The Edinburgh


There are many articles on Cowgateheadgate...  The huge bust up between PBH and the Freestival over who has the rights to the Cowgatehead venue …but only one article offers economic answers.  This one.  So read on and if you’ve a very high boredom threshold together we shall solve the problem of chronic labour over-supply to everyone’s satisfaction.

I first met (or should I say shared the same space with) Peter Buckley Hill in 2006.  At the time PBH (as he styles himself) was all over the Chortle forums telling us that we must go to Fringe Society Meetings.  To which I replied “Why? I don’t go to the Fringe, don’t want to go to the Fringe and don’t see why I should have to go to the Fringe”.  Or words along those lines… this is an opinion of mine that has not changed much over the years.  Yes, this was and has always been pretty much my attitude to the Fringe. 

For many years in my early stand up “career” the Fringe was nothing but a mystery… a dark mystery.  It completely perplexed me on the most basic level why anyone should want to go to a foreign country for a whole month of the year unpaid and pay money to be there.  In so far as it had a purpose I suspected that it was to prevent working people from getting too involved in entertainment.

Also the comedy circuit was much healthier then than it is now because there was no “austerity” and people had more money.  There wasn’t the same sense that “you have to go”.  Only the very serious went in those days.  It cost a lot of money. 

These days the entire open mic circuit goes.  The other year I spotted one mid-range act doing 5 hours on the Free Fringe.  With the best will in the world even the best top professional acts find it a struggle to write a new hour every year … 5 hours is pushing anyone’s patience I would imagine.  But what do I know?  Part of me thinks “why not”?

Once people start insisting that you have to do things I instinctively stop doing them.  So my main early memory of the Fringe was people telling me they were “going there” rather grandly as if they were going to the North Pole …and never returning.  They went …and were gone some time.  For later I would observe that they seemed to have given up comedy and were selling their personal effects on the Chortle forums because ebay had not been invented yet.  Or they would suddenly have careers that didn’t seem to involve any dull stuff – like actually being on the circuit and doing gigs.  The Fringe seemed to me to be to be the Northwest Passage of Comedy.  A place which people loudly boasted would make everyone rich but actually made people freeze to death.  For some reason images of Charlie Chapin in the Gold Rush constantly sprang to mind… almost everyone would lose a fortune but one person would get a Perrier...

For one of the bonuses of the Fringe was that everybody else seemed to go off there. This everyone going off thing meant that there were usually a lot more gigs on offer and better gigs on offer round London during this time.  Pear Shaped in Fitzrovia being one of the few clubs to run all year would make a small fortune in ticket sales as it was one of the few clubs listed in Time Out over the summer.  In these days there was little in the way of internet publicity so Time Out was the primary source of gig listings.  It printed pages and pages of such listings – just names and venues mainly … unless you knew the names picking a gig as a punter could be a bit of a stab in the dark.  It was largely as though the comedy circuit was run by some kind of Easter European Block Country during the Cold War.  There was a great deal of equality that was probably not well deserved and fantastic opportunities to die on lots of different stages safe in the knowledge that the promoters were unable to communicate with each other.  I loved it.

So to not be at the Fringe was great.  When it came round Promoters who gave me a cold shoulder or were apathetic towards me the rest of the year would suddenly ring up out the blue full of enthusiasm.  Mr Damage would go up there and leave me alone for a whole month and send me regular emails saying I “must come”.  And I would not go.  If I went, people told me, I would love it.  However, the trail of miserable people returning from the event seemed to me somewhat at odds with its claim to be a “Festival”.  I saw it more as a “Miserable”.

At this time there was no Free Fringe.  It had not been born.  The nearest thing to it was the Holyrood Tavern which Brian’s wife Krrystal/Vicki de Lacy used to book – this is how they met.  Booking and organising this took the best part of 8 months starting as early as November/December the previous year.  Slots if you wanted to do an “hour long show” cost £1000 for a full month long run.  Basically the business model was to slightly undercut the “professional” venues which cost in the region of £3000 to hire.  Wil Hodgson said it was sad when the Holyrood closed …but it was just progress.  PBH and the Laughing Horse undercut it …and frankly probably do it all much better.  For example PBH's Free Fringe system cut out at least one major cost the Holyrood had ... employing doorstaff.  Setting the cost of tickets at £0 means you don't have to have tickets and reduces the doorstaff cost which was one major overhead.  Organising it was hard work and took many months but even significantly undercutting the big four on costs Brian and Vicky were able to go on tour to Australia several times on the profits...  and when it started to become a major commercial threat to others it even started to get Perrier Winners too: Laura Solon in 2005 and Wil Hodgson (best newcomer) in 2004. Anyway...

If you wanted to hire a “professional” venue from one of the “big four promoters” for the Fringe the hire arrangements were a complicated mixture of doorsplit and fixed fee which it was impossible to profit from.  Here’s a graph I prepared a few years ago during an internet argument for a medium sized room in a big four venue that shall remain nameless …although they pretty much all used to operate along variants of the same system.

Don’t ask me to explain this graph … I did understand it once. 

Okay it’s a graph of the acts revenue from venue ticket sales
the venue’s revenue from ticket sales and deposit
ticket sales
for a medium sized venue room in one of the Big Four who shall remain nameless... 

The Y axis is £ and the X axis is tickets sold.  Basically the dark blue line represents what the venue would make if the deal was a straight doorsplit of 40 per cent – it starts at zero and rises linearly with ticket sales.  The light blue line represents what the venue actually makes with ticket sales.  The venue doesn’t start paying out money to the performer from ticket sales until the deposit has been paid off.  So to start with the line flatlines at the deposit level and when just over 8000 tickets have been sold it starts to rise …overlaying of course the blue line.  The deposit used to be set at 40 per cent of what the performer's 40 per cent profit would be if they sold every ticket.  Simple, isn't it?

The light purple line represents what the performer would make if the show was a simple 60% doorsplit on ticket sales.  It starts at zero and increases linearly.  But of course the acts actually start minus the deposit.  The dark purple line represents what the acts get from the venue due to ticket sales (-deposit) so starts well below £0 and rises even more rapidly until the act has paid off the deposit. 

The vertical thick black line represents the break-even-number-of-ticket-sales. 

Because the venue cost remains fixed until 40 percent of the 40 per cent of tickets that represent the deposit have been sold (standard deal term till a few years ago) the dark purple continues up at the same steep angle until the venue cost line meets the venue split lineThe purple what acts get from ticket sales line then increases less steeply because although the deposit has now been paid off the 40:60 doorsplit deal kicks in.  So although the act continues to make more money from ticket sales they do so at a much slower rate.

I drew this a long time ago and it’s probably wrong now so don’t write in if it’s bollocks.  I did attempt to recalculate it for today but the venues seem to have rather more coy about their pricing structures since I drew this graph ...making it harder …but... 

Put very simply if you calculate the cost of the floor space cost per square metre for a month and compare it against Zone 1 office price floor space it is remarkable how comparatively cheap an office in the City of London or Westminster is….

For instance according to City AM a London office in Westminster …will these days cost you £1443 per square metre per year.  So for the duration of 1 month £120 per square metre. 

So for the £3000 minimum deposit of the smallest room in a big 4 venue you could rent an office space in Westminster that’s 25 square metres. 

For a slightly larger budget of £3500 you could rent 29 square metres. 

Of course you’d still have to kit it and light it and the big 4 would help you with this and have door staff but … it’s still completely ridiculous.  And that’s if you only make back your deposit. 

