Ticket sales down, accomodation prices up: has the Edinburgh Fringe reached crisis point?

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Get the latest entertainment news and reviews by signing up for our free IndyArts newsletter. The Edinburgh Fringe is back this week, attracting hundreds of aspiring stand-up comedians hoping for five-star reviews and sold-out shows. Larry Dean, a comedian from Glasgow, is one of them. Last year, his confessional show Fudnut earned him his third Best Show nomination at the Fringe, and this year, his work-in-progress show has already sold out. However, even with success, Dean admits that breaking even is the best he can hope for.

Leo Reich, another rising comedic talent, expressed the same sentiment last year. Despite receiving an Edinburgh Comedy Award nomination and positive reviews, he barely made enough to cover his expenses. This seems to be the reality for most performers at the Fringe. For over 75 years, the Scottish capital has welcomed comedians, actors, dancers, and circus performers, giving them a chance to showcase their talents. While the largest venues carefully curate their line-ups, the Fringe prides itself on being open to all. However, rising costs, gentrification, and the aftermath of the pandemic have raised questions about whether the Fringe is still an egalitarian platform.

The 2022 Fringe marked a joyous return after the challenges of lockdown. However, the post-Covid landscape has brought tangible changes. Ticket sales were down almost 27% from 2019, leading to a significant impact on the Fringe and the city of Edinburgh as a whole. The Fringe is a complex ecosystem, where workers, residents, and performers should coexist harmoniously. But as the festival returns, a perfect storm is brewing. The cost of living crisis, housing market meltdown, and remnants of lockdown are intersecting, creating a challenging financial situation for all involved.

As the Fringe begins this year, performers feel a sense of trepidation and nervousness. On the surface, the festival still presents itself as a haven of creative opportunities. It has always been an expensive endeavor, seen as an investment in an artist’s future. In 2013, Francesca Moody and her friends, including aspiring actress Phoebe Waller-Bridge, took a chance on the one-woman comedy play Fleabag. They funded the show with a shoestring budget of £10,000, not knowing the success it would achieve. Moody continues to produce shows in the West End but returns to the Fringe each year because of its potential to generate buzz and propel a show forward. However, financial success is unlikely for most.

Mark Fisher, a Scottish theatre critic, and author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide, agrees that spending a lot in August can be justified for professional performers if it leads to opportunities and enhanced reputation. However, he acknowledges the risk of failure. The Fringe is a tricky landscape. Shows can have successful runs but still lose money, creating a painful situation for artists. While they understand the need for financial investment in their careers, the more severe the financial situation becomes, the riskier it is to take chances. Artists want to rely on their passion for their craft, but that alone won’t sustain them. The implicit expectation of losing money at the Fringe means only those in comfortable financial situations are willing to take the risk.

This year, big-name comics like John Robins, Rose Matafeo, and Rhod Gilbert are also testing new material at the Fringe. With more financial stakes involved, performing an hour-long show for an entire month seems riskier. Many comedians are choosing shorter runs or splitting their time between the Fringe and other comedy festivals. The uncertainty surrounding the Fringe has left the comedy industry unsure about its future.

Furthermore, the Edinburgh Comedy Awards faced a major setback in 2023 when their title sponsor, TV channel Dave, stepped aside. This led to a scramble for new funding opportunities. The tight budgets caused by the pandemic have made it difficult to secure sponsors. The award has always been a vital part of the Fringe, giving every comedian a fair chance, regardless of their venue. The potential loss of this prestigious award sparked an outpouring of support from the industry and the arrival of new sponsors. In a strange twist, the threat to the award’s existence may have given it more publicity.

In conclusion, the Fringe continues to be a platform for creative opportunities, but the financial challenges and risks involved have made it harder for artists to make the most of it. Breaking even is seen as a success, and financial gains are unlikely. The uncertainty surrounding the festival has resulted in fewer ticket sales and performers seeking alternative opportunities. The Fringe’s future is uncertain, but the passion and determination of artists and industry professionals make it difficult to imagine a summer without it.

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