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Matt Trueman: Sold-out Edinburgh Fringe shows may not be the best indicator of artistic success

The Royal Mile during the 2018 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Photo: Shutterstock
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‘Sold Out’ notices are springing up in Edinburgh. Show titles are being chalked on to venue blackboards and celebratory tweets are doing the rounds. Hopeful punters are being turned away until tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. Halfway through, the hottest fringe tickets are hard to come by.

The sell-out show is, of course, the Edinburgh dream. Yet up here, it can be all too easy to fixate on ticket sales as the only measure of success. It’s often said that the whole festival is one massive marketplace and, well, marketplaces are made for selling. No one comes to the fringe to make their millions in a month, but in such a competitive environment – 3,000-odd shows tussling for audiences – a monetary mentality quickly creeps into play.

I’ve been there myself. Performing with a young company back in the day, I remember our hourly checks of the festival’s ticketing site to see how many pre-sales we’d shifted: another two, group of five, seven door sales for a full house. Bums on seats becomes your best sense of the buzz around your show, and a buzzy show is a good show – success.

Partly, the impulse is about being seen. Who doesn’t want to play to a packed house? Who doesn’t want the best audiences they can get? That, in the end, is why anyone brings work to the fringe – to put it in front of people. Being seen is a buzz of its own.

But it’s easy to forget the artist-audience interaction and focus on the figures for their own sake. It’s a case of cash coming first. Edinburgh runs come with big costs: venue hire, accommodation, marketing and production budgets, not to mention the everyday expenses of eating and drinking. With serious money already invested – and venue guarantees to hit before even thinking about that box-office split and, if things go really well, breaking even – it’s little wonder people keep a beady eye on those sales figures.

It’s a fools’ errand, one that mistakes the game for the prize. There’s a knack to selling well at the fringe and it often has little to do with good art. Catchy titles can do it, as can an well-designed poster, an effective flyering effort or a concerted PR campaign. A great show helps, of course, but it’s not the be-all and end-all; nor is there a correlation between good shows and strong sales.

Artists have to be careful not to conflate the two – even if the Fringe Society rewards each equally. Sell-out shows and award-winners both get rights to that little laurel logo, as if they were equivalent. They’re absolutely not.

In an insecure month and a chaotic environment, it’s tempting to quantify success that needs qualifying instead. Ticket sales are an easy measurement, as are the number of stars racked up in reviews. But art succeeds in a completely different way: on an individual basis, in the moment, with feelings and ideas. Better to have a small audience that’s engaged than a full-house that’s baffled and bored out of its brains. Selling out isn’t an end in itself. It shouldn’t mean selling your show short.

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