If, of course, you succeed in selling out your effective floor rent per square metre increases because it is sold on a deposit doorsplit deal.  Yes in an inversion of the logic of normal promotion acts are actually penalised more the better they do so if you really are successful your stage becomes the most expensive place to rent in the UK.  Theoretically of course this shouldn’t be too much of a problem because the performer/venue split is a fixed percentage.  However in reality the acts need to spend on promotion in order to get people in and working out how much it is rational to spend in order to make back that spend on the percentage ticket sale income is beyond most comedians’ business skills.
Yes uniquely in the market of renting office space the “Big Four” have invented systems where you both pay a deposit and pay more on top if you are financially successful in selling tickets.  Put simply it is a system where the venue not only cannot lose but keeps on winning more and more the more the performer spends on promoting the gig.

Probably the best way to play the system is to aim to sell just enough tickets just to pay off the deposit and spend no more and after that …but that may leave you with an empty room for the rest of the run and this kind of defeats the point of promoting.   So what happens is that instead of cutting their losses acts who are not doing well spend more and more on promotion in the hope it will “turn around” like a gambler on a losing streak who thinks if they keep on playing the one armed bandit for ever they’re bound to get a payout. 

This is true.  But the cost of getting it is of course disproportionate to the investment.  I read someone the other day say you can’t just get into the Pleasance by waving your cheque book … how times have changed.  Brian and Krrystal certainly booked Joel Elnaugh simply because he had £1000 …once the spaces have been created at whatever price they have to be filled and he had the money.  I told them I thought this was exploitative but loads of people told me they enjoyed Joel’s show and Joel said he enjoyed it and his sister is very rich and it supplied employment to lots of door staff … so although my conscience pricked a bit I got over it.…  I mean how else was Joel supposed to get a room ...go on Dragon's Den?

Of course these theories are only very roughly based on the old advertised terms and conditions ... which varied between promoters and not all acts were paying these rates …this is what you pay if you are an “unknown” and have to follow the terms and conditions advertised on the various websites.  It’s ridiculous and analogous to the worst kind of vanity publishing but much more expensive because comics have much bigger egos than writers.  And of course as with all such systems the primary support for such a system is the fact that many “ordinary” rich people really don’t know any better.

So PBH decided to reform the system.  Peter Buckley Hill proclaims grandly that he has been running the Free Fringe for 17 years.  This is not quite true but what’s the point in running an organisation if you can’t apply retroactive continuity to it?  As far as I’m concerned Paul Foot never existed and I have been Managing Director of Pear Shaped in Fitzrovia since 1999. 

Although he first took his show Peter Buckley Hill and Some Comedians to the Fringe in 1996 it was not until 2004 that things really stepped up in scale when PBH decided to merge operations with the Laughing Horse organisation to form the PBH Laughing Horse Free Fringe.  As I remember there were two main venues then plus one or two smaller ones.  One had three rooms one above each other and was in a pub of some kind and the other was at Cannon’s Gate.

Now I couldn’t tell you how many rooms there are but I’ve heard great things and great tales of woe about many of the “free” providers and fortunately now that there are at least 4 this is not libel.  Anyway Peter’s political shenanigans and Brian’s entreaties that I “must come up” was the one and only reason I ever went to the Fringe on the 18th-19th of August 2006.  Peter insisted it was vitally important to get people there to vote even if they didn’t play the Fringe …so I got on a plane.  Frankly I found the whole experience awful.  You just couldn’t get away from other people and this was made worse by the fact everybody seemed to know me. 

PBH was being very avuncular all over the place and Alex Petty was being businesslike.  I’ve known Alex Petty since he had 1 club in Richmond … this he expanded into a large number of small clubs mainly around London which booked mainly new acts and had low but not nonexistent levels of quality control.  So obviously I gigged for him quite a lot.  Eventually he started making trips up to the Fringe and then moved over to being a Festival promoter from being a club promoter and now his Facebook feed shows lovely photos of all over the world and his life seems to be one permanent globetrotting holiday.  I’m sure there’s a lesson about promoting I could glean from this but it hasn’t really sunk in yet…

Anyway I watched some of the shows at the Holyrood Tavern and some of the other shows around and came to the conclusion that it’s very hard to watch anyone for an hour even if they’re very funny.  Watching shows back to back is actually very hard indeed. 

Fortunately no one else has ever come to this conclusion so the Fringe continues to get larger and larger each year.  I met a lot of people who looked very worried and a lot of other people who were unbelievably rude for no adequately explained reason.  And I met a lot of people who I felt I wasn’t important enough to talk to or who made me feel as if I was acting like I was too important to talk to them.  I’ve honestly never been anywhere where I felt so uncomfortable and alien.  Probably comedy’s not supposed to be about feeling comfortable but if it’s about feeling that uncomfortable I’d rather not.

Alex Petty and Rob Deb at the Fringe Society AGM 2006

So anyway we all went along to the Fringe Society meeting with PBH as he’d told us it was very important and we must turn out to vote.   This is because membership of the Fringe Society (£10) which actually runs the Fringe is separate from the cost of participating (£250-350).  PBH thought this was a devilish scheme to deny acts voting rights which may be so but I think it’s actually just a bit of a historical accident.  The Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society is a Limited company which means technically it can go bust and its members individually are supposed to chip in something to bail it out if this happens …which in the early days of the Fringe may have been a real likelihood.  This is less so today …but probably at one time everyone being in the programme being in the company made no sense commercially so the two were separated.   With a lack of interest shown in previous years in attending the Fringe Society’s AGM to vote members to the board PBH had previously solved this problem by joining up …well… anybody to the Fringe Society in an attempt to get himself or someone sympathetic to himself elected.  Unfortunately some of the down and outs he collected were not too well versed in the actual political issues.  Later PBH partially solved this problem by making membership of the Fringe Society compulsory in order to participate in the Free Fringe.

The AGM of the Fringe Society 2006 was poorly attended and seemed to consist of a load of boring waffle interrupted by PBH picking holes in the accounts and Tommy Sheppard of the Stand brining up similarly embarrassing matters which the bored board listened to with the air of benevolent patronage that David Cameron does so well before we all voted on who should go onto the board next and nothing much changed. 

Even the Fringe Society its self was aware this didn’t look good to outsiders so money had been spent on laying on refreshments in order to bribe people into turning up.  They didn’t.  It’s little wonder the Fringe is often run so badly most performers are just terrible at admin and can’t be arsed.  Then they wonder why they costs spiral…

Then again why would anyone want to go?  There’s only one thing worse than being in a room with a load of bitter comedians and that’s being in a room with a load of cynical promoters.  Eventually one year Peter did manage to get an actual performer on the board but things went a bit pear shaped after that when the Fringe website became involved in a hugely expensive cock-up over ticketing arrangements.  The upshot of this of course was not to conclude that any one person was responsible for the cock up or had been incompetent to the tune of £300,000 or more but to call an Ed Miliband style constitutional convention and redesign the voting system for now that performers were on the board it was decided after a painfully long consultation that … this one member one vote thing was turning out to be far too complex for an organisation who’s meetings no one can be bothered to turn up at and what was needed was a lot of committees instead.

To Fringe letter

Don’t ask me what they all do.  Obviously while constitution was being revised you couldn’t join the Fringe Society for a while.  But then why would you want to?  I’m doing the The Kings Arms Festival in Salford in September and have invested the £10 that used to go to the Fringe Society in a train ticket.

