Fringe is Uber: A Model Dependent upon the Exploitation of Artists
A Facebook Post on the Fringe World Artists and Producers group gained some traction yesterday, drawing attention to a Fringe promotional campaign that implied flyering artists were a public nuisance.
The campaign both acknowledges and ironises how cutthroat and highly competitive Fringe has become. Like a stand-up comedian making self-deprecating jokes, the banner simultaneously celebrates and mocks artistic desperation.
The usual outrage ensued. Artists feel hard done by and wonder why Fringe doesn’t seem to work to serve artists. This happens every year.
Let’s be clear: Fringe World does not exist to serve artists.
The 2017 Impact Report opens with this:
“It might be a good year to think about the original impulse — the Fringe, not as a corporate growth and management model, but as a reaction, as a creative response to mediocrity, mainstream and exclusiveness.”
My contention is that Fringe is both a creative reaction to mediocrity and a corporate growth and management model. It exists, firstly, to disrupt the curated festival industry. Secondly, it exists only to further itself — the logic of corporate growth and the cancer cell.
It is basically Uber.
Fringe is to curated festivals (like the Perth International Arts Festival) as Uber is to the taxi industry.
The taxi industry is a carefully regulated industry that generates steady, good employment for a small number of people.
The disruptor, Uber, is a deregulated, open platform that generates precarious employment for many people.
The shift from taxis to Uber brought many benefits. It’s a cheaper, safer, and more effective service for consumers. These benefits came with a cost, however: Stable working-class jobs were replaced with precarious, casual employment. Uber can be a side hustle if you’ve got a 9–5, but it’s horrible as a primary source of income and disastrous if you lack financial literacy.
This “uberfication” is called “platform capitalism,” and it’s talked about a lot in business circles. Rather than provide a comprehensive service, the new approach to business is to provide a rapidly scalable platform for “value producers” (e.g. artists, drivers) to engage with consumers. Platform businesses have a reputation for rapid growth and enormous shareholder value.
One consequence of platform capitalism is that value producers take on more risks and must function as “micro-entrepreneurs.” At Fringe, Artists must be performers, producers, business developers, market analysts, financial planners, venue hunters, logistics providers, negotiators, recruiters, human resource managers, marketers, social media managers, and street hustlers. Artists take on all the risks of business people and need just as diverse a skill set, but most are not positioned to profit from their labour.
Platform capitalism is a machine for exploitation. It forces value producers to take risks and enables platform providers to reap profits. It exists to concentrate wealth in to the hands of a small minority.
Although Fringe World is not-for-profit, that doesn’t mean that nobody is benefiting from the exploitation of artists. Where Uber and Airbnb exist to benefit a small handful of shareholders, Fringe’s beneficiaries are a little more distributed.
However, Artists are not amongst them.
If you want to understand who benefits from Fringe, the financials are a good place to start. For every $1 in ticket sales, there’s an additional $7 spent elsewhere in broader economic impact.
So where is all this additional money going? Without detailed financial information, here is an educated guess:
Food and beverage suppliers, local restaurants and bars, taxis & Uber, airlines, hotels & Airbnb, venues & venue management companies, security companies, hire companies, printing companies, marketing companies, creative agencies, specialist consultancies, news & media, the Perth Transport Authority, the city of Perth, and a coalition of specialist service providers. Each of these would harvest a significant profit from Fringe.
The value is provided by artists, but the profit is captured by other operators.
Fringe does measure non-financial (social impact) information too, of course. However, my suspicion is that the well-being of artists ranks well below economic and cultural revitalisation. The Impact Report does not even measure whether or not artists actually made a financial return — though it does measure how many times they visited the Budgie Smuggler. You can tell what an organisation values by what it measures.
The real value of Fringe is the “vibe.” This “vibe” fills restaurants, privately owned car parks, and economy-class airline seats. It is a vibe generated by artists that they do not earn revenue from.
In this analysis, Fringe is essentially a process by which the surplus value created by artists is exploited for the project of urban revitalisation.
This article is not a criticism of Fringe’s staff or management. It is an argument about how capitalism functions today, and about the difficulty involved in creating something that can escape the logic of capitalism.
However, we can design a better Fringe.
An immediate goal is to regard artists’ financial returns and well-being as a key social impact measure. This could be done in this year’s impact report with a simple survey.
The bigger move would be to give Perth-based artists an opportunity to become festival stakeholders. This does not mean an advisory board (though that may be a start), but rather, to structure Fringe as an artists’ cooperative. Artists then have a twin responsibility — the promotion of their own shows, and the promotion of the festival.
We move from being users of the platform to creators.
This could involve artists having to agree to make a voluntary contribution to festival decision making and running by sitting on committees, undertaking projects, and promoting the festival. This sort of structure would immediately resolve the problem of the tone-deaf marketing campaign — it wouldn’t get past a community of participating artists.
I suspect a sustainable and equitable festival is also not an open-door festival. An open-door policy is not a “diverse community,” it is anarchy. The price of this anarchy is winners and losers. To suggest that an experimental improv show at the back of a bar and Club Swizzle inhabit the same community is blatantly ridiculous.
A true community is centred around a set of shared values and excludes those who do not share those values. So, Perth artists must get together and decide what Fringe is for. Not because they are entitled to be involved (they’re not), but because they can be involved. Artists can approach the festival organisers not as stakeholders with rights (they have none), but as potential collaborators to build a better and more sustainable festival.
I suspect out of a creative, collaborative process involving artists we’d see other ideas come up too. For example, there could be a “Fringe Tax,” paid by businesses that benefit significantly from the Fringe season. Artists may elect to see if the urban revitalisation of Perth extends to more attendance at their regular shows outside Fringe.
Regardless, we need to be thinking on this systemic level and working collaboratively rather than tinkering at the margins with registration fees and poster lighting.
The ticket to Burning Man reads: “YOU ARE ENTITLED TO NOTHING.”
And yet, a festival emerges.
Punk Makers is a sequel to this piece. If this article situates live arts within the advent of platform capitalism, Punk Makers looks at what it means to be a live performer within computational culture.