Bob Slayer has been a regular face at the Edinburgh Fringe since 2008, running his own shows and, later, booking venues and acts, renting empty shops for pop-up venues and now, for 2015, bringing a converted double decker bus to Edinburgh. Just another day in the life of Bob Slayer.
Making time in his busy schedule promoting The Blundabus, he spoke to The Wee Review’s Phil Bolger to give his thoughts on what the Fringe means to him and what he sees his role within it to be…
It would seem that over the last few years you have inadvertently become the person that challenges the festival to go back to its roots, to what some might think it should be?
Not go back to what it should be, but helping it find its own balance…
So you see what you do as balancing out the more corporate and institutionalised aspect of the Fringe?
Yeah, I think we do. Our role is to keep offering punters and performers an experience they can’t get with the big four venues and to keep questioning how you can promote shows in different and new ways that don’t just involve spending ridiculous sums of money. We work with really exciting shows with an independent spirit and pushing boundaries. It’s why we enjoy amazing word-of-mouth success and organic growth.
So when you started your shows you didn’t want to run just another “free” venue?
No. Our shows are “like” free, only better. Because they are not free! We want people to pay for our shows and value them. PBH [Peter Buckley Hill, promoter of the Free Fringe, not to be confused with Free Festival or Freestival] is the glorious guardian of all things free at the Fringe, but where I believe he comes unstuck is that he is really obsessed with how free something is. Well done, but you’re concentrating on the wrong aspect; free shows have enjoyed massive growth at the Fringe because they are fairer than the pay-to-play model of big four paid shows. They have played a massively important role in undermining money-based power. But it’s not about who can be the most ‘free’, it should be which are the fairest deals for performers and punters alike.
We get seen as a free promoter because we came from there and share the independent characteristics. But I’ve constantly said we don’t do free shows, we sell tickets! We sell tickets and even with the pay-what-you-want element, we still expect an audience to pay if you’ve stayed ’til the end! The only time someone shouldn’t pay is if they say, “This isn’t for me,” and don’t stay until the end. If you stay, you should pay! (Giggles to himself) That’s kind of encouraging people to walk out and that’s not what I want!
Do you think the Fringe should be easily accessible to everyone, to every performer?
Well, that is what is brilliant about the Fringe – the fact that the Fringe Society doesn’t run or control the Fringe. They merely administer and support a collection of promoters and shows who can pretty much do what they want. We have seen entities with a lot of money and clout try to define the Fringe for a while, but that ‘thing’, that spirit of the Fringe has always wrestled it back again. One of the latest examples of this was the big four venues grouping together to form the Edinburgh Comedy Festival. It was literally a marketing title that just confused people. I understand why they tried to do it, but it was awful. They did it in such a way that it made people believe that that was all the comedy that was on in Edinburgh and it just in no way was.
So, in the same way Russell Brand has started questioning politics, you’ve started questioning the Fringe and the big players. Would it be fair to say that in the same way people ask Brand if he would run for parliament you get asked if you want more power at the Fringe as a big player yourself?
Crikey, I couldn’t run anything bigger than what we do already, it would become too much like work! I like that I can go see all the shows we promote at least once and in many cases more (I try to see all Phil Kay‘s shows because he is a genius). So we will always stay small. I’ve also told people I really don’t want that sort of power, but actually of course I kind of do. I really like that we are the small promoter that boxes above our weight. I’ve kind of used what little power that has afforded us to troll the Fringe. I like poking it with a stick to challenge what we see as bullshit.
Am I a good troll or a bad troll? Well, that depends on what day it is!
Do you feel with your trolling you have created a new business model on how to run a successful show by going against everything you get told you’re supposed to do?
The traditional way can work but only “can” – it’s by no means certain. Also, to do the traditional way properly it is very expensive. You need to be seen in the best venue, with the biggest posters and employ the most expensive PR. The Fringe “industry” says this is the only way to do the Fringe and it will work. No, it won’t! It’s a massive risk and you’ll have a maybe one-in-ten chance of success, leaving nine out of ten people losing money. Whereas we have had success in tiny venues with no marketing or PR. Our approach is – spend what you can afford and make up the difference by being creative. Shows that do it this way won’t lose money. Yes, they might wonder if they’d be better off in a bigger venue than in a bookshop or on a bus, but we have had shows achieve massive impact and be really profitable, all through a model that is fair for punters. I know this has got the other venues thinking, because I know what they say to our acts to try and get them to switch to them.
Oh, and I don’t mind losing an act to a bigger venue, but if I find out they’ve accepted a bog standard deal, I’ll be very sad. We can’t fit every act we want to put on and so we are happy for them to go out into the rest of the Fringe, taking this attitude to push for fairer deals with them. That is what is going to create the next cultural change at the Fringe!
Do you feel you have a hand in bringing people forward?
Yeah, I think our role is that of the cheeky, merry pranksters on the outside that can make a difference. The Fringe is undergoing a positive revolution, and we are enjoying our role as its sneaky pacesetters!
What’s your plan with the Blundabus?
To crash a bus into the Fringe, drive it through the heart of Edinburgh, both in reality and figuratively… so I’ve bought a double decker bus and we’ve done a crowd-funding campaign which raised enough money to do it up as a venue. It gets delivered in July and we start fitting it out. We launch with shows in Croydon. It will be a wonderful entity, which we will bring to the Fringe via Leicester, Livestock Festival in Gloucester and your house! [The Wee Review looks decidedly nervous at this!] We’re parking for the Fringe in Potterrow next to the Underpass, with our own bar and fantastic shows. I’m very, very excited!
Do you look forward to the Fringe still?
Oh, very much! It is my absolute favourite time of the year. You know, a bit like Roy Wood and Christmas, I wish it could be the Fringe everyday. That’s the real reason I’ve bought The BlundaBus, so that after the Fringe we’ll take the bus and chase the fun. We’ll take nonsense around the UK, maybe Ireland and Europe? We are making nonsense mobile! Our Fringe will be going everywhere…