At the 2006 meeting I noticed that Alex Petty and PBH were sitting rather a long way apart and it seemed to me that there was a certain tension and coolness between them.  Eventually of course the partnership dissolved in acrimony.  What the arguments were about in detail I cannot tell you because I wasn’t there but I have a lot of emails from casual observers about them in my archive from acts who did see it all stating things like “This is between us please”.  Ahh… the Fringe – making friends bitter enemies since 1947.

Please never send me such an email.  I am totally shit at secrets.  If you don’t want it disseminated don’t tell me.  I’m the world’s biggest gossip.  As King Solomon once said the words of gossips are like choice snacks; they go down to the inmost parts.  However, I can illuminate on some of it.  A great bone of contention was T-Shirts.  Many of the acts said they thought it would be fun to have a Free Fringe Tee Shirt.  So Alex Petty printed some and sold them and PBH accused him of “profiteering” in some way or other.  I don’t know all the details but it seemed like everyone just assumed that the whole exercise was to do with simply lowering operating costs and PBH was just a figurehead.  Unfortunately however it was more than that.   For to PBH the Free Fringe was not just about cost or people it was about “a system”.  And the T-Shirts were a violation of the system. Unfortunately PBH never completely explains his system … but his ethos and conditions state there is a reason for everything.   And I believe there is.  I don’t know what it is but I’ve backward extrapolated that maybe it’s something like this…

First a crash course in comedy promoting – feel free to skip this if you are or have ever been a promoter.   Indeed feel free to skip the whole article…Most open mic promoters and many professional promoters pay for their venues via a form of barter.  A landlord gives us a room for free and we attempt to fill it with people who drink beer and increased beer sales pay what would be the rent on the room and often more.  The venue benefits in other ways too.  The venue gets promoted and while bar staff and management may need to move round the pub chain the promotional activities remain separate from the pub management.  This stops the pub management having to worry about people running businesses of their own on the side or parts of their brand developing their own strong identities and splitting off …which in the case of a pub chain that runs as an unlimited company can be potentially very expensive.  And of course the pub gets a positive image as a place that supports the arts locally.  None of this is generally stated.  It’s just understood.  It’s not a contract.  It’s an understanding.  It’s a form of barter.  If the pub terminates the agreement they’ll usually give you some notice.  As long as the gig is still two or three weeks ahead it’s usually not a contractual problem to cancel on the acts. 

What PBH and Alex did with the Free Fringe is to use the same model as an open mic night or small comedy club and massively scale it up.  So all the money and middle men magically go away... apart from the fact that the Fringe is all about sucking up to pointless middle men this was a good idea... dispatch the middle men to a B arc...

It seemed like an economic micracle.  And let's face it those are few and far between.  However, there’s a problem… while using this barter system for a comedy club might be simple ...... for a venue with several rooms with 10 one hour shows in each that’s a huge investment of time (and money?) resting on the back of a simple barter agreement.  If the landlord changes his mind and decides he doesn’t want Pear Shaped any more it’s a bit depressing and may cost a few quid.   If the landlord of a Fringe venue decides he wants to cancel all the shows or change “provider” it’s a major logistical and financial headache.  So when Freestival had booked the acts and then the Free Fringe signed a contract afterwards… things went acrimonious.

Barter is the oldest transaction system in the world and it works best where there are large coincidences of need.  Both the venue and the promoter want to get people into a building – what could be simpler?  The trouble was PBH’s “system” didn’t end there.  He envisaged a system where EVERYTHING is done through barter. 

If you want to do a show at the Edinburgh Fringe, the Free Fringe welcomes shows who are good enough, will work as part of a team and contribute in non-money ways. You get a venue free of charge.” 

Whereas Alex imagined the Free Fringe as simply a cost cutting exercise PBH’s vision was much larger.  PBH envisaged an entire self contained economy entirely based around barter.  It was magic.  Money seemed to disappear.  Everyone just gave their time and their non-fungible assets. 

By joining us you get the support of many other acts and the credibility of being part of a recognised, multiple award winning event. You also get a better chance of people seeing your show, and the good will of the public.  But you must give back. You’ll be saving £4000 to £15000 compared to a paying venue, so it’s reasonable you should give something back. We don’t want your money. We do want your commitment, and we absolutely must have your full co-operation.” 

So amazing was Peter’s system he won an award for it.  Although personally I think they gave him an award in the hope he would stop encouraging new acts and loners from joining the Fringe Society and getting voting rights. 

Peter’s solution to the ever spiralling prices at the Fringe of returning to a barter system is not unique.  Barter usually becomes hugely popular one way or another during periods of financial crises such as massive inflation or deflation when the disadvantages of barter become advantages.  Of course at one time currency was fixed to barter and physical transactions of gold but well ... let's not go there today. Barter also has a history of being promoted by various socialist movements for ideological reasons.  Barter is the oldest form of transaction.  It also has huge advantages within Peter’s promoting system.  He can run a lot of venues at once and he doesn’t have to keep a close eye on the money because …well, … there isn’t any.  There can be no arguments over financial assets or embezzlement because …well, …there’s no money.  It’s brilliant, isn’t it?  You don’t have to worry about being ripped off because no one who works for you can store wealth.  However, it’s also slightly flawed because no society in the history of the world has ever managed to work with no form of money at all.

The reasons why have been known by economists for years.  The main reason is that you can’t always rely on the presence of double coincidence of wants.  There’s also the indivisibility of some goods (Peter says everyone should donate a PA but what if there are 20 stages and 19 PAs?).  Significantly there’s no common measure of value.  So if Peter was to take a venue to court for reneging on a contract how would he be able to measure what to sue them in …?  Unless he’s going to timesheet everyone’s man hours how does he put a cost on what he’s providing and how do you accurately estimate the cost of the venue during the Fringe?  In literal terms of the percentage rent for that period or in terms of the cost of a similar space at a paid venue?  Then there’s the problem that there’s no standards for deferred payments … it’s not actually until the Fringe that the Free Fringe pay for the venue by doing the work at that time.  They can’t secure the venue in advance by putting money up front.  And of course while a system with no stored wealth removes all middle men and means no one can walk off with any wealth it also means you can’t pay a contractor to do the simplest job that you could not do yourself.  Of course what was going wrong before the Free Fringe came in is the inverse of the PBH lack of liquidity problem.  There was too much money and not enough real goods and services and this created an inflationary economy where money growth was outpacing real goods and services growth.

For example in this old Chortle thread very funny Mr Stephen Grant is a bit depressed at his losses after the Fringe so engages in a small public display of discretionary economic power by telling us he has lost £11,000 in 2006 as if this is an achievement. 

However, as I point out, if a venue contains 10 acts losing £10,000 each that's a revenue stream of £100,000 a year at which point they could get together and pretty much buy their own venue within the precincts of the Royal Mile or start their own small company and probably pay for doorstaff too.  The Holyrood could afford to employ doorstaff full time and its turnover was merely in the region of £20,000.  In short the cost of the venue has inflated beyond the reasonable bounds of supply and demand because you can now buy a venue for all time cheaper than you can rent one for a month. 

This position is obviously untenable so people like Brian and Vicky, PBH and Alex Petty appear on the scene as if by magic to create more stages and supply the demand and in an economy where money has become meaningless as method of valuing anything the common sense solution is ...return to barter.  Banish money.... for a while anyway ... then start asking people for £40 each or if they wouldn't mind possibly donating £80.

Well, I understand this and Principal Lecturers and Teaching Fellows in London Buisness Schools and stuff may understand this ...Peter's problem is getting new acts to understand it.  Also, I disagree with Peter in that Peter thinks that you can have no liquidity in the system at all.  If you could do this it would be in my view an economic miracle defying all economic history.  The problem is Peter feels that if you have any liquidity it will rapidly restart the inflationary system.  So the question is how do you get liquidity into the system without kick starting another inflationary cycle?  If you know the answer please don't write in I don't actually give a toss it's just an interesting theoretical problem to me.

