Street crowds at the Edinburgh Fringe

Profit Before Performance

Kaitlin Dryburgh – 18th August 2022

After falling victim to Covid, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival is back with a bang and celebrating its 75th year of being one of the world’s top performing arts festivals, where many a career was launched into the public domain. Almost one million people descend on to Edinburgh city, sometimes rendering it unbearably busy and impossible to navigate around, but that’s all part of the fun. However, could the Fringe be the death of itself, as this year more than ever performers have struggled to see the financial benefits of attending. The Fringe has in recent decades always been an expensive venture for artists, and although many attend knowing they won’t be bringing back a small fortune, they do however expect to be able to eat for the rest of the year. Is this once spontaneous spectacle of art losing touch and putting profit ahead of performance?

The Fringe began all those years ago as an alternative gathering for artists to perform without the constraints of the Edinburgh International Festival, one where mostly grassroot performers could mix with the pool of talent and bring a large variety of arts to the ticket-paying public. It seems that this has been lost on the Fringe this year, with the price of accommodation, travel, and general living too high for many performers to attend, and the support for artists absolutely nowhere to be seen. The eye-watering costs have made even the most established Fringe veterans stay at home, and even big names such as Al Murray and Lucy Porter have decided to not do full runs. How can we then expect the up-and-coming comics to face these costs for much longer? 

Rental and hotel prices in Edinburgh have consistently peaked in the summer months, just like many popular destinations around the world, but this year they have sky rocketed. One performer stated that a central four bed flat is costing them £3000 per week, when the same flat in 2019 cost that for a whole month. A Premier Inn has decided to raise their prices from £140 in July to £230 in August, and another performer has been made aware that the accommodation they had booked for 2020 is available, along with a 17.5% price increase. As extensively reported, many performers have ended up camping, some deciding to stay in campsites which are a 45-minute bus journey away, while others such as stand-up comedian Vesh Pernikar have taken to wild camping as campsites still are costing up to £1300 per month. So if the artists can’t afford to stay within the hustle and bustle of the Fringe, you have to ask yourself what clientele can?

Although some may argue that the price to perform at the Fringe has always been extortionate, the prices this year are forcing people out. If Edinburgh wants to guarantee the festival doesn’t turn into an elitist’s playground then we need to safeguard the prospect of people from all backgrounds being able to take part. As Frankie Boyle has said “Most of the people you want to hear from, can’t come here”, instead a new dominant voice will emerge, and it will be upper middle class with money. The greed that surrounds the Fringe has no boundaries, what the Fringe Society or Edinburgh Council are doing to combat this is yet to be seen, rent controls are yet to be put in place and funding seems to be going to all the wrong places. 

Of course accommodation is only one aspect in the long list of costs it takes to put on a show. First off to register at the Fringe can cost between £200-£400, then there is a separate fee to be featured in the programme, venue hire which for a smaller venue can cost around £1800 for the month, flyering can cost £85 per day. In one sad case an artist was even charged for renting a table for their performance, a table that was already in the venue and not being used. Making a loss at the Frings isn’t uncommon, and that was before this year, a large theatre group in recent years made a grand profit of £160 for the duration of the festival. However, a tool that many acts used to level the playing field was the Fringe App, which let users see what was on around them, easily schedule shows and book tickets, but this year there is no app. The Fringe society cite the high costs as the reason, but many acts are asking what their registration fees are going to? For the acts with small marketing budgets this was an essential tool to sell tickets. For the biggest arts festival in the WORLD, I think a functioning app isn’t too much to ask for, now performers have to pray that people will take notice on the less than smooth website or pay the price to be a featured act. 

So who is making all the money? The tourists are coming in their droves, prices are inflated, and artists are paying a pretty penny to be here. The council and the Edinburgh Fringe society make an immense amount of profit, 2019 brought in over £5 million in income for the Edinburgh Fringe Society, the organisation that is unable to support acts or provide a much-needed app. The main venues are also able to control a lot of the money, the “big four” as they are referred to are the four biggest venues in the Fringe, these include the Pleasance, Underbelly, The Gilded Balloon and Assembly, perhaps the henchmen of the festival. These guys have a massive sway on the festival, who they decide to programme (and in light of Jerry Sadowitz, who they decide not to), ticket and venue prices, and they even have their own programmes, sometimes people forget that these guys are not the only venues. Although some may have started in Edinburgh, many of these venues/entertainment companies are no longer based in Edinburgh and in most cases operate from London. These companies make massive amount of profits year-round, and even benefitted from a Scottish Government and Creative Scotland Resilience fund, which provided support to resilience and recovery after covid. The Pleasance Theatre Trust said they were using the money to help performers, but then why did this money not go directly to the artists or the smaller venues, pubs and clubs that were put under immense stress during lockdowns? Why was it decided that a theatre company which produces revenue year-round not just at the festival was worthy of this fund? 

However, can we even call it the Edinburgh Fringe anymore, what about it is inherently related to Edinburgh, is this a festival in Edinburgh or something that is done to Edinburgh? If you picked it up and dumped it in Manchester or Cardiff would anything change or be lost? The hustling hub of the festival only covers a few mile radius and is completely lost on the outer areas. Contained within the hub is what looks like a PR exercise where sponsorship and brands are plastered on any free space. Even the food and drink mirrors a capital crazed event, with many great gins produced in Edinburgh such as Pickerings and Edinburgh gins, why is Gordons the sponsored gin of the festival? 

The Fringe is in a delicate position and unless it loses its consumerism facade, democratises and puts performance before profit, there is a high risk that the free flowing and egalitarian roots of the Fringe festival will be lost. Rent controls in the summer and a crack down on hotels increasing room rates to ridiculous heights will allow a range of people to enjoy and perform at this unique arts festival. Providing equal funding and support to local and smaller venues would help Edinburgh-run businesses and smaller acts. Some people have forgotten that without the performers there is no Fringe festival, just a load of brands and sponsorship deals, so let’s fund and protect the performers!

3 thoughts on “Profit Before Performance”

  1. Excellent article. Maybe we have to admit sadly that the Festival and Fringe have reached the end of the road and it is time for something fresh and vibrant in a different location. A sort of Fringe Fringe in a new place like Glasgow or some even more bold location like the islands.

  2. Maybe we need a Fringe Fringe? In reality poorer performers are being pushed out of the opportunities now primarily afforded to social elites. Excellent work …keep up the good work!

  3. Thanks for an interesting take on this issue.

    Your para (“So who is making all the money? …” onwards) nails a crucial point – how to support the real fringe and not boost the already bloated “henchmen”? Within these super fringe venues, many hard-up acts give their talented all.

    Shouldn’t we expect somebody – probably the Fringe Society – to challenge the over-marketisation with some tough structural reforms that favour small, creative and independent talent?

    Money, power and opportunity should positively discriminate in favour of companies, artists and performers, not the mulit-venue operations…

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