The Big Four venues cast a long shadow over comedy at the Fringe. Many performers walk away in debt, but why is that and what are the alternatives? Stewart Lee and Bob Slayer offer an insider's view of how the Fringe really works
"If you're one of the comedians appearing under a big promoter at the Big Four, you're either an idiot who hasn't done the maths, or you're desperate to be famous at any cost, or you've been badly advised by people who haven't got your best interests at heart."
So says Stewart Lee, and if you've read his book, How I Escaped My Certain Fate, you'll understand where he's coming from. This is a man who's worked hard to battle mainstream homogenisation without slipping into total obscurity. He's earned his right to pass judgement on the thing that now calls itself the Edinburgh Comedy Festival and the so-called Big Four of Assembly, Gilded Balloon, Pleasance and Underbelly.
"There's no need for people to lose as much money as they do in Edinburgh. The reason that they do is because it's useful to their management companies, who can then keep them as indentured serfs to work off their debt through some other wing of the company. For example, if a management company sends 20 clients to Edinburgh and they all lose £10,000, that's a £200,000 debt. If the clients then work for them to pay off that debt, they're also making 15% commission on that."
Bob Slayer, the least sane man in comedy, is currently recovering from a broken neck, incurred while attempting to crowdsurf in a wheelie bin. But the former band manager is also a canny businessman and, speaking to him seperately, echoes Lee's opinions.
"The deals in Edinburgh are historically based on theatre deals and theatre involves, crews, changeovers, props. But comedy takes a fraction of the effort to put on. Comedy's just one guy with a mic and maybe a CD player. It's a piece of piss.
"If you're a promoter and someone's going to give you £100 a day for a room, of course you're going to say yes. It's easy money. But why are agents convincing their clients it's a good idea? You see acts performing at the bigger venues, worrying about how many they'll get in today, and you just see the fear etched in their face. I wonder 'who's advising them?'
"I saw the same in the music industry," he adds. "People would say, it's unfair, but we won't rock the boat. I worked with record labels and they used to say, 'Oh, that's the standard deal'. I started looking at it and saying, 'The standard deal is shit. I'm going to make a new deal'."
A lot of comedians walk away from the Fringe in debt, which means a bizarre situation where shows cost money for both the audience and the performer. So where is all of this cash ending up?
Slayer says, "There isn't somebody sat there raking it all in. If there was one person it would be easy to change, but it's just evolved into this inefficient waste of money. There's bits going off to PR, bits going on posters, lots of bits going in unneccesary directions."
PR is a big, black pit at the centre of the Fringe, into which comedians chuck as much money as they can without ever really knowing if it's been worth it. Lee reckons it's all a fix and gives an example of where this money goes.
"The Big Four venues have private hospitality rooms. At one stage, the idea of these was that performers could have a place to get pissed without being hassled by members of the public. Now, the function of those rooms is to provide a private commercial transaction space, where big people fraternise with the talent in a secure zone. Part of the overhead at the Big Four is a tacit understanding that you have to pay to provide this place where journalists, TV people, PR types and industry people meet to make deals with acts.
"And unfortunately, this is true. Because if you're a lazy, lazy journalist or a lazy, lazy television talent scout, you can orbit around these places where you're served free drinks and maybe see the odd show. If you're going to see stuff on the Free Fringe or The Stand you have to go outside your comfort zone."
It sounds like comedians aren't even needed in this equation.
"No," says Lee, "we're the weak link in the chain. As is public taste, which cannot be helped. And sometimes the public will go bonkers for something that no-one saw coming, or they'll reject something no matter how hard you try to sell it to them. Last year, an undeniable success at the Fringe was Kunt And The Gang. He played to hundreds of people every day, no management, no PR, and for all the attention he generated he wasn't mentioned once in the national papers. I'm not saying that show was good or bad, but if you were looking for something that was actually popular, that was it. Yet it passed without comment."
Kunt was one of the acts on Bob Slayer's programme at The Hive last year. Bob is back there this year under the banner of The Alternative Fringe, a large selection of free shows with the odd paid show thrown in. The deal for the paid shows is simple: £1 goes to the Alternative Fringe, the rest goes to the act, nobody gets into debt.
Talking about his lineup, Slayer says "They've all got an independent spirit. These are the sort of acts who do it because it's what they want to do, and they find an audience. Unlike acts who look around and think, 'Right, what's marketable?' I hear people say 'Oh it's alright for Daniel Kitson, it's alright for Stewart Lee, I can't do that, I'll just give £5,000 to Underbelly.' And that's a very defeatist attitude.
"There are lots of people watching to see how we'll get on this year. The thing I know is: no matter how we get on, we'll have more fun. We won't be worrying about how much money we owe."
Even more people will be watching The Assembly Rooms on George Street this year. This iconic venue has been taken over by Salt 'n' Sauce Promotions, the company behind The Stand. Lee will be moving there to head up their comedy programming, and the new venue will offer a deal similiar to The Stand, with nobody asked to pay up front for performance space. If it's successful, this could change the Fringe as we know it forever.
So does Lee think that the hegemony of the Big Four is under threat?
"In a way, it doesn't really matter," he replies. "If you don't go to Edinburgh as part of your yearly cycle and incur a £10,000 debt, then you're much freer for the rest of the year to do what you want anyway.
"I love the Fringe more than anything. It's great to be in that environment with other comedians. When comics stop going to Edinburgh, they start to ossify. And you know what? The whole soap opera, the big Jeffrey Archer political epic as you watch the Big Four flailing around, it's quite fun to watch. As long as your future isn't in their hands."
Meanwhile, Slayer is cheerful about the future of the Fringe. "You’ll still have the big venues but they’ll be dealing with acts who are already on TV. But developing acts, alternative acts, independent acts will be off doing their own thing. And that is the Fringe."
More on Stewart Lee and Edinburgh Fringe Festival:
Stewart Lee in interview: "Annoying, confusing, weird, satirical and clever" / Stewart Lee: Scrambled Egg / Stewart Lee - 41st Best Stand-Up Ever! / Fringe Therapy: Stewart Lee / Stewart Lee: Carpet Remnant World