One of the reasons that Peter has to insist the acts do not apply to anyone else is as soon as their application enters the system work is being done on it.  Or that’s how his minions defend his “you can’t apply to anyone else who charges £0” system… the problem is the further down the line people pull out of the system the more work has been done and the volume of work done on each application is difficult to quantify. 

One possible solution to this situation would be to make acts pay a refundable deposit to stop people making frivolous applications then pulling out cynically late in the day.  The problem is that often people are not made firm offers till very late in the day … after the main programme has been printed and published … This leads us into the sticky question of whether the acts are being used to secure the venues or the venues being used to secure the acts.  Part of Peter’s argument in his dispute with the Freestival is his belief that by booking the acts before securing the venue they are engaged in some kind of dodgy activity (let’s not call it fraud) because the venue should come first and the acts after.

However PBH’s website shows his solution is not to secure the venue first either but to write long bulk emails “keeping people updated” on finding venues while having people provisionally booked into them…

…which may explain why he doesn’t want people leaving the system once inside it because he is sharing commercially sensitive information with them … but until they actually have a contract is his insistence they don’t apply to anyone else actually a violation of their employment rights … ? …and is PBH entering into contracts and then pulling out of them on an individual basis…? 

Well, PBH isn’t silly …his email reads “Sent to all accepted and offer-pending shows …” …so no …  he still however has the stipulation in place that they can’t apply to other people during this time … at what point does PBH’s offer of “we might find you something” become “we will find you something”? because that’s the point where people become employed…?  Does it matter?  Well, yes it does …because if he’s telling people who they can’t apply to before offering them work that may be a reinvention of the closed shop.  In short is it the case that there’s an implicit threat of blacklisting for working with another provider that’s keeping the waiting list artificially longer and the longer the waiting list the better his negotiation position with the venues?  Oddly of course it’s only other free venues PBH has a problem with … not paid ones… mostly the free venues staffed by people who used to work for him.  The legal position here is unclear but we’ll cogitate on it later with greater ignorance and make it muddier… of course one could argue that the whole Cowgatehead cock up is actually just the economic result of a the restrictions of a barter economy.  Although there is double coincidence of wants which can facilitate a barter in a barter economy there is no way of storing wealth there's no way to pay for the venue in advance and this may be the root of the problem.  The venue can only be paid for by available labour in real time.  Bartered labour is a real time commodity.  There have been attempts to solve this in the past such as time banking systems.  But the downside of timebanking systems is that they value all labour as of equal skill which is somewhat simplistic as some people's skills may be more in demand than others...

...I mean the above graphic looks good until Anthony needs brain surgery.  There are only a limited number of people with the skill to do brain surgery so... Perhaps that is why as Jools Constant says below an awful lot of knowledge ends up resideing in PBH.  Trading time and labour is easy.  Trading skilled labour is a lot harder because there is less of it.

After Alex Petty and PBH went their separate ways (amongst many bitter recriminations – mostly on Peter’s side) the PBH Laughing Horse Free Fringe split…

Although this miraculous new system of promotion was said to be as simple as not charging people and holding a bucket between performances [“indoor busking” © Lewis Shaffer] Peter  had not neglected to register the Free Fringe Ltd as a Private Limited Company …

…and was keen to point out that “he owned both the name and the concept”.  So Alex’s half of the empire was renamed “The Free Festival” and started charing £40 upfront and Peter remained “The Free Fringe” and started asking people if they’d mind terribly donating £80 at the end.   What exactly the company does is a moot question as according to devotees of the Free Fringe “no one is employed” by it.  It thus describes its activities as “Other business support service activities not elsewhere classified”.  Despite the simplicity of this “indoor busking” model the Free Fringe Ltd these days (according to its website) costs approximately £28,000 to stage… money that is largely raised by fundraisers and donations.  The Free Fringe however is not a registered charity.  It isn’t illegal to fundraise and not be a charity of course … non charity fundraising has its own regulator - the fundraising standards board.  Other of the Free organisations also engage in fundraising.  Then again everyone’s crowd funding these days because of course promotion is all about money and whether or not people turn up is a side issue.  Seems bartering everything couldn’t go on forever…  Fundraising as an issue comes up on the Free Fringe website and PBH gives us his view of charity there...

"Yes, we have to raise funds to survive. But if we become mostly about fundraising, then again we've lost ourselves.

Liverpool's Catholic cathedral is a fine and interesting building (as indeed, at the other end of Hope Street, is the Protestant one). But go inside, and read the stories of the fundraisers held by the poor to raise pennies from the equally poor, to erect this costly building within a very rich organisation, and wonder what constitutes money well spent and money not well spent. I don't know the answer. But I think the Free Fringe is a cathedral of the spirit, a monument to co-operation and partnership within a game so often marred by wild egotism. Better that each of us lays a course of bricks to build it, than we pay money to bricklayers who are not of our faith. This is probably a ridiculous metaphor, but it's late and I'm old.

Who was it said that the Free Fringe resembled a religion?  Perhaps PBH wants to avoid the stigma of being classed as "charity".  But my old public school has no problem calling its self a charity ... so why not the Free Fringe Ltd?  Gift aid it all and piss off the taxman ... if there's anything fungible to pay tax on of course...

The thing that’s interesting about the Free Fringe Ltd is that it seems to be a hybrid organisation that is almost impossible to classify.  Is it a charity?  Is it an employer?  Is it a union?  And does this matter?  Well, it sort of does matter if PBH falls out with his staff because in such a case there should be a legal regulatory framework to help guide people as to who is right or wrong…?

Fast forward a few years and running an organisation the size of the Free Fringe seemed to have got very complicated again so Peter formed a committee to control it for him.  The committee however had an unfortunate propensity to having its own ideas and eventually after they had all had the same ideas rejected by PBH they wrote him a letter.

The staff it seemed were very worried about the increasing amount of work the boss was doing and oleaginously stated that:

We wanted to express our increasing concern about the workload that an expanding free fringe is placing on your shoulders.  Many times you have expressed the desire to step aside and allow the team to take over more responsibility leaving you more time to perform and enjoy the fringe.  Plus, it is no longer feasible to continue without a contingency plan in place should you for any reason be unable to take your customary leading role in the Fringe. Crucially, so much knowledge and information resides with you alone that a failure to disseminate this more widely and plan for your potential absence would in all likelihood lead to the whole organisation fragmenting.”

However, like most Prime Ministers although he often said he wanted to go PBH was very reluctant to go or become a lame duck leader.  He replied:

I am not going to be pushed aside to become a figurehead.  There will be no committee except of people who have proven themselves by undertaking a major responsibility and seeing it through to the end, such as the section Artistic Directors.  There was a proto-committee in 2012/13.  It collapsed and I had to pick up the work myself.  You don’t get to set policy until you have proved your worthiness by doing a job.  Rather than have people trying to take over and change the principles, I will cancel the whole event and wind up the Free Fringe Ltd.  Anybody attempting to start their own organisation will do so from scratch, with their own money, as I had to all those years ago.  You can’t use my name or initials without my consent. The logo belongs to The Free Fringe Ltd, as does all the PA and all the money in the bank.”

All goes a bit fungible when there's an argument about power this workers' collective, doesn't it? ... so in the end there was a schism and the Freestival was formed.  Being highly imaginative their first move was of course to try and poach Peter’s venue instead of finding their own and in the short term they were successful in this.  Interestingly it's often the people who invest the most work who most want to leave or split ...almost as if there's a difficulty in quantifying the amount of work each person does...

