Features Published 26 June 2019

Some questions for the Edinburgh Fringe

Prices for accommodation at the Edinburgh Fringe are up 35% this year. Here, independent producer Jo Mackie asks what it will take to reform the fringe.
Jo Mackie

The 2019 Edinburgh fringe programme


I’ve worked at Edinburgh Fringe in varying capacities since 2009, representing UK artists, international companies, and the Total Theatre Awards. Every year in about February I get a series of e-mails and Facebook messages asking how to find cheap accommodation. The answer has always been: you can’t. Unless you’re happy to sleep in a bath or a cupboard or, in many actual real life scenarios, share a bed with someone you don’t know. A discussion around the livelihoods of independent producers, and by extension, the artists they work with, was raised by Lyn Gardner last week in
an article in The Stage. It is by no means an Edinburgh specific issue. Nevertheless, year on year, the cost of accommodation in Edinburgh goes up, and maintaining anything resembling a decent standard of living there gets harder.

This year, however, I was nearly sick when I started the search for my own company (we are 10 strong) to find prices have increased by nearly 35%. After a few chats with letting agents, I discovered there has been a (very much needed) change in tenancy laws across Scotland, meaning tenants in a lot of properties only have to give 30 days notice to terminate their contract. This is a good thing, and a challenge to the system itself. However, as a result there are significantly fewer properties available for the festival and an even more skewed system of supply and demand than usual, which has led to the choice by many landlords to drastically increase their rent. I was being quoted on average £550 – £750 per person per week, which is roughly 4 times what I pay for my rent in London Zone 2. That private landlords have exponentially increased their profits, simply because they can, makes my blood boil. But they are operating within a system which is already unbelievably exploitative and unfair.

From the inaugural, tiny artist-led Festival of 1947, Edinburgh Fringe has grown into a giant, commercialised, capitalist conglomerate, from which enormous profit is made off the unpaid labour of an entire swathe of artists, often performing in extremely tough conditions at a huge cost to themselves – financially, physically and mentally. 

Does it have to be this way? And if so, should we really be taking our work there anymore? 

I have been thinking and ranting about the economics of Edinburgh Fringe since 2009, along with many, many others. When Stewart Lee wrote a piece about ‘The Slow Death of the Edinburgh Fringe’ in 2012, I naively thought the problem was as simple as the big venues exploiting artists to make a profit – I’m not saying this isn’t in some cases true, but there are greater power structures at play. When Exeunt asked if I’d like to write something about the rising cost of accommodation I spent about three weeks banging my head against a wall – how to say everything that feels like it needs saying in one article? Not possible. So here is a list of things that I think we really need to address in a coordinated way, of which the colossal cost of accommodation is just one. 

