Good timing or Fringe box-office arms race?

ROUND about now is when many companies are deciding whether they really should perform on this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe, applying to venues and making all those decisions that’ll affect them for the rest of the year.

As long as they stay focused, there’s plenty of time to make the decisions that will suit them best. The other day, someone on Twitter was wondering if it was too early to start looking into accommodation for August. The answer, according to The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide, is that although some people book as early as the autumn, you should still be in good time if you wait until March – and even July is not impossible if you’re prepared to accept a more limited choice.

The answers to this kind of question are related to the timing of the Fringe Office as a whole. The Fringe Programme is published in June, which means the final programme deadline is mid-April, which means you should ideally have sorted out your venue and dates by some time in March. Everyone follows much the same pattern which is why, until recently, it has been generally accepted that nobody talks about their Fringe shows until the programme is published.

In recent years, however, there has been pressure from the more commercial end of the market to announce headline acts much earlier. If you’re a top-name comedian, you’re used to launching a UK tour anything from six months to 18 months in advance. With a lot of tickets to sell, such people are nervous about giving only a couple of months’ notice.

Today’s Scotsman reports that not only have a number of big-name shows gone on sale already for 2012 (as I noted in this blog about Alan Davies here), but also the Fringe Society is including them on its website. Neil Mackinnon, the Fringe Society’s head of external affairs, is quoted saying:

“As soon as a company knows they are coming to the Fringe and venues are
ready to put tickets on sale, we can put a show on the website.”

This is a significant change in policy and opens up the possibility of a competitive festival getting more competitive still. Will it encourage participants to show their hand ever earlier just to gain an advantage at the box office? And will it be the smaller companies that suffer as a result? 

The evidence from the past couple of years suggests that need not be the case. In fact, it may even be beneficial. If someone buys tickets for a Rhod Gilbert, Jimeon or Jason Byrne today, it’s likely they’ll have money in their pockets again for a less mainstream act by the time August comes around. If, on the other hand, they do all their spending after June, there’s less chance of them having the money to spread around.

If the trend continued beyond a handful of TV names playing 1200-seat rooms, it could diminish the impact of the Fringe Programme launch in June. But this is the world’s biggest arts festival and there are many hundreds of companies still to commit, let alone announce their dates, so we’re still a long way off any kind of box-office arms race taking place.

Watch this space all the same.