Thursday, September 13, 2012

Open Letter: Rob Salerno to Edmonton and Winnipeg Fringe Festivals

Dear Chuck McEwen and Jill Roszell,

Let me begin by thanking you once again for your work running the Winnipeg and Edmonton Fringe Festivals. These festivals each represent an amazing feat of organization, passion for the arts, and opportunities for artists. I’m writing you this letter, and posting it publically, in a spirit of great appreciation for the work you do and love for both festivals. I don’t know of any artist who doesn’t feel this way. 

But I have deep reservations about decisions that both festivals made this year, and I feel the need to share these concerns, with hope that future festivals will be stronger because of this. 

In short, I and many others believe both the Winnipeg and Edmonton Fringe Festivals are growing unsustainably, and it seems as if the people running those festivals are unaware of the problem – indeed, press releases from both organizations are full of boasting new statistics (which I demonstrate below are meaningless) showing that the festivals were ‘the biggest yet!’

Both festivals decided to expand their offerings significantly this year. Winnipeg added something around 17 shows this year; Edmonton added an additional 40. Winnipeg added a new official venue, far removed from the main Fringe site, to accommodate many of the additional shows. Edmonton added no official venues but allowed BYOVs to multiply incredibly and spread even farther afield.

The impact on artists was hugely detrimental. 

While of course, some artists managed to do spectacularly well – as some will always do – almost every artist I’ve spoken to who has a history with the festivals noticed that their attendance was down over previous years. There were fewer sellouts. Audiences were spread thinner across too many shows. Audiences that went off to far-flung BYOVs didn’t return to the grounds later. 

After prodding CBC and the Free Press to dig into the numbers Winnipeg released the day after it closed (I would have done this myself but I was travelling), Joff Schmidt reported that average artist take at Winnipeg was down by more than 5 percent, or $200. That’s not an insignificant sum for those of us on marginal incomes, when considering the cost to bring a show to Winnipeg. 

The numbers aren’t out yet from Edmonton from what I can tell, but everyone noticed that those “SOLD OUT” stickers that get placed on the schedule boards were not as numerous as they’ve been in the past. (Joff Schmidt reports that the number of reported sellouts in Winnipeg went up from 120 to 175; but I’m not sure how much of this is attributed to smaller BYOVs or what. We’d need to get more numbers to understand what this means. In tandem with the drop in mean artist return, it may still be a concern.)

Moreover, “average” artist take is a misleading figure, to the point of being almost meaningless when preparing an artist’s budget. A few runaway successes can hugely skew those numbers – the high school musical production selling out the MTC Mainstage or TJ Dawe at PTE Mainstage can pull in such huge numbers that they markedly lift an otherwise low average. More to the point, a company performing 12 shows in a BYOV will almost axiomatically earn more money than a lottery-drawn company getting 6-8 shows in a main venue. (This is also obviously true for Edmonton). 

For example, I asked Michele Gallant of the Calgary Fringe to provide those numbers for her festival. While the “average” artist take was $2419, the “median” take was only $1890. I difference of more than $500 or 20 percent! (Calgary doesn’t have enough BYOVs to merit filtering them out). 

I strongly suspect that if you compared the “median” artist take with last year’s numbers, and you filtered out the BYOVs (so you’re only comparing apples to apples), you’d notice even larger drops across all categories.    

This is hugely problematic for artists for obvious reasons. Most of us don’t perform at these festivals as a hobby or out of charity. We make our living – and it is a precarious living – from those ticket sales. While we always recognise the risk of performing at these festivals – the show might not catch on, we might lose money – we need the odds to be stacked somewhat in our favour in order to justify the risk. 

There were also knock-on problems caused by the expansions, too. All the additional artists put an obvious strain on billets in Winnipeg (to its credit, Edmonton seemed to cope pretty well this year) – many artists I know complained of billets that were very far away and not well served by public transit (another great thing about Edmonton – those transit passes you provide!). 

Then there’s the media. I’ve already heard rumours that this is the last year the Free Press is going to commit to reviewing everything, and I can’t blame them, especially if the Winnipeg Festival expands further. But, not having a guaranteed review will be another knock on the festival from an artist perspective. A guaranteed review might help generate buzz or be useful for remounts or grant applications. In Edmonton, where the Journal only reviews half the shows, it’s always difficult for artists to stand out when they don’t get a review. The same is true in Toronto, where NOW magazine only gets to 2/3 of the shows. 

I understand the temptation to expand every year. I know that PR buzz about being “the biggest festival yet” is great for generating news stories (even if not ticket sales), pulling in sponsors and government grants, and luring business stands on site. I also know that Winnipeg and Edmonton have a war every year about which is going to be the biggest and therefore best festival. 

Let me see if I can settle this fight. It’s Edmonton. Edmonton, Edmonton, Edmonton. It has the history, it has the population, and that population is growing and it has the money (tickets are 25 percent more valuable in Edmonton!). Winnipeg will not ever catch up. Sorry.

BUT! That doesn’t mean Winnipeg doesn’t have something amazing to celebrate! In many ways it is the best, so who cares about statistics! And second biggest isn’t bad, especially when that means 87,000 tickets sold and 150 companies!

More to the point, Winnipeg can offer things that Edmonton simply can’t and never will. First, its venues and staff are some of the best on the circuit. There’s just no official venue in Edmonton as nice at the MTC Mainstage or the Warehouse. The techs, staff, and audiences are some of the friendliest, most eager, and most helpful you’ll find anywhere. 

