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Has Edinburgh Fringe Finally Hit The Wall? *Reset required*

Where are we with the Edinburgh Festival Fringe’s slow-motion death spiral.

Even in 2021-22, a recovery year, more than 2.2 million ticket sales were recorded across the fringe: the sixth-highest figure in the event’s 75-year history. 

In 2019, before the pandemic, the eight major producing venues at the fringe sold 1,965,961 tickets, but projected ticket sales fell by 25% in its first full year back to just 1,486,746. The lack of the Fringe app didn’t help. 

There were around 3,582 shows to choose from, playing at 277 different venues. However, most shows I attended were barely at 60% capacity.

Over to William Burdett-Coutts, the artistic director of Assembly, who estimated that venues had missed out on £7m in revenue because ticket sales were down by a quarter, resulting in “significant loss[es]”.

Edinburgh Festival Fringe

This “really has hurt” the companies delivering the shows, with the result that some may not survive without fundraising or government support, he said. In a normal year Burdett-Coutts said he would expect 10% of the companies he booked not to be able to cover their costs, but this year it would be more like 60%. It’s telling, too that Royal Military Tattoo in Edinburgh audiences were down around 20% this year. 

It’s also telling that Assembly, Dance Base, Gilded Balloon, Just the Tonic, Pleasance, Summerhall, Underbelly and ZOO collectively condemned soaring accommodation costs as the biggest risk to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe’s future, it urgently needs to adapt to survive. These 8 venues account for 60% of the tickets sold during the event. 

Meanwhile, premium pricing reached the festival; £107 ‘VIP tickets’ for Ian McKellen’s 75 minute Hamlet. Totally against the spirit of the fringe, and the beginning of a trend to make commercial gains and hoping to go unnoticed. Pure greed.

Its hard to know what to say about arts coverage – The Stage reviewed 178 shows this year, which is less than previous years. Impressive nonetheless.

The Scotsman state that their arts coverage has been pretty consistent for years. Indeed, there are more people with their own platforms writing about theatre than ever before. Unfortunately, due to rocketing accommodation costs many are staying for shorter periods – myself included.

Elsewhere, Edinburgh’s “free speech” venue The Pleasance cancelled the Glaswegian comedian Jerry Sadowitz for being offensive. Sadowitz has long been known for routines that most people would find grossly offensive.

Then, just when I thought it couldn’t get worse, a bin strike left Edinburgh looking like Beirut; Street performers and residents were left litter picking after bin workers began a 12-day waste collection strike.

The bin strike in Edinburgh on its fourth day

 The Guardian went with the headline “The Edinburgh fringe is too long, too expensive, and too gruelling. It must change or die”. The Stage opted for: “The fringe will have to change, or it will wither”. 

Either way, somebody is getting rich, mostly greedy landlords. (Nica Burns unwelcome suggestion that Edinburgh Council waive legislation designed to protect tenants to bring costs down was plain stupid.) 

So, Edinburgh is now firmly the centre of capitalism – should we judge it as big business doing what it does i.e., centralising, synergising, excluding, and closing the shop to the in crowd? Probably.

For at the exact moment culture loving audiences need to be lifted out of an endless cycle of news misery with merriment and laughter, though, the Fringe Society have somehow dampened the mood even further with inaction and the go-to phrase: “It’s out of our hands.”

It isn’t, of course.

It is a very convenient way of transferring responsibility for something that sits with them. 

How long, in fact, can the Fringe Society’s alternative reality avoid contact with actual reality? Indeed, the festival stands at a crossroads, with costs for performers soaring and many younger acts staying away. Everyone blames everyone else – there is no joined up thinking.

Princess Khumalo and Sara Hazemi in A Sudden Violent Burst of Rain at Summerhall, Edinburgh. Photo: David Monteith-Hodge

And what about diversity? The fringe talk a good game. However, if you want to know exactly how far this commitment to diversity really stretches, though, read the damning open letter by Nouveau Riche. They highlight incidents of racism experienced during the 2022 Fringe and call for a fundamental overhaul of the event to reflect the diversity of wider society. 

The theatre company said that it was surprised “little had changed in terms of diversity and safety” for black and global majority artists since it performed at the fringe in 2018, despite the wider industry taking steps towards inclusion and anti-racism.

Organisations such as Fringe of Colour and Best in Class are working hard to address this, but a reset is now urgently required. But what’s impossible to stomach is Fringe Society spokesperson, in all apparent sincerity, telling us: “The fringe is an open-access arts festival’. 

Access is and continues to be a total disgrace. The Fringe Society boasts that ‘60% of fringe shows are in accessible venues to wheelchair users’ – that still leaves over 1,400 spaces that are inaccessible to disabled audiences.  

So that’s the venues. There will be those of you feeling pessimism is the rational response, and it’s hard to disagree. The question is not just whether the world’s largest arts festival is elitist: the question is whether it is sustainable.

Samuel Barnett in Feeling Afraid As If Something Terrible Is Going to Happen at Roundabout @ Summerhall, Edinburgh. Photo: Mihaela Bodlovic

The simple solution would be to get tough with the greedy landlords, introduce a diversity quota to level the chaotic playing field, cap the festival at 2,000 performances and grow a spine. By putting artists first, the creative industries have a chance to reshape itself into a business that makes money and passes it on the creative people who deserve to be paid fairly for their work.

Against this backdrop, the rich – whose wealth swelled during the pandemic – remain unaffected. But young people see no rational incentive to back a system that seems to offer little other than insecurity, debt, and personal crisis- and that fact is surely becoming ever more obvious. The fringe’s model promotes the concentration of wealth among a select few at the expense of everybody else’s.

But for all the barbs I aim at Edinburgh Festival Fringe, I hope it endures, not just as it fills a big hole in a quiet month, the stars of tomorrow are there, everything is up for grabs. The city is so completely beautiful. The people are, too.

Miraculously, the under-fire figurehead of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society Shona McCarthy has secured the “full” backing of its board.

As the cost-of living crisis is set to worsen, a new democratic and inclusive festival is waiting to be born – one that breaks decisively with all the failed systems of the past.

Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World credit: Jeff J Mitchell

Old habits die hard after 75 years, though. The Fringe Society takes itself incredibly seriously and I sense the leadership void will prevent it from performing such a spectacular 180-degree turn.

If it comes to pass, the festival publicity department is welcome to use some of the tweets I’ve received this week in answer to my question How would you describe Edinburgh Fringe 2022 in one word: ‘Full-of-rubbish’ and ‘Enraging’ and ‘Over’.

Time to reset. if not now, when?