Edinburgh Fringe Festival – where is the support for artists?

30th August 2023

Since 1947 the Edinburgh Fringe Festival has become the largest celebration of arts and culture in the world. Did you know that it is ranked behind only the Olympics and football’s World Cup as a ticketed affair?

It has given countless artists and unseen talent a platform to stage original work, trial new acts, take risks, be visible to new audiences each night, and make industry contacts and collaborations that could be pivotal to their careers. 

For audiences, it has given billions of visitors the chance to see thousands of different performances, which might not be programmed in their local area, by both unknown and well-known artists. It’s enabled more people, who might never normally step into a theatre, to experience the arts in some form.

Over its 76 years, the festival has tried to stick to its mantra - ‘to give anyone a stage and everyone a seat’ - but following the scrutiny it has come under in the last few years, does it need to be rewritten?

There has been a lot of discussion recently around revising the festivals model, which currently doesn’t support the artist as best as it could. The festival is becoming non-viable for many - a contradiction of what it should be. 

When performing at the EdFringe, artists must budget for registration fees, venue costs, tech support, travel, accommodation, advertising and publicity, food etc. It has been said that some are spending as much as £4000 per week. This price tag might be ok for the stadium fillers or those who have the funds, but for the smaller acts and those just starting out, this is simply unjustifiable.

With the high turnover of shows at the festival, they then have the added stress of whether their performance is going to sell, and are they going to get any return on investment?

If they don’t have the money to pay for great advertising, then they are constantly competing with those that do and the variety of shows on sale at the box office. Artists must rely on the public’s snap decisions at the ticket office or even word of mouth from their previous night’s performance. It can be tough to predict how a show will perform and every night is different.

It is a gruelling and exhausting task when you don’t have an advertising budget and it’s just you flyering and spreading the word in a big city, knowing you must be rested and ready for your next performance. It’s constant pressure both physically and mentally. I know from recent experience.

Many artists will do all they can to perform at the festival. They see past fringe successes, including Taskmaster presented by Alex Horne, Starstruck by Rose Matafeo, Alma’s Not Normal by Sophie Willan, This is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay and of course Fleabag by Phoebe Waller-Bridge; hoping they too will achieve that.

With the lack of funding and sky-high prices, those without the financial means just can’t afford to attend. Others are using their life savings, borrowing, and doing anything they can to raise the funds, while others are turning to darker means, which should never have to be contemplated. Artists are at breaking point.

If it costs too much for performers to consider it what is the point some might say. People lose money for little or no exposure. Is if a rip off?

The major winners of the festival are landlords and the hospitality and tourism industry. Landlords are raising prices for the three weeks of the festival exponentially, just wanting to line their own pockets. I’ve read that one artist couldn’t find a single room in a flat for less than £3000 for the festival duration. According to the Edinburgh Evening News, one three-bed flat in the Old Town (near the Fringe) was listed at £34K for the month.

It's not just landlords doing this, it’s restaurants and other businesses too. They add a premium to their products and services knowing that thousands of people will pay. These prices aren’t only pricing artists out, but audiences too.

What do the artists get out of the fringe? Not a great deal. Even the festival itself has said “it is likely that your expenses [as an artist] will be greater than your revenue.”

In her recent opinion piece in The Stage, Lyn Gardner speaks of a new ticketing system from Summerhall whereby audience members can spend £2 more on a ticket, knowing that that £2 will go direct to the artist. As Lyn says, "It’s a tiny step, but long-term change is made up of tiny steps." 

The fringe model is completely flawed.

A group of 27 Fringe venue producers have recently formed a new association called ‘The Fringe Alliance’ with the sole purpose of securing the future of the festival. The Alliance said: "Formed to represent those who make the fringe happen, support the fringe community, and safeguard the future of the fringe, Fringe Alliance marks an important step forward in ensuring the sustainability and growth of the festival.”

In my opinion, I think the fringe needs to be scaled back. There are far too many performances on over the three weeks with just too much unhealthy competition and unnecessary spending. It’s currently too big for organisers to keep track efficiently.

The fringe needs to start supporting all artists who want to perform, regardless of if they have the funds to pay for their position there. Hundreds who can’t afford these high prices are being overlooked.

Artists need additional support with advertising costs, which can be pretty hefty if you want to be seen in amongst all the other thousands of shows.

The festival is unique and brings together a wealth of diversity, creativity and opportunity from all around the globe. So, shouldn’t the festival be focussed on supporting performers?

On closing the festival on Monday (28th August), organisers said this year’s event was “one of the most vital and memorable” and they will be ‘relentless’ and do everything they can to ‘live up to’ their mantra’ for 2024. 

Let’s hope they do. The festival is vital to our industry, but things must change!