Searching For Creativity In The Edinburgh Fringe

August is here, and with it the familiar divide of the city.

Flyers leer from every available surface. Performers do whatever they can to catch your eye, desperate for that glimmer of hope when someone stops and listens, even just for a moment. And the ability to move down the Royal Mile dissolves entirely, leaving you working out alternative routes to your Edinburgh destination.

Yep, it’s Festival time.

In August the capital becomes all about the arts. In 2018 there were over 30,000 performers from across 50 different countries, all looking to stand out against a very busy back drop.

And in my experience, it splits the city in two. There are those who can’t stand when the calendar flicks over to the eighth month, in some cases doing their best to escape Edinburgh altogether for August. For those people, the fact that the city’s population reportedly doubles is too much. They hate how busy public transport becomes, and how long it takes to get served anywhere. And it takes away from the city they live in. The Fringe and the other festivals which take place at the same time are not for them.

But then there are those who love it. Who use it as a chance to get out and explore new shows, to meet new people, and to soak up a very different atmosphere to the rest of the year in Edinburgh.

I am firmly in the second category, as I’ve stated many times before. I’ve had some of my favourite days/evenings/weeks ever in the (near) 25 years I’ve lived here at the Edinburgh Fringe. It rarely fails to bring a new tale to the repertoire.

But that’s not what I want to focus on in this piece. My preference is well documented.

On The Fringe Of Too Much?

On the opening weekend, Zoe and I went for a walk to a few Fringe venues, partly to enjoy a sunny day, and partly to see what Jacob would make of it all. The sun was out, there were plenty of people about for us to bump into and chat to, and the energy of the first weekend of the Fringe was in full flush.

However, looking at the range of shows that were on this year, there didn’t seem to be as many which caught my eye as in previous years. I’m pretty limited as to what I can go to at the moment due to family commitments, but I didn’t feel the disappointment I thought I would at missing out.

It got me thinking about the creative aspect of the Fringe. With it being one of the biggest Arts festivals in the world, creativity is of course at the heart of it. But is it being stifled by the Fringe in its current form?

The Edinburgh International Fringe 2019 launched with a performance by the LA Phil at Tynecastle. The last few years has seen organisers excel at doing something a little bit different with each launch, including bespoke light shows projected onto buildings with music written specifically for the event.

The Edinburgh International Fringe 2019 launched with a performance by the LA Phil at Tynecastle. The last few years has seen organisers excel at doing something a little bit different with each launch, including bespoke light shows projected onto buildings with music written specifically for the event.

For those not keen on the Fringe, one of their main complaints is that it has grown too big, too quickly. It no longer holds the values that it once had, that prices are too expensive and that it’s no longer for those who live in the city.

But with that increase in size, does it also mean that creativity suffers? Very few of the posters that I passed offered anything new in terms of design from previous years. A lot of the shows seemed quite similar - a show based entirely on a pun of a movie or book, a poster for a stand-up which told me very little about what kind of comedy it was, an entertainment franchise performed at high speed. They all just seemed a bit… familiar. I’m not saying these kinds of shows don’t work - I’ve seen the latter done very well more than once (Star Wars and Lord of the Rings trilogies done in a mere hour each). But it felt like there was a bit of a template to what was put in front of me.

Now this could be because this is far from my first rodeo, as highlighted earlier in this piece. I may well have built up an apathy, preferring instead to bask in the atmosphere of the Fringe, rather than take part like I used to. But it also had me wondering if the creativity in approach has run out a bit. There are now just so many acts and it is so hard to stand out, that they almost don’t try as hard to be different. Instead they put their faith in being able to impress when in front of people, either in the streets when leafleting, or through word of mouth.

Many of these acts come to Edinburgh knowing that at best, they’ll break even financially. Perhaps they’ll harness some buzz about the show, or maybe even win an award. But very few are coming to actually make money from the Fringe. Does that limit how creative they want to be even before they start? Are they better to rehash what may have worked before, in essence, playing safe?

Look Closer

I suspect the answer is somewhere in between. There are too many shows on offer. I nearly didn’t pick up a Fringe catalogue this year, because I pretty much would have had to take a few days off to make my way through it. It’s nothing short of daunting, and in recent years I’ve had much more fun just picking on the day.

