Edinburgh Fringe Finances (Comedy's Version)

We take a deep dive into the realities of Fringe budgets with a trio of comedians coming to Edinburgh this summer – Sam Lake, Kathleen Hughes and Dean T. Beirne

Feature by Laurie Presswood | 09 Jul 2024
  • Edinburgh Fringe Finances

If you’re a strong financial planner, you might set aside £30 a month in anticipation of your yearly summer holiday. If you’re a strong financial planner who also happens to be a stand-up on the UK circuit, chances are you’re putting money aside for an anti-summer holiday every August.

The discussion around Fringe costs has been at boiling point for the best part of a decade. For the most part, this concerns the price of accommodation, and its role in Edinburgh’s wider housing crisis. But even for acts who are based in the central belt and have the biggest cost taken care of, the Fringe can still be a struggle financially.

On the most shoestring of budgets, the costs for acts include: venue hire, Fringe registration fee, public liability insurance, flyer design, printing and distribution, and of course food and drink. If you want anything on top of that, for example to use music (live or pre-recorded), or rent a projector if one isn’t included with your venue, it entails additional costs. Some of these payments, such as the registration fee, have to be put down as early as March – and in the event that you do make a profit, you often don’t see the money until October, when venues have had a chance to count their takings.

Edinburgh-based comedian Sam Lake is bringing his third solo show to this year’s festival, based on stories about his mother, Esméralda. He says that although you can do a pared down Fringe show, first-time acts come under a lot of pressure to fork out for all the bells and whistles: “There's always people around you telling you you should because who knows, you could get nominated for the award.

“That's why so many people focus so much on the debut... I'm sure some people do go for [the Best Show nominations] but it's really the Best Newcomer that everyone goes for. So that's where a lot of the people who make money by doing all of this stuff – production, PR and all that stuff – will focus.”

The result is inevitably that early-career comics end up spending more than they can afford on something where the payoff will be at best intangible, or at worst non-existent. “My first show was definitely the one where I lost the most money and spent the most as well. And the thing is, the return of investment that you get back on it, there's not really any way to measure it. Because you don't have any way of knowing if opportunities you get in the future are a direct result from someone seeing you at the Fringe.”

In a programme of over 1300 comedy shows, it’s important that people notice, remember, and come to your show. Marketing and publicity are often where a distinction emerges between those who can afford and those who can’t. You can print and distribute flyers yourself, of course, but shows under the wing of a PR professional or big production company are more likely to get buzz, reviews, and a shot at the comedy awards. 

Kathleen Hughes is bringing her first solo show, Cryptid!, to the Fringe having presented a mixed bill showcase and a short WIP run previously. She’s doing her own publicity, but points out it demands a completely new skillset.

“These are all skills I think will come in handy as a performer and as someone who works in comedy – it's a brilliant learning curve. However, if I'm spending time on those things, I'm not spending time writing, I'm not practising the show.

“I don't have the experience or the skills of someone who works in PR or knows people in the industry so I do feel I'm on a wee bit of a backfoot.”

She knows that not going with a PR professional might mean she doesn’t get as much attention, and the experience might not be as ‘warm and fuzzy’ overall, but she’s not coming into it expecting that.

“I had to adjust what my goals for the Fringe were... I'm not looking for a radio commission or an agent – it would be nice, but that's not my goal. That's to do a good show that I'm proud of, to get good reviews and not lose lots of money. I think that is both quite a realistic and quite an optimistic goal.”

BBC New Comedy Award finalist Dean T. Beirne is earlier still in his career – for now he’s still pre-debut. They’re doing a week-long mixed bill with Kyle Samuel and Alan Jay called Scream Queens – loosely based around the horror film podcast Blood Sweat & Fears which the three co-host. The goal: to build confidence, and a solid set of laughs.

“I'm still at the stage where I'm trying to get a solid club 20 and doing compilation shows just to build that confidence up before a debut hour. And having those two in my corner, because we're already a good team with doing the podcast... it's a lot easier, financial-wise, material-wise and mental-wise.

“Me, Kyle and Alan are a team and we can rely on each other if we're confused, or if one of us is better at handling PR or marketing or sourcing posters.”

The Fringe Society’s website contains some budget examples, but these are from 2018 and a considerably different financial climate – a website note says they will be updated following Fringe 2024. Lake thinks the cost of accommodation is now around twice the £700-£1000 that is suggested there, but he also says there are some lines that wouldn’t have been accurate even in 2018. The c. £300 it costs to register for the Fringe, for example, doesn’t seem to be included. Venue hire is budgeted at £0.

Lake agrees that some Free Fringe venues don’t charge rental, but goes on to tell a story about his last Free Fringe show, for which he was expected to carry stacks of chairs up the Grassmarket and into his venue, in the downstairs of what is now the West Port Oracle. One thing immediately becomes clear – there’s no such thing as a free venue. Or a free fringe.

Sam Lake: Esméralda, Monkey Barrel (MB2), 31 Jul-25 Aug (not 12), 1.30pm, £7-12
Kathleen Hughes: Cryptid!, Gilded Balloon Patter Hoose (Snug), 31 Jul-26 Aug (not 12), 4.20pm, £9.50-12.50 
Scream Queens ft Kyle Samuel, Alan Jay and Dean T. BeirneBoteco do Brasil, 5-11 Aug, 2.30pm, £7/PWYC