Festival Fringe Production and the Long Tail

Jen Snowball, March, 2016
In the past 15 years, there has been a worldwide proliferation of arts festivals, including so-called “fringe” festivals (Finkel, 2009; Botha et al., 2012; Garrison, 2012). Originally, fringe festivals occurred on the edges of main festival programmes, and encouraged more experimental and avant-garde productions, providing alternative, rather than substitute, experiences to shows on the main programme (Frew and Ali-Knight, 2010). Research has shown that, in addition to the economic or financial impact of arts festival, they can also play an important role in the maintenance and development of cultural and social capital, identity formation, and even social change (Getz, 2010; Snowball and Willis, 2006; Snowball and Webb, 2008).

While fringe festival productions had the potential to generate significant income for producers, their aims were primarily related to artistic innovation. As such, fringe festivals are often open to any production that can afford to put on the show, in contrast to more highly sponsored, invited shows on the main (Frew and Ali-Knight, 2010). It was well known that putting on a fringe show was highly unlikely to provide financial gain for most producers (Malvern, 2014; Ravenhill, 2013). Nevertheless, the size and number of fringe festivals (some now stand-alone events) has continued to increase.

Following the 2014 National Arts Festival (NAF) in South Africa, a well-known playwright and public commentator, Mike van Graan (2014) suggested that, despite overall growth in the NAF, “most” Fringe productions were not able to cover their costs, and that a large proportion them would have very low earnings indeed. Given the importance of the NAF as a platform to showcase and benchmark artistic work, Van Graan (2014) suggested that festival organisers should limit the number of shows allowed to present their work on the fringe, and to have selection and quality control mechanisms in place to achieve this.

High levels of market concentration, where a small percentage of firms in a particular industry are able to capture a large percentage of sales or profits, has been noted in other sectors of the cultural production.  In marketing and statistics, this is what is referred to as a “long tail” distribution. Work by Anderson (2004) pointed out that, for online products, long tails could still represent a significant market segment, and that niche marketing of specialist goods services was a potentially profitable strategy. Long tail distribution has already been shown to exist for many cultural products sold online, especially music and books, where market concentration rates are high (Brynjolfsson et al., 2003). However, a high level of market concentration may be harmful in an industry if it indicates a situation of monopolistic competition, which can be associated with inefficient production and, in the cultural industries, a lack of variety and innovation. For example, Verboord (2011) found that, in the market fictional books in France, Germany and the US from 1970 - 2007, bestseller lists were increasingly dominated by authors who wrote genre fiction and series or who had “star” power, while authors who had established literary status (as measured by encyclopaedia entries and literary awards), appeared less and less frequently. These observations raise some important questions for festival management, and the relative advantages and disadvantages of fringe show selection (curation) versus the “open access” model.

To investigate these questions, producer data on ticket sales and earnings per production for the 2014 Grahamstown National Arts Festival (NAF) Fringe (open access) and Cape Town Fringe (CTF) Festival (curated) were used. Findings show that the “long tail” distribution is immediately obvious at both festivals, although the distribution is somewhat less extreme at the CTF. Both festivals showed that market share (in terms of ticket sales and net box-office earnings) was highly skewed towards a small group of “top tier” producers: at the NAF Fringe, the top 30% of best-selling shows sold 80% of all tickets, the top 30% of shows sold 66% of all tickets. Regression analysis further revealed that top performing shows do share some characteristics, such as being more likely to charge higher ticket prices, be comedy shows, be produced by professional companies, and sell a higher percentage of their tickets through special offers.

In terms of management implications, the results suggest that curation somewhat reduces the extreme nature of the long-tail distribution at fringe festivals. However the practical implementation of curation, especially in a context like South Africa, is likely to be far from simple, especially of a national arts festival, representing such a diverse society in terms of culture, language, race and class, and which is still dealing with the historical legacy of exclusion. So curated Fringe festivals reduce market concentration, but only to a limited extent, and may introduce bias through what Ferguson (2013) referred to as “the convergence of power” – the exclusion of potentially promising artists because they are unknown, without much social capital, and with limited funds for advertising. 

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Festival Fringe Production and the Long Tail