed, it can be a more practical financial fit. For others, they participate in the Free Fringe to uphold the original DIY intentions of the festival. Frank Sinazi, for instance, is Free Fringe this year but was selling well in the regular Fringe last year. Free Fringe is simply a different enterprise with a laissez-faire economic structure.
To quote Bob Dylan “you’re gonna have to serve somebody. It may be the devil, it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” Comedians and all artists should serve their art first. But no matter what, in art somebody pays. Sometimes it’s the artist. Sometimes it’s the audience. Either way, the commerce of art is implicit even if it’s not tangible. So if you’re putting on a show at the Fringe or just trying to figure out if you want to indenture yourself to five friends in order to get them to a bringer show, figure out the acceptable cost and just eat it. Go for broke.
UPDATE ON NAZI-COMEDY: Set List creator, Troy Conrad, overheard a couple of German tourists say “we should try to sneak a swastika in there somehow” as he passed them on the trails of Arthur’s Seat. He didn’t hear the start of their conversation and told them he was “optimistic” about their intentions. They said nothing and walked away laughing. Uncomfortable.