Perhaps something Winnipeg and Edmonton could compete over that would be less destructive overall, would be artist and audience satisfaction. Perhaps you could collect and compare survey results from participants? Wouldn’t that be amazing? 

I understand that there’s always more artists than there are spots in the lotteries, and that BYOVs hardly take much more work for you to accommodate into the festival, so why not be nice and let everyone in who wants to do the work themselves? But please, please, please: Remember that you are stewards of a very delicate ecology as directors of Fringes. Too much too fast can make the festival a real struggle for the artists who want to be part of it.

Perhaps some ground rules for BYOVs would help mitigate the problem: ie, a hard cap on the number of additional shows and performances, a defined geographical area that BYOVs must be located within, etc.

The last thing artists want, and the last thing you should want, is for your festivals to become like the Edinburgh or Adelaide Fringes, where more than a thousand companies compete for tiny audiences, most artists lose thousands of dollars, and they only do it in the hope that a talent scout will pick them up. If artists aren’t making money in the two big festivals, it makes it very difficult for us to justify touring to the smaller neighbouring festivals: Regina, Saskatoon, Calgary, Victoria, Vancouver. Like I said, it’s a delicate ecology, and your decisions have ripple effects on the whole circuit.

I would like to know that you’ve taken this message to heart and will consider its suggestions when planning the 2013 festival. I’d like to know your thoughts on these points before I apply to your festivals again.

You are stewards of a very important cultural ecology that we all hold stakes in and want to see grow and thrive in a sustainable way. Please, please, please, ensure that your festivals remain a good place for artists to ply our craft.


Rob Salerno 

Ten Foot Pole Productions
“Big In Germany”/“First Day Back”/“Fucking Stephen Harper”/“RAW”

The following artists have also read the above letter and agree with its sentiments:

Cameryn Moore Little Black Book Productions Phone Whore/Slut (r)evolution
Sinead McCormick In/Side the Box
Bob Brader/Suzanne Bachner John Montgomery Theatre Company Preparation Hex
Howard Petrick Breaking Rank!
Brent Hirose Seismic Shift Productions Lost and Left Behind
Jason Morneau Agawa Sapphire Productions Aerial Allusions
Bremner Duthie Big Empty Barn Productions Brel and Piaf
Mathew Bittroff Impulse Productions Lost Boy
Priscilla Yakielashek Ashek Theatre First Canadian President of the USA
Jem Rolls Big Word Performance Poetry Ten Starts and an End
Kristian Reimer Complete History of the Moustache
Jeff Leard Gametes and Gonads
Travis Bernhardt LIES!
Joel Crichton Divide
Alyssa Kostello
Vee Ann Russ

Appendix: Now Some Math

Edmonton announced ticket sales that broke 112,000. That’s an increase of 8,000 over the previous record of 104,000. But given that the fest added 40 new shows, each of those shows only added 200 tickets to the total. That’s not a lot at all. BUT! Bear in mind that virtually every show will burn around 100 tickets on artist comps and pump up the volume tickets, plus volunteer appreciation, and you’ll see that half the gain isn’t even real sales! 

So, to Jillian’s quote in the Journal, “True, it was a bigger festival. But we’re not just selling the same number of tickets to more shows; we’re actually selling more tickets!” I have to call “phooey.” The audience was indeed being spread more thinly. But I’ll hold an open mind for now. If you’ll provide numbers for average PAID attendance at shows this year and last year, average artist take, median artist take, and filter out the BYOVs from the Lottery companies, perhaps you can demonstrate that your impression was valid.

Please now consider something else: the typical BYOV show performs 11 or 12 times, compared to 6 or 7 for a lottery show. That means those 40 new BYOV shows  were actually more like adding 70 additional shows to the festival in terms of number of ticketed events!

Similar numbers are true for Winnipeg. The festival boasted sales of 100,000, up from 87,000. BUT! Are those numbers directly comparable? Winnipeg and Edmonton have both been guilty of creating ways for artists to goose their reported sales numbers in the past (I remember in 2008 being encouraged to purchase my own tickets to give away for free to my first shows to build buzz. I guess that helped push those “artist return” numbers that year!). 

I know that both festivals count Pump Up The Volume and other comp tickets in their total reported sales. Since these are easier to earn than actual sales, we’ve seen schemes at both festivals to push these numbers higher and higher for the sake of goosing that all-important “number of tickets” figure. And with more companies struggling for audiences, and far less sellouts, more companies were forced to pump-up-the-volume. This year, Winnipeg took a page from Edmonton and forced artists to book their comps in advance, counting them as sold even if artists didn’t show up. I know that my company probably burned about 40 tickets total just on unclaimed artist comps during the festival. If all of the 170 companies did that, wow! That’s 6800 tickets! More than half of Winnipeg’s reported gain in ticket sales!

My point is three-fold here. If you’re going to use these numbers for PR purposes, I have reservations because they are misleading. Second, you must be careful not to drink your own Kool-Aid. If you must put on a game face and boast that these are the biggest sales yet, you must recognise that the number hides a disturbing weakening trend at both festivals. Third, you have to be upfront with the artists about what they’re getting into – what can they reasonably hope or expect to earn by performing at your festivals and how much competition are they going to face when they get to your city.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are moderated. Please read our guidelines for posting comments.