Sell the Fringe? What a ... good idea

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The Independent Online
I don't know why I never thought of it before. What to do with the Edinburgh Fringe, I mean, this rampaging monster which terrorises central Edinburgh every summer. And the answer was there, under my nose, the whole time. And it wasn't even me who thought of it! It was a bloke I met at the Pleasance that I got chatting to. Somebody near me said, "What are they going to do with the Fringe?" and this fellow said, "Sell it".

Nobody heard him except me.

"How do you mean, sell it?" I said.

"Exactly what I said," he said. "Sell it as a going concern."

"You couldn't," I said. "That's ridiculous. There's no way you could buy and sell the Fringe. It's just a heterogeneous bundle of hundreds of little concerns. It's not a thing. It's like a market. It's like a souk."

"Like Covent Garden market used to be?" he said. "Look at that now. Changed out of all recognition. Somebody must have made a mint."

"Yes, but the Fringe is an artistic market. You can't buy and sell an art market!"

"How much do you know about business?" he said.

I hate it when people ask me questions like that. The humiliation is only passing, but it's real enough.

"Nothing much," I admitted.

"If you knew anything about business, you would spot instantly that the Edinburgh Fringe is capitalism at its most naked. It's as if hundreds of companies all floated their shares at the same time. They come to Edinburgh, go in hock to get a venue, scrabble desperately for audiences in three weeks, and then go home having made a whacking profit, or, most likely, nursing a debt they'll spend the next year paying off.

"Of course, taken as a whole it's a great success story. Wonderful prestige, wonderful image. It's only when you look close that you see the wobbles. The Fringe is short-termism in an extreme form. It's sharks against sharks. It's sink or swim. I tell you, people in the City would shudder at the way cut-throat business is conducted on the Fringe."

"No, it's not like that," I said. "It's comedy and plays and ballet and mime and folk song and ..."

"Cobblers," he said. "That's the product, yes, but the methods are something else. The method of the Fringe is all hustling and haggling and hyping and tearing down other people's posters and manufacturing fake publicity and pretending to be sorry when someone else has a small house, but because the veneer is all arty smarty everyone fails to notice the jungle conditions. Perrier already makes big money out of other people's efforts. So do comedy companies like Avalon. Imagine the money to be made by actually buying the whole Fringe."

"So you would sell the Fringe, would you?"

"It's not exactly mine to sell. All I am saying is that the Fringe reminds me very strongly of one of those companies that are due for take-over, or for privatisation, or for something like that. It's got a huge turnover and it's got a huge reputation, but large parts of it are unprofitable and it's just crying out for asset-stripping and relocation and ..."

"Relocation?"

"I can think of many cities that would love to have a slice of the action."

"Hold on! You can't move the Fringe!"

"They move the Olympic Games around."

"But Edinburgh is the home of the Fringe!"

"Athens is the home of the Olympic Games. It is not, however, held in Athens. Money speaks too loud for that."

"Edinburgh would never let it go."

"Don't you believe it. There are plenty of people here who would love to see the back of it. The official festival, for one, which hates the success of the Fringe. The inhabitants, for another. Edinburgh becomes impossible every August. Wouldn't they jump at the chance to get their city back for a whole month?"

"Would you buy it?" I said.

"If I had the money. Like a shot."

"Does it need buying?"

"Does an old rambling mansion need restoration? Did British Airways need privatisation? Was water and gas ripe for it?"

"Who are you?" I said curiously.

"Oh, a sort of financial adviser," he said.

"Who to?"

"Wouldn't you like to know?" he said, and disappeared towards the bar. He never came back.

I have been thinking about what he said ever since, and as I said, I wish I had thought of it first.

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