While on holiday last week I took a trip east to take in a show at the Fringe, leaving a sunny Glasgow during its main holiday fortnight and arriving in Edinburgh during the festival is quite the culture shock, Glasgow was in go slow mode, Edinburgh was jumping. The scale of the Edinburgh Festival really needs seen to be believed. For a start it isn’t one ‘festival’ but a collection of different ones all happening at the same time in the same medium sized city. They are all vaguely connected by the term ‘arts’ which takes in a multitude of sins from opera to comedy to film to the military tattoo and everything in between.
Don’t let anyone fool you into believing the highlight of the Edinburgh Festival is some highbrow arts though, it’s dog-eat-dog marketing of the best kind performed in the least subtle ways possible that really catch the eye.
As a visitor to the city, and for once visiting but not working, I was able to enjoy the trip and marvel at how the residents are able to survive without a motorway going through the middle and with all their main roads dug up for no obvious reason; a resilient lot clearly. They need to be because the marketing barrage that greets you is mesmeric.
At one level you have the big shows and the well known performers. Their marketing is mainly traditional; posters, press ads, radio, TV and heavy PR ensuring their recognisable faces and names have been interviewed and embedded in your self-conscious long before you arrive. They are the big draws, selling out in advance and drawing tourists like myself in initially.
But the real marketing begins when you arrive and takes several forms. Firstly the printed guides, and there are a few, which endeavour to list every performer and every show in a variety of ways. These are invaluable if you are looking for something specific, they give a little snippet of information about the show and try to aid your search for something you might like. Certain acts or descriptions catch your eye, usually by piggy-backing on something you had heard of. So phrases like ‘most popular show in Melbourne’, ‘smash hit of 2010 festival’ and ‘as seen on BBC3’ abound.
The next level down from those is the shows with no history and no past, or at least not ones they are shouting about. This is where the real marketing takes place. For starters cast members will ‘perform’ in the busier streets, often in eye-catching attire and very loudly. This can be effective, it is certainly noticeable and depending on the timing and the price it must have some benefit on audience numbers. Eventually you slip into a side street and find a table at a cafe to fortify yourself, there you are approached by enthusiastic young people thrusting leaflets at you and giving you the 30 second sell on their chosen show. Some were engaging and enjoyable to talk too, some were clearly doing it because they had too and were embarrassed by it. None were rude or aggressive. Trying to convince a stranger to give up an hour or so of their time to go and see your 3 mates from university perform sketches in the back room of a disused nightclub is a hard sell at the best of times. It’s particularly difficult if you don’t seem to know a great deal about the show and you’re in a city that’s hosting the widest variety of live entertainment anywhere in the world at that moment. Still, it was a wonderful reintroduction to the earliest forms of direct marketing.
For me the most surprising thing was how ‘traditional’ it all was. I don’t remember the last time I saw so many pieces of paper being handed out, it was truly staggering. As one of those sad people who ‘check-in’ on Facebook and Foursquare wherever I go I was struck by how few of the acts seemed to have any presence there. Hey, I’ve so much spare time I’m playing with my phone, show me your wares! Likewise not one of the hundreds of people who stopped me seemed able to actually show me what they were selling, after all isn’t everything recorded these days? Why didn’t they have the best clip on their mobiles if nothing else? A quick 30 seconds of the best jokes, most dramatic scene or enthused audience would go a long way to giving me a clue what the show is about.
It surprised me how little social media seemed to be used, even Twitter was quiet and it usually has everything on it.
It’s hard to be critical after all the festival is a huge success, the atmosphere is brilliant and the sheer chutzpah on show makes the trip worthwhile whatever you eventually see. In the end I went to see three shows, one by a well known comedian who was my main reason for going through, another by someone I’d seen before but didn’t know was performing until I arrived and the third I chose because I was approached at the right moment, the ‘seller’ made it sound unmissable and he even gave me very cheap tickets.
The fact the show was actually terrible is neither here nor there, the pitch was good.