It becomes really hard to stand out against that, and there are some really creative acts which don’t always get the publicity they deserve. But there are definitely hidden gems out there. Last year I saw ‘A War of Two Halves’, based on the story of George McCrae’s Sporting Battalion in World War One, and the role that the Hearts players played in not only fighting, but helping with recruitment. Before you all go reaching for your ‘Yeah, but it has a Hearts connection’ card, the show had football in it, but it wasn’t about sport. It was about humanity and comradeship. Honour and sacrifice. As we wandered around Tynecastle (in itself offering a more creative setting than the usual small windowless room which is on offer), there was an inventiveness to how the tale of normal men doing incredible things was told.

There is creativity out there. You just have to look for it more in the current set up. And it’s also about what kind of creativeness appeals to you. Some of the acts whose posters didn’t appeal to me are almost certainly great and well worth buying a ticket for. My issue is more with the process of being able to find the right kind of shows for me. With my time now limited, and the cost of tickets rising each year, I can’t take the same level of risks that I used to, where I could end up going to see a day’s worth of shows I’d never heard of. My approach now needs to be a bit more focused, and I wish that those behind the Fringe would look at shaking things up a bit in terms of how they list and promote the Festival and its shows. But I guess if it ain’t broke…

Oh, and ‘A War of Two Halves’ is back at Tynecastle. Do yourself a favour and get along to see it. You won’t regret it.

The Rise of the YouTuber (almost certainly pt 1 of many)

One of the main themes in my world over the last week has been YouTube, and the fairly new concept of YouTube Celebrities.

On Saturday various friends, each with kids themselves, came to meet Jacob. And in each case we ended up talking about the role of the media behemoth.

We chatted about which ones were favourites, why the kids liked them, what kind of content they put out, and a whole lot more. And by the end I was no further forward in deciding how I felt about it all.

What Do You Want To Be When You’re Older?

Make no mistake, YouTubers aren’t just mucking around. Well, in some cases they are, but they are getting paid handsomely for it.

Ask many a young person these days what they would like to do as a career, and many of them will tell you they want to be YouTubers. I’ve heard it from my niece, from her friends, from my mate’s friends - there is a desire to appear on the small screen like never before.

People aren’t just making careers out of sharing what they are up to. They are becoming millionaires. Not everyone obviously, but those who are succeeding are positively raking it in. In a lot of cases despite them being the focus of controversial news stories.

Logan Paul started 2018 by getting thrown off YouTube’s Google Preferred Programme after he filmed a suicide in Japan and made light of it. His advertising partners took umbrage and a number pulled their financial support. Yet thanks to partly to merchandising, Paul still went on to earn a reported $14.5 million last year, making him the tenth top earning YouTuber last year.

Coming in at number nine on those charts is PewDiePie, the most followed YouTuber. He’s hit the headlines a number of times in recent years, largely due to anti-semitic comments within his videos. Again the advertisers fell away. Again he rallied. And ended up earning around $15.5 million in 2018.

Unboxing Success

At the weekend the YouTuber that we discussed the most wasn’t Logan Paul, nor was it PewDiePie. It wasn’t Paul’s brother Jake, who was second on the top ten earnings list.

It was a seven year old boy.

Ryan Kaji’s YouTube channel has over 19 million subscribers. It was Ryan who took the top slot in the league table for the most earnings from YouTube in 2018, with he and his family earning a reported $22 million.

His content couldn’t be simpler. He unboxes toys.

Ryans Toys.JPG

Unboxing is not new to YouTube. Viewers love to see new products, from phones to fashion accessories, opened for the first time before their very eyes. It’s a process that not only can they connect to, but which makes them feel as if they are part of an exclusive club. To them, it means they are one of the first to get their hands on the product, even though their hands are nowhere near it, and they are in an audience of thousands, if not millions.

And if it works with devices and shoes, why wouldn’t it work with toys?

Not only did it work, but it was popular to a whole new audience. Which instantly made him a marketers dream.

Kids as young as four or five see him as a celebrity. His videos are what keeps them captivated. And I’m sure the toy companies are delighted to send him their new releases to maintain his popularity.

It Could Be You. Or Could It?

There’s a line I often use in my training, which discusses the democratisation of content. The idea that we no longer need expensive equipment, software or indeed high level expertise to put something online.

Social media and phones have put paid to that, making us all content creators every time we post, snap or stream.

