When you’re at the Edinburgh Fringe, you often feel like you’re in a living advertisement. Across the city centre, any and every available space is filled with posters; people handing out flyers stand on every corner and performers dotted around giving people a taste of what they could pay £8 for.
Even your digital space is far from safe, with sponsored ads even popping up on social media and websites when cookies notice you’re in the Scottish capital. Very few places offer respite from this inundation, both offline and on.
One space spared this promo-tsunami is dating apps, which are mostly free of ads and outside interests, meaning you’re seeing people and people only. But on one app that is starting to change. Fringe artists are using Grindr to promote their shows to baffling degrees of success.
For the uninitiated, Grindr is an LGBTQ dating app that links people together via hyper-specific geo-location technology. Unlike other dating apps, which simply have you pick a catchment area of where you are, Grindr can show you people standing just metres away, making it easier to find people in incredibly specific spaces. Although Grindr is for dating and “networking”, it tends to have the connotation of being mostly for hook-ups – helping horny people find someone a couple feet away when the moment takes them. But because of that location specificity, artists are creatively using it to find like-minded fringe-goers, who could be the target audience for an LGBTQ show.
Harry Clayton-Wright is one of these artists. A 30 year-old drag artist from Blackpool, Harry has been participating in fringe festivals for the better part of a decade and considers himself an “Edinburgh Fringe stalwart”. His debut solo show in Edinburgh, Sex Education, is his story of coming out to his parents – letting his audience listen to a sex-related conversation between him and his mother and giving them a taste of the gay porn his dad gave him when he came out at 14.
“[The audience] will see what I was exposed to at that age,” he says, laughing, “And how that has affected me in my life, now, as an adult.”
Harry has long-been using Grindr to promote his shows and, like other LGBT+ artists, he finds that it’s unmatched in its ability to get people through the door. “It’s the world’s number one geolocation social networking app for gay, bi, trans, queer people,” he says, “So when you’re arriving into town for a fringe festival, performing in a place that isn’t your home, or where you haven’t got a wide friendship circle or built up a big audience base yet, Grindr is a great way to talk and connect with local people and other artists, producers, directors, and programmers all use it to so you can kind of create a little network on there, and chat to people.”
This year is Anthony’s first Edinburgh Fringe, where he’s debuting his solo act Help I Think I Might Be Fabulous as his drag character, Alfie Ordinary. “It’s sort of like a coming out story set in a school for fabulous boys,” he tells me, “It’s like Harry Potter if Dumbledore was a drag queen.”
Anthony has two Grindr accounts – one for his personal life, and one for Alfie – and finds that both accounts are useful for meeting people who might be genuinely interested in attending a drag cabaret show.
“If you’re in Edinburgh and you’re by your theatre,” he says, “You can be chatting to people who are meters away who can walk up to the box office within five minutes and come and see a show. You’ve got pictures, you can judge someone from what they look like and think oh maybe they might enjoy it.”
What he found, he says, “is that audiences will message you to tell you that they enjoyed your show and so you end up having conversations quite naturally with people like when you’re in a city for a fringe festival – and it like embeds you in a city’s queer scene. Like, really, because that’s why you’re there. And people can find you or talk to you about your work.”
This may sound like a bizarre use of a dating app, but it’s entirely normal in artist communities. Harry says it’s, essentially, an open secret. “I like to slide in a poster just after the first dick pic,” another Fringe performer Reuben Kaye tells me of his Grindr promo, “While they’re already disappointed.”
“Part of everyday life is just logging on,” Harry says. “If you’re part of a fringe festival, or you’re part of touring, you turn on Grindr in that location to meet new people… You also get to meet, specifically in a Fringe Festival, loads of other interesting artists or people or technicians or buyers –anybody that’s part of the industry, and it becomes quite an exciting place to chat.
“You can look for other things on there, and people do that as well,” he adds, “But, for me, it’s like a key mode of communication during a fringe festival.”
Both Harry and Anthony tell me that, through promoting their shows on Grindr, they’ve made dear and lasting friends who came to see their show.
“I’ve actually met a large network of people that I call really good friends now,” Harry says, “I went to San Francisco to perform and made a friend, and the other year he was like ‘Oh, do you want to housesit for me?’ And I ended up looking after his place.”
“I just sort of had my own profile, but I’d put in the description here for fringe,” Anthony tells me “They’d be like ‘What you here for?’ and I’d be like, ‘Oh I’m doing this show.’ And then if they gave a shit they’d look it up, and sometimes they might come. I made a really nice friend actually, who’s come to see it seven times now.”
“Particularly if your show is about LGBT issues, or if it’s some sort of drag or cabaret show,” he says, “It’s something that someone who uses Grindr can grab a couple of friends and go along to.”
Harry feels this isn’t a violation of Grindr’s terms and conditions, which state that you can’t use your profile to promote goods and services. (When asked for comment, Grindr never replied.) “Obviously it’s a little bit of a grey area because, you know, I’m using it still to look for friends and fun,” Harry argues. “I just happened to talk to people why I’m in the city and what my work’s about and can sometimes lead to them coming to your show. So it’s kind of like a non-direct form of advertisement without breaking those terms and conditions.”
Ultimately, though, for these performers, they feel that show promotion through Grindr isn’t so straightforward: it’s a way to find a community of other LGBTQ artists in a new place.
“Fringe festivals are really hard, they can be really hard going,” Harry says. “And obviously, there’s lots of different places to meet people as well. But this is a really great way of embedding yourself within queer culture digitally, and that’s really quite special.”