Interesting too that despite his pseudo-Marxist philosophy that everyone should contribute what they can whenever politically challenged Peter states that all the physical assets are his and threatens to wind up the company …which of course while producing a lot of shows we are told “employs” no one because of course in the £0 model no money changes hands.  Well he was a University Lecturer of Business Stuff so if anyone can pull it off its Peter… he continued…

“I presume the people behind this ultimatum will now want to form their own organisation and start charging for membership so they can pay themselves for their own work, just as they propose in the ultimatum.  And in order to do that they’ll capture as many Free Fringe venues as they can.”

This is the interesting part.  Peter uses the word “work”.  Presumably the staff had worked out or somehow concluded that despite the Free Fringe presumably just being a collective effort they are in fact workers?  Also Peter seems to believe he has to maintain a critical mass of venues ... does he fear being absorbed by another operator? 

Of course the more competition for venues the more likely the price will go up and then maybe he'll stop getting them for just free labour... you could argue that adding in temporary walls is a form of  increasing the bids on the venues.  Freestival are still paying in non fungible assets but more of them...

“If I consider it worthwhile, I may decide to continue the Free Fringe with the venues that are left to us.  But I do not have to.  I have put in more money, time and stress than the signatories of this ultimatum can imagine. They’ve never organised the Free Fringe and don’t know the details, and yet they already think they can do it better.  I’ll carry on if there’s support for the real principles of the Free Fringe. Venues may be difficult, as I already said they would be.  If there is insufficient support, then I shall wind the Company up.  I have written a brief paper detailing the things that must not happen to the Free Fringe, and attach it.  If any of these things happen, they would change the whole principle of the Free Fringe. Therefore they will not, no matter how many people think otherwise.”

Peter’s great discovery of course was that those that are cash light and cannot afford to even walk in the front doors of the paid venues also tend to be time rich.  So inventing a system of payment for venue by labour barter whereby the acts do promotional work for him and the venue in return for a venue was a genius idea...

“Some things about the Free Fringe ethos are negotiable; some are not.
What are the things that must not happen?
– No payments to venues
– No sponsorship
– No charges to performers
– No performers to be paid for the services they give to the Free Fringe
– No performer to be a customer and demand rights in that capacity
– All performers to contribute to the collective according to their abilities.”

Superficially this reads just like a set of ideological principles but actually there’s a bit more to it than that.  PBH is a very very clever man.  You have to be to tie Alex Petty up in legal knots … and not poach a poached venue back from the Freestival …and there is much logic that is not immediately apparent to those who are not great businessmen in his business model. 

Note the words “No performer to be a customer and demand rights in that capacity”.  There is a reason in my view why Peter doesn’t want to get too into “improving” venues and creating extra spaces and providing better lighting.  It is because he would become a service provider.   And if he became a service provider he would fit into a regulatory framework.  The big 4 venues are service providers.  They have a long list of things which performers can expect from the venues.  If these are promised and not provided then there is a breach of contract.  Peter is clear that he is providing NOTHING except the venue and from a legal arse covering point of view this is a very sensible thing to do.  The downside is, of course, that absolutely any bolt of service to the Free Fringe is then theoretically impossible because of the danger people might expect it and start calling it a service.  Exactly how far can you take this? 

Notice too that the statement doesn't say that the Free Fringe can't use money at all.  Only that it cannot be paid to performers or venues and cannot go in particular directions.  Some people may be employed to do things for the Free Fringe so long as they are third parties but not the acts or venues.  So you need some promotional activity ... how do you fund it?  How Peter squares no sponsorship with selling advertising in his Wee Blue Book is beyond me but it seems that although advertising is sold this isn't "sponsorship"?  Someone on John Fleming's blog complains about the fact that PBH insists advertising is sold rather than money paid to fund the program...

"The contribution thing towards the brochure- personally for me, time is money, and it is more effective for me to give a voluntary contribution than to spend hours ineffectively on the phone garnering advertising revenue. The amount is so small compared to the necessary expenses of Edinburgh but for PBH it is a point of principle.The principle being you should be able to do the fringe without paying a penny and the smallest penny is the first step to damnation. "

...maybe these rules have changed now.

Never-the-less there is an elegant simplicity in Peter’s model.  Having no BIG sponsors means that his model is very simple and involves only three “moving parts”: Himself, the Venue and the Acts.  If you have a SINGLE BIG sponsor you also have to keep them happy and sponsorship may depend on the number of shows you are putting on and the profile of the venues they are in.  Although selling all the advertising through loads of individuals seems a hard way of doing it the upside is that the Wee Blue Book must (I imagine - I've never read it) be full of lots of small ads... meaning that if one advertiser drops out there's no sudden massive drop in revenue.  Also very clever of him to think up a title also used by Wings of Scotland...

To wee blue book made bigger

...and cash in on the rise of the SNP.  Peter’s big gripe against the Freestival this year is that he claims they booked the venue without having a contract with the venue.  Peter’s insinuation is that they need the venue in order to get the sponsorship and it is dishonest of them to book without permission in order to generate this revenue stream.  The Freestival meanwhile claim that they had an aural contract with the venue owner and he has reneged on it.  Only one of these statements can be true.  The other is libel…. Or delusion.  I suspect delusion.  I doubt Kenny Waugh got to be called the “king of clubs” by making ill advised aural contracts all over the place.  Even if he did for the contract to mean anything legally it must have to be more than I'll give you X for Y?  If you're taking £100 off 100 people as the Freestival are that presumably means you're running a business that turns over £10,000 would be prudent to get a physical contract with penalty clauses...?

Peter says that “Despite all the nasty implications, we did not poach the venue. The licensee, having received the concession no earlier than mid-May, approached us on May 19.  We did not approach him.  He was not aware that Freestival had booked any shows and stated firmly that they had no authority to and would not be given such authority.”.  The licensee is of course Kenny Waugh who was the same licensee as in 2014.  Although Mr Kenny Waugh’s business empire has recently been undergoing some corporate restructuring so the fact this is true two years in a row does not mean anyone could be 100 per cent certain of the fact.  However the idea that PBH had never approached Mr Waugh before is not quite the truth.  He had certainly approached him in previous years.  And this is recorded on PBH’s own website…

…credit where it’s due Peter is nothing if not transparent.   The fact that Mr PBH and Mr Kenny Waugh II move in different worlds is highlighted by the fact that Mr Waugh’s secretary calls Mr Peter Buckley Hill merely “Mr Peter Hill”.  Well, that’s what you get for having three names.  Leaked emails now show that the Free Fringe and the Freestival were both in negotiation for the venue and both knew both were in negotiation for the same venue since the last fringe... who'd have known?  The words in Peter's original statement that "The licensee, having received the concession no earlier than mid-May, approached us on May 19.  We did not approach him" are clearly not quite the truth.  Both had been in negotiation with the venue independently for two years running.  Mind you both sides have created so many obviously contradictory and self contradictory statements it's hard for anyone to tell the actual truth of things now.

Interestingly the company Waugh Taverns Ltd wrote to the Fringe office in 2014 to confirm that the Cowgatehead venue would be run by the Freestival.  Peter writes “Disgracefully, the fringe office had received this on 27th January and not told me about it at all, even though we had corresponded about venues since that date. They made me aware of it on Friday 7th March, and only after pressure did they tell me on Monday 10th March when it was dated.”  But what does it matter when the email was dated?  Presumably it matters because PBH thinks that’s too late in the day for the venue to change their mind or indeed make their mind up.   Anyhow it seems that March 10th 2014 was when Peter gave up on Cowgatehead that year.  He goes on after that to continue to try and contact Kenny II at Waugh Taverns Ltd.  Why?  Just for confirmation?

