Growing the Edinburgh Festival, a Tragedy (and a Comedy)

Why, you may ask, do I as an artist and cultural researcher feel such disdain and disappointment in the news that the UK government will be giving the Edinburgh Festivals an £8.6 million boost this year? It seems illogical to be frustrated at a financial boost to culture at a time when cultural funding is at a standstill. So, what’s my problem then?

Let’s first examine what information is currently available to us: the UK Government announced, via the BBC and the Scotsman that the Edinburgh Festivals will be receiving additional funding. There was no information other than the expectation that this money would go towards the creation of a new home for the Fringe Society within the articles:

“The new funding boost is expected to help the Fringe Society open a new year-round base for its staff, as well as artists, performers, companies and arts industry workers” (The Scotsman).

In light of the many arts organisations across the city closing their doors, reducing their staff as well as scaling back their activities due to a number of factors such as the increasing cost-of-living impacting buildings massively and stand still funding from the Scottish Government, it seems absurd to me that there would even be the consideration of the Fringe Society being given money to open a physical space. In an article just released by The Scotsman, it confirms that the funding will only be given to The Fringe Society and Edinburgh International Festival.

Considering that even those organisations with regular funding from Creative Scotland are struggling to keep their doors open, a space which does not have robust and continuous funding in place will not only struggle more than most long term but will also be competing with those established organisations and venues within the city already. The money is desperately needed in the city, and across all of Scotland, to support arts organisations that provide year-round opportunities already and are facing intense pressures. Disappointingly, the incredible Edinburgh International Book Festival, which has given both emerging and established authors vital spaces to share their work for decades and have faced significant reductions in staff due to increasing financial pressure, will not receive any of this funding. 

Secondly, by their own omission, an estimate 23% of Fringe workers earned below a living wage in 2022, and whilst the society have failed to share the data from their “listening” exercise with the sector, meaning vital learning hasn’t been able to happen, it is clear there is a lot of work to be done before workers at the festivals are given basic standards of pay. In real terms, this 23% represents anywhere between 1500-2000 people being paid less than an amount to survive during the festivals. And yet, within the articles announcing the funding from the UK Government UK Chancellor Jeremy Hunt praised the festivals for their job creations. The issues with the Fringe Society aside, the lack of criticality in handing over money to a system which is failing workers is ethically squiffy at best. Meanwhile, the first announcement of Fringe Festival performances was made last week, with 190 shows being revealed. Like so many festivals before it, the 2023 line up is already heavily dominated by white men, with an estimate of just 8 shows with more than 50% representation of people from the global majority. A further estimate of just 48 shows have more than 50% women on stage.

The continuous calls to create meaningful paths for better representation within the festivals are clearly still vital and pouring money into creating a year-round base will not fix these issues. In fact, it could be suggested that using the funds for these purposes are unethical whilst the Fringe Festival is still not meeting the basic standards expected of other cultural organisations within Scotland. Whilst the recent Pilot scheme to support artists to get their work to the festivals offers just 50 participants £2000, the Fringe Society could roll out the scheme in more meaningful sums of money and to target those who are currently underrepresented within the festival. Instead, it is choosing to create “a permanent new base” (The Scotsman). 

For nearly three years there have been public discussions on the potential need for the festivals to reduce in size in order to protect themselves as well as the City of Edinburgh itself. The strain felt by the housing market having to have the flexibility to accommodate literally millions of people for one month alone in a city of just a few hundred thousand is massive. The impacts of the festivals are felt year-round in Edinburgh, and unfortunately whilst they offer an incredibly vital and vibrant cultural space, they do negatively impact the housing market in Edinburgh. For Edinburgh residents experiencing homelessness (an estimated 3000 families with several thousand more individuals), the need for affordable as well as council housing is vital, and the festivals are compounding the issue. The impetus within both articles exploring the new UK Government funding available suggest that the funds will be put towards growth, rather than change. And what we need is change. And these changes don’t necessarily need to come with a hefty price tag, just meaningful engagement with communities and the sector. 

In the meantime, however, Scottish cultural organisations are scrambling to keep the lights on. These organisations provide vital cultural jobs year-round, and whilst there is a need to develop better payment practices within the sector, regularly funded organisations already have to guarantee their staff are paid a real living wage. Many of these organisations are working in meaningful and vital ways with communities surrounding Edinburgh to develop better relationships and partnership working with many different and vibrant communities who are so often neglected by the festivals. As was highlighted last year in the Working Better Together report, many community organisations felt frustration with the current outreach system by the Fringe Society of providing free tickets to shows, instead of meaningful engagement. Building purposeful bridges between the society and Edinburgh communities would be a huge investment into the festival’s futures, as well as the residents of the city.

Lastly, I think it’s important to note that the fringe festival itself is not what it was set up to be. When the Edinburgh International Festival was started, the fringe sprung up as a protest, a tonic to the elite culture being pushed into the city. It was small, it was nimble. I doubt very much that the organisers of the original Fringe Festival would recognise its current system. The least I am personally hoping for now, is that the Society invest that money into a space outside of the city centre, in the fringes, accessible to the many people of the city who are unable to engage with the festivals year-round and with a focus on developing ties within those communities. Imagine the possibilities of recreating a space that is linked to the original radical beating heart of the fringe festival, a space for those underrepresented and under supported to have their voices and experiences heard in their communities.

