This year marks the Edinburgh Festival Fringe’s 70th anniversary, and the scale of the event will be remarkable – last year’s had over 3,000 performances. But with its expansion it has become plagued by the typical problems of a unique cultural event coming into conflict with the commercialised nature of modern spectacle.
Edinburgh councillor Gordon Munro recently claimed the Fringe has ‘sold its soul’ to corporate interests; in 2012 comedian Stewart Lee attacked the encroaching effects of capitalism on the festivals’ values. Both have highlighted a critical issue to the festival – the Fringe was founded on openness, inclusion, and artistic freedom; but now its very essence is threatened by greed and corporate interest.
The spirit of the Fringe was embedded in its very creation: by nature it is subversive, and began in 1947 when artists performed alternative theatre outside the programme of the then-dominant Edinburgh International Festival. Whilst the latter celebrates high arts, the former has a diverse spectrum. The distinct structure of the festival demonstrates this: it has few official bodies, but instead shows are put on independently by venues (without need for an ‘official’ invitation), and performances are unvetted. At its best, the Fringe celebrates creativity and diversity of both performers and performances.
But these values have been threatened as the festival has expanded. Costs have increased on all fronts, and whilst this is to a degree inevitable, commercial interests have begun to taint the very values the festival stands for. Many performers must ‘pay to play’, losing significant sums of money for the slim chance of success, whilst promoters and organising bodies have cut undue profits. In 2008 the ‘Big Four’ venues agglomerated to form the Edinburgh Comedy Festival, a distinct entity that could use its prominence to attract extra sponsorship. A festival founded on grassroots volunteers is being replaced by a professionalised, commercial enterprise.
The effect of finance capital on the festival’s qualities are becoming clear. With big venues attracting the bulk of funds, smaller ones have been left out. Mounting costs have burdened performers, perpetuating the endemic issue of class within the arts. Attendees have suffered rising costs, and shows have recently broken the £30 ticket barrier. The festival is increasingly dominated by establishment performers, and press attention is focused on only a handful of venues. Dependency from sponsorship has affected the content of performances and the venues’ relative autonomy (the cover of the Fringe’s 2016 programme proudly claims it has been ‘defying the norm since 1947’ – the next page is a Virgin Money advert). Even the city itself has felt the impact, with rents perennially skyrocketing – any student can recount the stress of finding a year-long lease.
The Fringe’s greatest difficulties are caused by its nature. The expansion of a ‘fringe’ festival to the largest arts event in the world has of course generated a number of contradictions, and it is in its very openness and lack of oversight that has allowed itself to lose sight of its original aim. Resistance to corporatism has emerged, and what is ensuing is a battle over the very core of the festival.
The Free Fringe programme has introduced ‘pay what you want’ schemes to reward performers. Munro has suggested an ‘open book’ policy to expose the opaque business conducted by promoters, and confront any gratuitous profiteering. Even the Big Four’s exercise in re-branding has withered in the face of rampant criticism.
The Fringe has struggled to retain its authenticity whilst expanding to a bigger audience. The threat to the festival from profiteering and commercialism should not be taken lightly, but by fighting for its core values of accessibility and independence, we can prevent the Fringe falling victim to corporate greed.
Image: Laura Suarez