And these days you can make a website within a few minutes, fully mobile and ready to share with the world.

Then there’s the likes of Twitch and Mixer, where gamers, musicians, creatives and more can share what they are up to live with us, wherever we are.

YouTube was at the forefront of the push to make content easy, becoming one of the big boys in a very short time. Videos didn’t need to be highly produced to be a success. In fact, the more real they were, the more connection they made with their audience. It was like ‘You’ve Been Framed’ gone global. And in most cases, better.

While others are at play here, YouTube was the birthplace of a lot of these new celebrities. And it feels like it’s only just beginning.

Hit The Like Button?

But is it a good thing? I’m still as yet undecided.

The promotion of the somewhat idealist concept that we can all be creators is a good one. I do believe there is creativity in all of us, and it’s a case of finding it and tapping in to it.

The flip side though is that the deluge of content quickly became a full-on tsunami, with little or no quality control. The chance for everyone to share actually makes it a lot harder to get eyes on what you’ve created, because standing out becomes nigh on impossible unless you get that little break of luck.

Personally I don’t think it’s done the music business any good for example. Sure, vinyl has made a semblance of a comeback, but we still live in a world where new acts find it harder and harder to break through. And those who do aren’t being compensated for their efforts or talent. As someone who has had a love of music for as long as I remember, I think the model of business that exists currently isn’t anywhere near to what it used to be, with no real value placed on what we consume. Those who get to the top get paid handsomely, but what about everything underneath. What about the artists that don’t have the big guys behind them to spend millions on promotion?

Media is continually changing, these days arguably quicker and in more revolutionary ways than it has ever done. And the rise of the YouTuber is just the start.

It’s Only Natural - Making Time For Creativity

I recently had the pleasure of seeing Neil and Liam Finn play at the Queens Hall here in Edinburgh.

The former is one of my all time favourite songwriters. Crowded House at the Edinburgh Playhouse was the first gig that I ever went to, and I’ve followed his career ever since, both in terms of new releases and retrospectively dipping back into the Split Enz back catalogue.

He always puts on a great live show, but this one felt slightly different. Sure, there were four Finns on stage making up the band (wife Sharon and younger son Elroy joining in the fun), but that wasn’t particularly new to me.

Embracing Creativity

In the last few years Neil Finn has cast off the shackles of having to answer to record companies, and has started to do his own thing. He’s experimented with his music and who he has played with. He has gone where he wants to go, and not where people expect him to.

The results have seen him record an album with Sharon to shake off the blues of their kids leaving home, take to the internet for four live sessions to record a solo album with an array of contributors, tour where and when he wants to, and even join the behemoth that is Fleetwood Mac.

It feels like Neil Finn is doing what Neil Finn wants to do at the moment. He’s submitted himself to wherever creativity takes him.

Neil Finn - Queens Hall, Edinburgh

Neil Finn - Queens Hall, Edinburgh

And you can see it in his live performances. I’ve yet to come away from any concert involving Neil where I haven’t felt that he’s given 100%, but the other week he was as relaxed and as ready to play as i’ve ever seen him. The set list mixed up Split Enz, Crowded House, Pajama Club (the aforementioned collaboration with Sharon), some of Liam’s songs, Neil’s solo stuff and of course, the recent album they produced together. The theramin was brought out for some overly dramatic playing. Hell, all four members of the band were all sporting their own black and white chequed suits.

The Personal Goal

I can’t help but envy. For a lot of reasons, both mentally and demands-wise, I struggle at the moment to be able to follow that fully creative path. To explore ideas as they come up, and see where they go without the pressure of there being an end or an outcome.

It’s something I’m working on, but too often the paid jobs take prominence. Which they should of course, but part of the appeal of being self-employed was the freedom to do more of my own creative projects.

It’s all about value. If that is only imposed on the work that pays the bills, there is a danger that it has an impact on the creativity you do for that work, as well as what you do for yourself.

It requires a different discipline. To have faith in taking that leap. Not holding your breath as you go. In wearing a black suit with thing white cheques across it and starting up Better Be Home Soon because someone in the crowd shouts for it.

It’s a goal for 2019. It feels like the key to moving forward.

And no, I’m not going to finish on a Neil Finn pun. Because that would be predictable, and fly against what I’ve just said.

Now we’re getting somewhere.

… dammit.