During the last week of the Edinburgh Fringe I mentioned to some of the Gecko gang over coffee that I hope that within five years the festival will be completely flyer-free. If you haven’t been to the Fringe, you should be warned that you can’t walk through any major pedestrian area without companies and paid flyering teams shoving A5 pieces of paper in your face. It’s relentless.
I have been thinking about the idea of a flyer-free Fringe a lot in the weeks that have passed. I have some thoughts on how we ‘sell’ our work, at the festival and beyond.
For around 6 years I flyered hard in Edinburgh, through rain and sleet and wind, day and night, often shifting upwards of 15,000 flyers a week with small devised teams I was working with. We organised our whole team to hit the right spots at the right times to get the word out about our shows. I don’t know if it worked. I don’t know if it was more effective than good reviews and word of mouth. But I do know we always sold about the same tickets on the days we flyered en masse as the days we did not.
I was always the worst flyerer on the team, always. I was shamefully bad at it. Selling a show you have made, a piece of art that you love, that you have to condense into a sound-bite to convince a passerby in under 10 seconds that they should give you their tenner and not everyone else, just to get a bum on a seat; that’s hard work. And I think it’s rubbish – The arts shouldn’t be a competition. We should be flyering for each other, we should be working together to build and satisfy audiences on a massive scale.
My Feeble Attempt
This year Gecko were lucky enough to be able to employ a small team to flyer for us, so I was exempt from the responsibility. It was a huge relief, but after 15 years of Fringe shows I feel I have done my hours on the Mile. Out of interest, one cold day I tried to flyer for another show – I spotted a (drenched) flyerer really struggling to hand out his flyers for Trygve Wakenshaw’s Nautilus, a brilliant show. I asked him if I could help for a while and he gave me a handful to try and shift. 20 minutes later I’d got rid of one. One! And it was definitely a sympathy take. People don’t want flyers. Why would anyone want a flyer? Eventually I shifted another and called it a day! It was horrible.
Lots of my friends spent a huge amount of time flyering this year, professional actor friends who don’t do the marketing for their touring shows for the rest of the year. Professionals who should be concentrating on being outstanding in their shows. That’s just the way the Fringe works. But all this got me thinking – does it work? Is it worth it? I saw over 150 shows at the festival this year and not one of those was because of a flyer I was given. I spent 31 days in Edinburgh and I walked down the Mile three times and that was specifically to watch street performers.
What does a flyer give you that the Fringe programme, venue brochures, the Fringe App and website, Twitter and Facebook, reviews and most importantly good word of mouth don’t? Well, flyering can give a personal relationship, a moment of interaction between company and potential audience. A human touch. But could we find that without a piece of paper? Probably.
With companies forking out so much for the Fringe nowadays I wonder if a more creative marketing strategy could be more effective. We distributed less than 10,000 flyers this year and our venue was 750 seats. I would very much hope that next time we go to Edinburgh we would have even less. Maybe none at all. I wonder if small performances, creative online activities like videos and more engagement with the festival as a whole may be the way forward? Perhaps small, high-quality street performances and a clear banner that people are encouraged to photograph on their phones as they pass by (with all the venue details, times etc.) might be the next step. Sell the show with talent, with creativity, with something that sparks the imagination.
If you have been to Edinburgh, how many times have you had a flyer shoved in your face and then seconds later thrown it away? Or thought, ‘That person was rude, I’m not going to that.” I bet the shows you saw, having been given a flyer, were shows you already had on your list or special occasions when someone actually spoke to you about their production and it really excited you.
The Bigger Problem
That aside, I think there is a bigger problem: Flyering is taking up too much time! I spoke to over a dozen people in Edinburgh who said they had spent more than 6 hours a day flyering for their show. Others I spoke to had been at the festival for the entire month and they had only seen two or three shows, because their directors and producers were making them flyer.
This makes me sad. No one is making money at the Fringe. We are all there to share our work and to make meaningful connection, we are there to meet and expand our audience, and most of all we are there to be better artists for the audience in Edinburgh and beyond. Aren’t we? Anyone who claims to make money isn’t paying their staff properly. Or they are making a commercial gem (which is very rare).
I wonder how quickly the skillset of all the young companies at the festival would expand if they were seeing shows instead of flyering. I wonder how much better I would be at making theatre now if I had been watching shows instead of trying to sell mine to people who were probably coming anyway. I am still a young director after working on almost 30 Fringe shows and I learn more from watching brilliant work in August than I do from the rest of the year. If everyone who offered me a free comedy show went to see another free comedy show in the hour they were trying to sell me theirs then new comedians would have more audiences and they would be seeing what works and what doesn’t in comedy… and then they would get better!
Considering a majority of audiences for student work is made up of other students, I wonder what would happen to the arts if they all stopped flyering and started swapping tickets with other companies to share their work and get bums on seats? I’m not saying people should just give tickets away, I am not saying people shouldn’t sell their show. But what if companies set a limit – say 1,000 for four weeks (some companies are shifting 50,000 into the recycling bins of Edinburgh)? What if companies spent an hour a day on the Mile or wherever doing something really brilliant? They could spend the months leading up to Edinburgh growing their online audiences so that they can share what they are doing each day. In the meantime they can, as a company, be seeing work which improves their own practice, supports other companies, and ultimately improves the quality of work for audiences beyond the Fringe.
I know full well that it’s expensive to see lots of shows. I am still shocked at the prices of the festival this year with Summerhall and the Traverse being particularly overpriced. There has to be way of making the Fringe more affordable for companies and for audiences – Perhaps the savings they could make on print is a start.
Obviously it would take a lot more than that and the festival ticket price bubble will have to burst at some point or we will all be performing to filthy-rich royalty exclusively… But that’s one for another day.