More interesting is that PBH says that “Remember that, when we filled Cowgatehead three-quarters full with shows last year, we did so at less than a month’s notice”.  So since 2013 the Cowgatehead venue has been being filled with shows only a month or two months before the Festival.  Perhaps this is why the people who ran it seem to have been so stressed out they wanted to leave?  The problem of course is that PBH is in a double bind.  He needs to be able to show he has venues with shows in …in order to have a good bargaining position from which to attempt to negotiate other venues ... but he also needs acts to get venues ...and venues to get acts?  It's a recursive cycle?

This may explain why he wants exclusivity terms from people applying to the Free Fringe who he says must not apply to other Free show providers.  Having a load of people on his waiting list allows him to fill the venue last minute using shows from the waiting list.  If he has no waiting list he is unable to do this.  Presumably there’s some shuffling of shows between venues last minute.  The big problem, of course, is that some of this happens after the deadline for the main Fringe Programme.  And of course it’s more difficult to get people into your show if it’s not in the main program. 

After arguing with the Fringe Office then Peter came up with the obvious solution to this problem – print your own program.  Peter runs down what he calls the “Big Fat Book” or something in favour of his own “Wee Blue Book” which is funded from the £80 donations and benefits that he blags off acts for performing at the Free Fringe.  Being listed in the Fringe program costs £250-350 depending on how early you get in so …obviously the acts with the highest profiles get given dates earliest in the best spaces one would presume.  PBH says he doesn’t work to the early Fringe deadline …does he work to the late one?  I suspect for some people.  All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.  The problem with the Free Fringe money raising by its own separate program……is that’s exactly what the big four do for which they are crucified by media for “causing social division” …so why is it okay for small operators…?

Of course the programme is the main revenue stream for the Fringe Festival so Peter by having his own program that’s only £80 to get in if you pay upfront has created a duplicate identical system to the main program.  He's created a rival organisation.

Mr Paul B Edwards ("Artistic Director of the Free Fringe") told me that it was mad to expect brand new acts to be able to afford to be in the main program.  To which I said I don’t think if you’re going to resent spending as little as £250 on promoting yourself there’s any point in going.  So somebody called me a Tory.  Perhaps but how the world works on a practical level is you’re going to have a hard time accumulating if you never speculate.  It seems to me too that if people want to call themselves part of the Festival which I don’t then they should contribute financially to it somehow.  Simply sitting next to it for a month and absorbing all the benefits of the collective marketing budget seems to be a bit cynical to me.  The kind of thing I’d do.  But then maybe it’s what Tory’s call “trickledown”… whatever… clearly the two organisations are actually in competition with each other... which would be fine if members of the Free Fringe were not on various official Fringe committees and so on…

Then again the Laughing Horse now has flat charges of £40 for admin …and was still booking shows after the official deadline last time I looked on Facebook...  So PBH’s £80-but-pay-it-if-you-don’t-feel-guilty is sort of the same thing with means testing based on trust…?  Well… still …I suppose you’ve got to have deadlines even if no one takes a blind bit of notice.

Anyway the upshot of him not being a “service provider” is that however unhappy anyone is with PBH they can never accuse Peter of not providing a service.  One thing you can’t say about Peter is that he is exploiting anybody’s dreams.  The Free Fringe website is completely brutal about the fact that performers should expect absolutely NOTHING except a room:

The average audience for a Fringe show is six people, and in your first year you should not expect to do that well.  You will not get famous as a result of your Fringe show. Abandon your dreams. It’s not going to happen.”

Critics of socialism often complain that the problem with it is that it allows for no aspiration and so it is that most of the Free Fringe website reads like something Strelnikov would say to Dr Zhivago.  Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.  But despite being constantly reminded that before the revolution there were open spots in those days who lived off human flesh the aspiration that the Free Fringe could be something more than converted pub rooms never seems to quite go away.  If they were to give me two more excavators, I'd be a year ahead of the plan by now…

Of course whether Freestival or PBH runs the Cowgatehead venue is not that important. Peter claims that the Freestival should not have booked anyone without having confirmation from the venue.  This is true but there was just over a week between Peter’s announcement he was taking over the venue …sorry I mean announcement that the Freestival had no rights to the venue …and the date that the official programme was published.  So if everyone had waited to the correct date then none of the acts booked would have been in the program.  Peter then said he would reallocate what spaces he could to the acts that were already booked. 

On the narrow legal point of whether the Freestival should have booked people into spaces they had “no right” to book people into Peter may well be 100 per cent right but on the larger issue of whether what he’s doing is best value to the venue or the acts or the consumer …  it’s a bit vaguer.  So if the venue did switch provider from Freestival to PBH (the year before had been some kind of fudge in the end which I don’t pretend to understand) why did they do so?

Possibly if Peter pointed out to Mr Waugh that people had been booked into the space without his permission Mr Waugh might have been a bit cross.  I imagine I would have been …however, I have never owned a pub so who knows?  Possibly they fancied a change and/or to keep both of them on their toes.  Or possibly Mr Waugh just said yes to Peter in the hope that he would shut up and stop stalking him all round the whole of Scotland.  Or possibly the Freestival’s plan to subdivide existing spaces into smaller rooms had limited appeal to Mr Waugh.  After all it’s creating more administration, it means more door staff or pseudo door staff, it means more complication …and while it may make life easier for the promoters and the acts it doesn’t follow that it makes the pub happy or that it would result in the sale of any more beer.  

For example my great achievement at the Fitzroy Tavern in terms of interior décor was to get a door handle stuck on the inside of the door.   Superficially this is not a big problem.  The door handle broke so we improvised temporary ones for seven years.  Now I’m sure I could go into BandQ or wherever and buy a door handle for less than a tenner and fit it and I’m sure the pub could but both courses cause political problems.  If I start changing the permanent fixtures and fittings myself then it’s as if I feel that I own the place or something and the staff might start asking why they can’t just change things themselves.   It’s me getting involved in the running of the pub.  Conversely although the door handle is only one thing to fix for the pub management it still creates its own paperwork trail and has to be managed alongside and graded against every other repair.  If he expects us to repair this …what else is he going to expect us to repair think the management.  Something as simple as replacing a door handle can cause an awful lot of political problems.  To the pub the door handle didn’t matter much as the door had a hook on the back so was either open or closed …so it’s just a job that took a long time to get done because there was no urgent need … there are bigger needs.  Like larger toilets...

I have to say the Freestival’s sub-dividing plan did suggest to me there might be health and safety issues.  Would subdividing the spaces be legal?  Presumably the council could complain if one started erecting random internal walls in any venue?  How many internal walls do you stop at?  As these plans for the new improved basement level of the Fitzroy Tavern nicked off the Camden Council website show you do often have to put in planning applications to move internal walls about.  Even the Fitzroy Tavern outside umbrellas have their own boring paper chain of planning applications which I am very glad are the problem and responsibility of the pub chain and not ours...

Probably during the Fringe the local council turns a bit of a blind eye to the odd temporary internal wall but ...what if you keep making more and more internal walls till every open mic act has their own coffin spaced shape with no punters like those Japanese capsule hotels?