Comments (18)

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  1. John Learmonth says:

    Why are ‘cultural’ jobs vital? and why should the vast majority of people with no interest in ‘culture’ subsidise the overwhelmingly middle class enjoyment of ‘culture’.
    In fact can you define what you mean by ‘culture’

    1. Frank Mahann says:

      Ah, the McKennaesque argument that us working class chappies should hang around bookies and boozers and stay away from the arty-farty stuff.

    2. Time, the Deer says:

      Presumably you don’t watch films or television, you don’t listen to music, and you don’t read anything more challenging than the back of your cereal packet. Who wants to be one of those pretentious wankers who’s interested in ‘culture’, eh? Us plebs should just stick to taking drugs and fighting!

      1. John Learmonth says:

        I do all of these things, but TV/Cinema/books don’t require public (taxpayer) subsidy (apart from the TV licence fee which should be abolished)
        If ‘culture’ is popular people buy it but why should they subsidise it?

        1. Time, the Deer says:

          Ah right. So the culture *you* personally consume is okay. Got it John.

          1. John Learmonth says:

            No, the ‘culture’ I consume doesn’t require subsidy from the taxpayer.

        2. Frank Mahann says:

          You aren’t Nadine Dorries in disguise, perchance?

    3. BSA says:

      Juvenile contrarianism. Lightweight schoolboy provocation. So tiresome.

      1. Wul says:

        Yup. Every single post moves the goal-posts from each previous assertion. Classic troll behaviour.

    4. Cathie Lloyd says:

      To quote Raymond Williams (a Welshman who wrote about culture)’ Culture is normal. Its what we all do every day, whether its the telly, how we discuss things online, sing in choirs, going to exhibitions or comedy shows. Its about being social. However, what the UK government have done is to ignore our local cultural needs which develop organically, and impose something on us. I’ve always been disturbed by the timing of the festival which coincides with the English school holidays rather than ours. So our young people are going back to school when the festival gets going.

      1. John Learmonth says:

        It’s known as the International festival for a reason. Its got nothing to do with Scotland.

        1. Frank Mahann says:

          Perhaps you’d rename Scotland Philistine North?

  2. Antoine Bisset says:

    The financial structures in place for putting on a performance are such as to guarantee that most Fringe performers will be out of pocket. The cost of hiring a venue is just the start. Add in the production costs, props, costumes and music. In addition there are expenses involved in marketing and advertising the show, whether by leaflets, social media or radio adverts. The real kicker is that the venues are hired out by agencies on behalf of the owners. The agencies demand an additional payment in respect of tickets sold. Up to one third of the income from audiences never gets into the hands of the performers. Performers, and performance groups are being rooked by the system.

  3. fluffykintail says:

    The stressful & overcrowded human-sh*t-magnet, that is the Edinburgh Colonial August Festivals is a liability to Edinburgh. It does not represent Edinburgh or its people. It is an unaccountable clique of interlopers who have profited from the ruin of Edinburgh. And now those said festivals are now a Tory enclave funded by Tory blood money. Unless there is radical change to the August festivals, it will become a hate figure to be despised & hated by angry locals.

    the following needs to happen;

    1:- The Fringe is reduced to a 2 week format.

    2:- The amount of venues for the Fringe is reduced by 50% to give the city breathing space.

    3:- Both the EIF & Fringe are decanted back a month to the month of July so it is alignment with the Scottish school holidays.

    4:- Any Fringe promoter who doesnt pay a proper wage to its staff is banned from the Fringe in any capacity. And that is a lifetime ban.

    5:- Both Underbelly & Unique Events are banned from any lobbying of Edinburgh council officials. Any council official found colluding with either promoter is sacked & they lose their pension entitlement for life.

    6:- To secure any funding from the Scottish government, the Fringe Society & the EIF have to be made accountable to the public. They need to be accountable for their actions & justify the funding they get. Their days of hiding in their cushy Old Town offices if OVER. Justify your existence to Edinburghers or leave our city. All of you are a unaccountable snobby clique who need to answer for the misery & suffering you have caused to Edinburgh over the last 20 years.

    Boycott the Edinburgh Colonial August Festivals 2023.

    1. These suggestions are sound, thanks

    2. Frank Mahann says:

      All the Toonies being incovenienced by thae bloody foreigners. Puir wee sowels.

  4. Niemand says:

    Things like the Fringe have their own momentum like an oil tanker. What is needed perhaps is to simply stop it for a bit and reset/rethink. There are many cultural things that happen every year but like a juggernaut, apparently can’t be stopped. We become trapped by their inevitable regular appearance, but they happen out of habit and vested interest rather than continuing worth / value. It takes more bravery and effort to stop something than start it, it seems.

    It is a real shame though the one of the newer chief lines of attack on the Fringe is that it is some kind of English colonial occupation. Warped, bigoted extremism never achieves anything of value.

    1. Frank Mahann says:

      Nail on head. I remember a TV prog a few years back featuring some guy, – a schemie like myself- opposed the Edinburgh Festival primarily because it was inconvenient to Edinburgh citizens. He and his amigos on the programmes gave a good impersonation of being dimwits, who give us working class a bad name. “Who needs a monthly wealth of the arts when I can go to the bookies” was the prevaling mentality . The programme gave the impression that us schemies are poorly educated and parochial, which certainly isn’t the case.

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