Edinburgh’s Fringe must tackle underlying problems to guarantee its future, writes ANDY MOSELEY
After almost four weeks, the comeback Fringe is at an end. Sifting through the evidence, opinions and anecdotes to get to the truth of whether or not it was a success is an even more daunting task than removing the rubbish that made the city look and smell like a prototype plague pit.
The Fringe Society noted that “residents of our historic city accounted for 39% of all tickets issued, 4% up on 2019” and “overseas audience attendances also increased, accounting for 10% of all tickets issued, up 2% on 2019”. This may sound positive, but it is also misleading.
While the Fringe press release proudly noted that this year’s Fringe was the sixth highest audience in its 75-year history and saw an estimated 2,201,175 tickets sold, it failed to note that this is almost 27% fewer than the 3,012,490 tickets sold ahead of the final day in 2019.
Overseas audience attendances didn’t increase. They just accounted for a larger percentage of a considerably smaller total. As did local residents, as fewer people came to the city, a fact that was abundantly clear to anyone walking down the Royal Mile or heading to the Grassmarket in the past few weeks.
This is not to say that the Fringe Society is trying to bury its head in the sand. It acknowledges that “some clear challenges have emerged, and we need a collective approach to address these, or the future of this long-running beacon for cultural connection and development will be in jeopardy.”
And yet, at the same time, there has been an air of denial that has permeated much of the Fringe, a sense that if you say everything is great often enough then it will eventually come true. The number of shows offering free tickets and the number of mass 2-4-1 and postcode discount promotions the major venues have run throughout the fringe is testament to the fact that it didn’t.
There are many factors that came into play that led to lower numbers this year. Some can be laid at the door of the Fringe Society, most notably the absence of an App and the disappearance of the Half Price Hut, both of which were crucial in previous years in getting different audience segments into shows that they wouldn’t otherwise have known about.
Artists complained about a lack of communication with audiences (pic: Terry Murden)
Others can be linked to the cost of living crisis and the pandemic, with people having less money to spend and often still wary about heading to a crowded city to sit in small venues that may or may not have had great air conditioning.
But this is still only covering some of the causes and neglecting what may be the largest factor at play, which is that the full fringe experience is not only becoming unaffordable for performers, it is also becoming unaffordable for audiences.
The increase in accommodation costs is well known, but less attention is paid to other ever-increasing costs.
There is an increasing gap between the price you pay to see an unknown artist and the price you pay to see someone who’s been on TV, even if their appearances have been limited to Mock the Week or a Netflix comedy special. The more money audiences have to pay to see ‘names’ the less money they have to take a chance on something new, and the fewer shows they can see overall.
When you then add in the cost of Burgers, Pizzas and other food that will frequently set you back more than £10 a time, alongside the £5+ you pay for a pint, the amount of money left to do the thing you actually came to the fringe for shrinks even further. And if you can’t afford to see more than a couple of shows a day, why come to the Fringe at all?
These things can be forgotten about or ignored as the blame for falling audience numbers is passed to convenient scapegoats, or they can be acknowledged and addressed rather than just responded to with a shrug of the shoulders or trotting out meaningless platitudes without ever taking any action to tackle them.
This year’s Fringe has ended. The fight to protect its future needs to starts now.
Andy Moseley writes about the arts for Daily Business. He is also a playwright and director. His production ‘Make-Up’ was performed at this year’s Fringe