Cowgatehead after the Freestival have
subdivided the space
with their own soundproofed walls

Peter’s logic of course for the Free Fringe is that once you start adding on services then it won’t be long before these pubs have so much fitted into them that they’ve turned back into the “big 4”.  Better to have no services at all.  Also Peter’s plan works upon the utopian line of to each according to their need …if some venues become better equipped than others then this will ferment jealousy and recourse wars of the kind that aren’t happening at the moment.  It’s not a shock that the well placed Cowgatehead was the first venue to split off rather than a worse placed one…?  Of course Peter's original bar take for venue model has certain built in assumptions ... for example that the venue has an entertainment's and booze licence already... this is not the case with Cowgatehead actually it's a hidden added cost...?  Looking at the Council's website I noticed that entertainment licences seem to cost about the same whether you buy a licence for 1 year or 28 days and the costs are as follows…

Capacity 1 to 200 – New / temporary £950
Capacity 201 to 1,000 – New / temporary £1,424
Capacity 1,001 to 5,000 – New / temporary £2,852
Capacity 5,001 to 10,000 – New / temporary £5,704
Capacity 10,000 to 15,000 – New / temporary £9,275
Capacity > 15,000 – New/temporary £12,000

So basically the cost increases with capacity. If you plot it it’s interesting as it’s a wobbly line but let’s say the cost increased linearly with capacity including the costs of “building” the extra rooms etc. Someone said “well it’s a twenty storey building you can just keep adding on rooms”. You can’t …leaving aside heath and safety which is another set of costs… the costs depend on audience number size capacity. All these are additional costs to the old model … they are new costs. And this new micro economy has to be supported by the bar take. It’s one thing having footfall but that has to actually translate into beer sales. So from a business point of view you only want as many stages as can be supported by the beer sales. Putting in “extra rooms” isn’t automatically of benefit to the owners …it could actually be of detriment to the owners.  Anyway...  Looking at the bigger picture driving this I think it’s as simple as this. PBH and Alex have simply run out of pubs. So they are adapting non-booze venues and turning them into temporary pubs. But these pubs are close to already existing paid venues and pubs. The more of them you have the more they start to affect each other. Basically the Freestival/PBH are trying to build a purpose built venue like the Underbelly complexes and pay for it through beer sales. But surely even in Edinburgh during the Festival there are only a finite number of alcoholics per square mile. So what happens?

Well two things can happen. The Fringe continues to expand exponentially and there’s a massive increase in the number of alcoholics per square mile and Alex, PBH, the Freestival and Heroes of Comedy turn the whole of Edinburgh into one giant pub …or the market becomes saturated and beer sales in individual venues fall?

Anyhow... whether or not Freestival or PBH runs the Cowgatehead venue is not that important.  Or it wouldn’t be if it wasn’t for the other factor in the equation Peter’s Ethos.  The Ethos and Conditions of the Free Fringe contain a number of controversial and restrictive exclusivity terms. 

You must not simultaneously apply to any other provider of free-admission shows. This includes Laughing Horse (“free festival”), Freestival, Heroes of Comedy and any other promoter of free-to-enter shows that may crop up, except the Scottish Comedy Festival at the Beehive. If accepted by us, members of your show must not be part of any other free-admission show at the 2015 Fringe except for one-off unbilled spots in variable bill shows.  Only we are the Free Fringe. Other organisations are not. If you have done a Fringe show with Laughing Horse or others in 2014 or earlier, you can apply to us for 2015 as long as you do not apply to them. You can do shows with them outside the Fringe; that doesn't concern us.

This is where it gets really controversial.  Peter not only bans people from gigging for rival promoters at the Fringe (fair enough you might say) but actually says acts applying to him must not even apply to those other promoters.  I maintain that this practice may be illegal and may be a closed shop practice.  PBH's restrictions on performers gigging for other promoters at the Fringe are not idle threats.  Although one wonders how much of a real commercial threat three old men covering their bollocks with balloons can genuinely present to anyone.

My reasoning for this is as follows.  I maintain that by requiring people to do work in order to use the venue Peter is an employer.  Exhibit A is the use of the word “work” in the terms and conditions on his website.

“More background; skip if you have already worked with us.”

“Unless everybody works for each other and the team, the system doesn’t work”

“No member of the Free Fringe gets paid for the work they do for the Free Fringe”

“Ensure any leafleters working for you also offer the Wee Blue Book with every flier they offer to the public”

“The Fringe is probably the hardest and least rewarding work you will ever do.”

So one thing’s for certain – there’s no doubt that work is being done. 
However, Peter maintains that this doesn’t entitle his workers to any rights.

“You have paid nothing, so nobody’s working for you. You have no entitlements. Everything’s a matter of negotiation and goodwill.”

In other words he tells them they exist completely outside any regulatory framework.  They are not being supplied a service and neither are they workers despite the fact that they appear to be doing work.  This is the kind of economic miracle that only the Fringe could have created.  Peter thinks that because no money changes hands no one is employed but is that true?  Clearly a transaction is taking place

The Free Fringe is a way of doing the Edinburgh Fringe without having to pay thousands of pounds for venue hire. If accepted, you get a free venue and no charges from us, as long as your show is free to the public. You can have a bucket collection after each show... But you must give back. You’ll be saving £4000 to £15000 compared to a paying venue, so it’s reasonable you should give something back. We don’t want your money. We do want your commitment, and we absolutely must have your full co-operation. Unless everybody works for each other and the team, the system doesn’t work.

To evil
                                                          being the root
                                                          of all

But a transaction is clearly taking place – Labour for a Venue.  Is this work?  Is it employment?  The question has been asked before in no lesser chronicle than the Financial Times…

Asked the theoretical question about whether a private tutor can be paid by a builder in work done on his house while the builder is paid by the tutor in private lessons for his child (a common social situation – we’ve all been there) Mr Tim Gregory a partner in a private wealth group at accountants Saffery Champness concluded that yes indeed work was being done that should be declared to the taxman.

The rules are complicated and I doubt the taxman very much cares about the many tiny bits of work a lot of individuals do for PBH as individually they don’t add up to much of an income worth taxing.  However, collectively there is no doubt that work is being done.  The acts are not just working for themselves they are working for the Free Fringe Ltd in handing out its literature as well as its own fliers.  Why is the Free Fringe registered as a company if it is simply a theoretical construct and no work is being done?  And why does this matter?  It matters because Peter Buckley Hill is an employer?  The fact that the cost of the work is effectively wiped out by the cost of the venue and so there are no wages hasn’t made the work disappear.

Defenders of the scheme retort that “Anthony’s points are bollocks (sorry Anthony) because PBH isn’t actually employing anyone. Comedians are essentially sole traders, each running a serviced-based business. Stage time is “the product”. Promoters are effectively vendors, purchasing product from comedians and reselling it to consumers.”

I refute this.  As far as I am concerned as a promoter I am an employer.  In the case of the Free Fringe it is more obvious still that the acts are working not just with but for PBH.  They are required to hand out literature with the logo on it of their employer.  They are required to be on the door of the venue at set times.  They are just as employed as your local chugger or Jim Woroniecki’s flyering team.  Interestingly “indoor busking” was Jim’s first business model too…

…but he wisely concluded that “I worked out that the money you take from donations is pretty much fixed. It never goes above a pound a head. That doesn’t give you the resources you need to invest in the acts and the room”. 

Is this another reason why PBH isn’t keen on “improving” venues…?  Fixed revenue streams are simple.  Once you start building on that if something then falls out of place you’re entering a whole new world of risk which must be underwritten by a promoter.  Peter’s argument for not going all fancy is always the same “it’s my money that’s been risked to build this Free Fringe thing” …doesn’t that make him an employer?  If he’s not an employer then he can’t really take ownership of the enterprise …so why register it as a company?  Going round in circles aren’t we?  He’s an employer.  Being a sole trader or trading as a limited company doesn’t stop you being employed.

