Richard Herring ended one of his Edinburgh Fringe performances this week with a hollow laugh. His show, Talking Cock, had been well received by the 150-strong audience, but large numbers of seats were empty. "Tell your friends. As you can see, there's plenty of room," the comedian said, adding: "You can have a row to yourself."
Herring is not the only act at Edinburgh labouring to fill venues in a year that has been described as one of the worst in recent times. Established comedians have struggled to sell out, while those looking to make their name are playing to as few as four people. Theatres are reporting lower ticket sales and promoters are working harder than ever to get acts noticed by the media or the public.
Herring, who first appeared at the Fringe 25 years ago, said he was "being forced to accept that this is going to be a very quiet year in Edinburgh" and the only consolation was that "it is seemingly the same for everyone". Major venues including Gilded Balloon, Pleasance, Underbelly and Assembly all said that ticket sales for shows early in the festival, which started on 3 August and runs until 27 August, were down because they clashed with the Olympics.
William Burdett-Coutts, who runs Assembly, said: "During the first week the big comedians weren't selling out at all. Many had big gaps in the audience. It's picking up now but it has been tough."
The impact of the big acts failing to sell out, according to Mr Herring, means there is no overflow to the less well-known performers looking for a break. The competition is also fierce; it is the largest Fringe in the festival's history, with 2,695 shows this year, as well as the Free Fringe running alongside. One comedian playing to small audiences said: "Without the TV profile here you are in trouble. Crowds are picky about what they spend on and flyering hasn't been as effective. There are a lot more shows and people aren't going to as many."
One young comedian at the Fringe for the first time said this week that sales have been poor. When comforted by an operator who said it had just been the effect of "Suicide Wednesday", he replied. "Yes, and Top Yourself Tuesday and Gun in the Mouth Monday."
Stand-up comedian Jen Brister said this had been the worst of her five years at the Fringe and if audience numbers remained as bad she would have to consider packing up. "It's not just me, loads of comedians are struggling," she said.
Pre-buying is declining, according to promoter Brett Vincent, and after the two-for-one deals dried up, the acts struggled. "A lot of sales were very last-minute. People are now largely pre-booking only one show and then maybe taking a punt on another. They used to pre-book more."
But the pace is picking up. Comedians who are regulars on television, such as Russell Kane, Phill Jupitus and Marcus Brigstocke, are selling out quickly this week. Those with an Edinburgh following, like Tim Vine and Daniel Kitson, were also snapped up. Yet even they were not immune. A charity gala they played this week was described as only half full. Herring cited other factors including the recession and the "dissatisfaction with the high prices of everything in Edinburgh".
Yet optimism had begun to return this week. "Sales have picked up considerably and people are booking for the last weekend, which is good news," Mr Vincent said.
More shows are being chalked up as Sold Out outside the major venues and the buzz around the city has built. Many of the venues have also pointed to strong forward sales. Mr Burdett-Coutts said: "We hope the focus of the festival changes and it continues to pick up. There has been a noticeable uplift since the end of the Olympics."