James MacConnachie – 2nd September 2022
Last week saw a very interesting year at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe come to a close. Of course, the enormous overflow of rubbish bins, and litter scattered across streets, was embarrassing. But this year’s Fringe – which felt palpably more ‘professional’ than any other – has raised more fundamental questions about the viability of the festival in the long term.
Gone is ‘Virgin Money Street’ on the Royal Mile. This usually jam-packed stretch of the high street, which I always considered to be the bustling epicentre of the festival, focussed on street acts and buskers, who could book a slot to perform in front of guaranteed crowds and generally earn more money in a day than they could anywhere else in a week. However, this year the area was a shadow of its former self. Whether the generally lower attendance at the festival this year (a 25% ticket sale drop compared to 2019) or the lack of Virgin Money sponsorship was responsible, to me this signalled what could be the beginning of a slow death of amateur and part-time acts, at a festival they created.
However, one area of Edinburgh was busier than ever. Predictably, it was Potterrow – the Edinburgh University campus, and permanent residence of the ‘Big Four’ Fringe venues: Assembly, Pleasance, Underbelly and The Gilded Balloon. After nabbing huge spaces such as the 1,100-seat McEwan Hall and lining Bristo Square with food trucks, these corporations focus on short sell-out runs by semi-professional and professional comedy acts, almost to the exclusion of anything else – attracting vast audiences to see performers who were already household names. This year, the full price for one of these shows was generally around £16. No wonder ticket sales were down – even the International Festival had cheaper seats.
Don’t get me wrong: some venues are still saviours of the amateur scene. theSpace, a collection of converted lecture halls, is the beating heart of student productions and nonprofessional theatre. Tickets are more in the region of £6.50, and it was refreshing to attend the most thought-provoking show I saw this year in what was essentially a hotel room, in front of an audience of about ten people. As I was playing in the pit band for a student musical that week, I also benefitted from a performers’ pass, that let me into any show at the same venue for free (provided it wasn’t sold out). I thought it telling that the equivalent pass for Assembly acts gave them access not to amateur shows, but to a private bar.
So, what is the problem with the Fringe? Unlike Brian Logan, I don’t think the festival is too long. It’s a win-win for everyone: professional acts get a long run of shows, while nonprofessional groups who can only coordinate a week or two’s availability are still guaranteed not to miss it. Besides, amateur acts desperately need long runs in order to make any money, thanks to the huge comedy corporations profiteering and leaving little audience for anyone or anything else.
But besides the dominance of the Big Four, there is another existential threat facing the Fringe: an accommodation crisis. In August, the population of Edinburgh more than doubles in size, and relies on short-term rentals to get through the month. However, this year Scottish law changed to make it harder to rent student accommodation outside of term. And next year more trouble looms, as upcoming restrictions on Airbnb rentals will have further knock-on effects come summer. And while it’s feasible for student productions to rent out a whole floor of student accommodation at a reasonable cost, one-person amateur acts don’t have that option – this year, some have resorted to camping in fields outside of the city.
In response, William Burdett-Coutts, the artistic director of Assembly, has suggested that the Scottish Government create a six-week ‘Edinburgh loophole’ in these restrictions to free up more accommodation for performers – but this would come with major drawbacks. For instance, artists would be in competition with tourists for any new public accommodation that becomes available. And if Airbnb owners are allowed to run riot in the city for six weeks without a licence, then prices will quickly become simply unaffordable for the performers. One solution would see the Fringe renting these properties itself, and then selling the rent to performers at a capped price, ensuring they weren’t in competition with tourists. But the festival organisers seem to have little interest in the concerns of amateur acts – they aren’t the main profit-drivers, of course. And as long as the largely American tourist scene is willing to pay £16 each for every show, then there’s no reason to control the profits of the Big Four venues either.
Perhaps, after two years of next-to-no revenue and a 2022 hampered by a cost of living crisis, the Fringe directors have gone into survival mode. But they must prioritise the concerns of the amateur and part-time acts that they have to thank for the festival’s existence. While it is tempting to focus on the intensely corporate, profit-generating side of the Fringe – and the professional acts it sponsors – the neglection of those who are finding it harder and harder to make any profit in the city will result in the slow death of the festival itself.