“But Anthony”, I hear you cry, “why does this matter?”

Well, it matters because if Peter is an employer and the Free Fringe doesn’t just happen by magical collective thought then his acts do have rights.  They have employment rights.  And that might make his restrictive exclusivity deal illegal.  And not just a bit illegal but seriously illegal. 

My concern – and I don’t think this was ever PBH’s conscious intention – is that PBH has somehow recreated the pre-entry closed shop.

For young people who don’t remember the closed shop it was very big from the 1930s to the 1980s and it worked like this.  Actors and comics and just about everyone on stage had to members of the Equity Trade Union to get work and you couldn’t join the Trade Union unless you had done any work.  As Adam Bloom once explained on an article that used to be on the web somewhere “I'd honestly assumed [till he did his first gig] that you needed an Equity card to even step onstage anywhere”.   Closed shops used to be endemic in acting and other industries that historically suffer from what is known as “labour oversupply” and although they’re technically illegal people are always attempting to recreate them in one form or another.  If you’re sad enough to ever visit the Equity Union or other acting forums you can read a large number of luvvies who’s posts read as if they are still in national mourning for the end of the closed shop.  The problem with closed shops is that while they raise the wages of those “in the industry” they make it difficult for people to enter the industry.  Not impossible …but difficult.  At the end of the line one person or one small group of people has to decide who can join the industry and when.  And this is a power that probably no one should have.  It’s the complete opposite solution to the oversupply of labour as ever increasing charging for venues.  Both cause a lack of social mobility – just in different ways.

Of course there are still closed shops is some areas of the economy.  You try setting up your own GP’s surgery without any qualifications if you don’t believe me ...but they’re at least regulatory body of people not an individual.  If Peter’s view that there was only ONE Free Fringe ever came to be reality there’d only be ONE waiting list and that would give Peter total control of who entered the labour market and when – a power no one person should have.

This of course raises the question is the Free Fringe a Trade Union?  Well, it claims to represent the interest of a large section of organised labour (although of course no work is being done) and it works by collective negotiation with venues.  In short it looks like a trade union and often sounds like a trade union so it probably is a trade union.   Certianly the animosity between the Free Fringe and the Freestival and the lengths to which the Free Fringe has gone to emasculate the Freestival suggest to me that there might be more to it than the Freestival simply being different promoter.  If you want an old style Arthur Scargill analysis the problem with the Freestival is that they used to subscribe to the Free Fringe ethos and now don't so ...they are ...erm ...scabs?  Why does this matter?

Because if my theory is true and he’s both an employer and a trade union then it may be possible he’s breaking the law?  Indeed even if he’s just a trade union but not an employer he may be breaking the law....?

“It is also unlawful for an employer to refuse to interview or employ a job applicant who is not a member of a trade union (or of a particular trade union) or who has made it clear that he (or she) has no intention of joining a particular trade union or any trade union. A job applicant may complain to an employment tribunal if he (or she) suspects that he has been denied a job (or a job interview) for one or other of those reasons. The complaint must be presented within three months of the alleged unlawful act. If the complaint is upheld, the tribunal will order the employer to pay up to £53,500 by way of compensation (section 137 and 140, Trade Union & Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992).”

So there you are if my contentions that

1) The Free Fringe is a Trade Union


2) The Free Fringe is an Employer

...both turn out to be true then theoretically you can take the Free Fringe for up to £53,500 each?  I’m not saying everyone should rush out an sue PBH for re-inventing the closed shop.  For one thing I’m not sure that’s what it is as the restrictions on other employment aren’t universal … but I really think no one’s even really thought about this issue… so …well, I said it.  Perhaps the fundamental problem is simply insoluble.  Labour over supply … you either end up with an ever spiralling set of costs which excludes the poor or you end up reinventing the closed shop which excludes the newest.  There certainly can’t be a “third way” where acts only risk what is proportionate to their status in the industry in an attempt to get value for money …that would be silly. 

Of course it could be that calling the whole system a closed shop is taking things too far but if it isn't breaking any Employment laws or Service Provision laws could it be breaking other competition laws?  The setting of all performers ticket prices to £0 (actually "donate what you want") is actually a classic example of Vertical Price Fixing.  This is where the manufacturer collaborates with the wholesaler or retailer to resell an item at an agreed on price.  PBH or Alex Petty (the wholesaler/retailer) agrees with the acts that they must all charge nothing but donations for tickets.  Peter's ban on peple working for other "Free" providers may be a bit more than a personal grudge or an ideological belief that performers should not be charged it could actually be a form of Resale Price Maintenance.  Indeed you could argue that the whole of the Free Fringe is an exercise in resale price maintenance.  The object is to keep all venues paid for by labour/barter and all ticket prices at £0.  Peter's idological objection to the Free Festival is that they only honour half of this equation because they charge the acts in money rather than time and that the Free Festival charging acts for services is the same as the venue charging acts for services. 

Of course not all types of resale price maintenance are illegal but they can become illegal where they are deemed to damage competition.  For example  Dunlop Pneumatic Tyre Co Ltd v Selfridge and Co Ltd is a classic test case where Selfridge refused to agree to Dunlop's demands to sell Dunlop tyres for no less than £5 to anyone outside the motor trade.  The core of this judgement was based on something called Privity of Contract ...the common law principle that a contract cannot confer rights or impose obligations arising under it on any person or agent except the parties to it.  Remember ticket touts are "classic entrepreneurs" according to the Culture Secretary.  Of course there are horizontal price constraints that are possible too but I don't think they apply here... unless you argue that all the venues are conspiring with PBH and Alex Petty to fix their ticket prices ...which would be pushing it... after all the purpose of all Trade Unionism is market control far do you want to take this lunacy... ask the...

Oh ...well ... it's easy to carp but could Peter's system actually be improved without violating the non-negotiable principles set out in his original paper...?  Yes, I think so... Yes... one thought did occur to me on how to improve Peter's system within the rules...

Where Peter's system really breaks down is where people apply to the Free Fringe and then withdraw from it.  This is caused by the fact there are No charges to performers  so there is no cash in the system.  So people give their time but that time is taken advantage of.  But it is possible to put cash into the system without actually charging anyone.  How?  Take a deposit and make a Bank of PBH. 

Instead of begging the acts for £80 after the Fringe, charge them an £80 deposit upfront before the fringe and become a "sponsor" of their shows.  The acts then get their money back at the end of the Fringe when they have completed their runs in the form of an £80 sponsorship payout if they apply for it to be returned. 

Now we have fungible wealth in the system but with no acts are being paid.  However if acts pull out of the system they have to give up their deposit and put cash in.  Now no one can abuse the system with multiple applications to different providers or by pulling out at the last minute ... and PBH still remains "not a service provider".

The best part of the scheme of course is that it actually makes money.  With all that cash tied up in the bank for 9 months there will be some interest.  I suggest the interest is distributed equally back to those few unfortunate acts who were on the waiting list but didn't get a show in the form of a dividend.

With all this in mind Pear Shaped in Fitzrovia is doing its own bit to end the problem of labour over-supply by closing on the 24th of June while the venue has a major refurbishment.  We haven’t closed in 15 years and have been going so long that if the pub doesn’t close it will fall down so it’s time for a short rest... 

As for the future.  I'm reviewing the situation

All my dearest companions

Have always been villains and thieves...

So at my time of life...

Pear Shaped will Return