  1. I want to know how much money Edinburgh University makes during the Fringe (including from alcohol sales). They own so many of the spaces and they set the rent, which gets passed down to venues, which gets passed down to artists. Where does that money go? 
  2. I want to know why there cannot be a cap on rent imposed by private landlords. What is the role of the City Council here?
  3. I want us to challenge the narrative that growth is good for artists and audiences. It is not. It is unsustainable, it is the antithesis of diversity and inclusion. Recent increases in rent are a direct manifestation of this narrative. It is so ingrained, and we must challenge it. 
  4. I want to know why venues don’t choose to have fewer shows and less artists and consequently provide better, more bespoke ways of accommodating different needs. (As a caveat, Zoo Venues, who we are working with this year, have. And it shows – there is no way we could have done the show we’re taking anywhere else). The Festival claims the reason for constant growth is so it can remain the largest Open Access Festival in the world. But at what point does it stop? When all we have left is a succession of one (white, cis, non-disabled, middle class) man shows with no set and a microphone? Oh, wait… 
  5. On which note, I want to talk about the shocking lack of diversity. Who gets to be there, and who doesn’t. And we cannot even begin to talk about this until we acknowledge the underlying economic conditions on which the Fringe exists, and until we start challenging the growth narrative. 
  6. (As a side note, venues and artists need to work together on tackling these things. I have very often fallen into the trap of pitting myself as an independent against anything bigger than myself. But there are powers that exist above us both, which we need to challenge in a coordinated way, because most venues – not all, and I can think of one in particular – but most, are in the same boat. Venues may just be shouldering less risk.)
  7. I want to talk about the rise of major London and regional theatres backing shows going to Edinburgh, and whether this is what the festival should be for. Smaller, indie companies get swamped in an already saturated market, and cannot remotely compete when it comes to marketing. And if big, funded venues have the money and resources to bring shows to Edinburgh, couldn’t that money be more effectively used to support indie sector artists in other ways? One month of accommodation costs for a company of five, for example, could easily cover what one independent artist earns in an entire year. And the cynic in me wonders how much big institutions bringing work to Edinburgh is simply an exercise in marketing. (too harsh??!!) Cynic or not – I think this trend needs interrogating. 
  8. I want to talk about comps. I will be straight and say I think the onus should be on programmers to ask, rather than for artists to offer.  Full stop. Know that the free ticket from the artist is a dent in their livelihood (rent & living expenses) so please take the lead in changing the power dynamics here. This doesn’t just go for Edinburgh, but it’s a good place to start. 
  9. For artists taking shows, the Fringe is not just August. The work starts at Christmas, and there are many periods throughout the first 8 months of the year when it is a full time job. I am living one right now. The invisible subsidy (unpaid labour) it takes for the average UK artist to go to Edinburgh spans the whole year. 
  10. And this brings me onto my final, and most significant point. More than 80% of companies at the Fringe in 2018 were English*. Arts Council England need to get real and recognise the reliance programmers place on using Edinburgh as a way to fill their venues and festivals, and the pressure artists consequently feel to go there. It is nigh on impossible to get the exposure work needs to secure a future life at any other time of the year, on your own terms, according to your own timelines, and within your own financial means. Edinburgh has come to be seen by a significant number of artists and companies (not all) as a necessity rather than a choice, and the effects of that are hugely immense and sometimes immeasurable. Put simply – if ACE won’t fund Edinburgh, they need to play an active role in challenging the culture of reliance on it within the UK arts ecology. It’s either that or they need to open up their funding streams so that artists can take work there under drastically different economic conditions than the ones that currently exist. 

I’ll finish with this. In October last year I, and a number of other indie artists and producers, along with some venues, took part in a meeting hosted by Arts Council England and Edinburgh Fringe Society about “The challenges and opportunities of showcasing work in the UK”. Despite the best intentions of the facilitators, the day quickly became about one thing only: Edinburgh Fringe.

As the conversation continued, we began talking about the experience of being a professional artist or company taking work to the Fringe, and for about the next 45 minutes I sat and listened as three artists, who I deem to be amongst the most brilliant, talented and game-changing in the UK, broke into tears whilst talking about the impact performing a show there can have. On their physical health, mental health, and on their very livelihoods. Heartbreakingly, one artist said that even though they dread performing at the Edinburgh fringe more than anything else in their career, they know that they will have to do it again at some point.

This cannot be okay. It cannot be okay to say that in order to sustain your career, you have to risk your physical and your mental health. And it cannot be okay that a whole swathe of artists and companies provide a bottom layer of unpaid labour to ensure that Edinburgh University, the City of Edinburgh, and private Landlords can make insane amounts of money (if you’re in any doubt that the fringe generates an astronomical amount of money, read this) – whether this income is being used for ‘good’ is not the point. It can no longer be brushed under the carpet that the UK’s arts ecology relies disproportionately on the Fringe as a way to fill its venues and festivals, whilst knowingly ignoring the inequalities it’s built on.

I’m not saying there aren’t many individuals, venues and organisations who want to make it fair, sustainable and accessible. But until we acknowledge the truth of the bigger systems at play at the festival, and the inequity of our arts ecology at large, we have absolutely no power to bring about change. 

I would like the Fringe to start getting smaller, so it can accommodate a better culture of compassion, sustainability, and real freedom of expression. I would like us to have an honest conversation about the lack of diversity and the economic system underlying this. I would like us to get serious about the negative environmental impact the festival has on the city, as a result of the growth narrative. And I would like to see Arts Council England take a lead on how we move away from a culture of reliance on the Fringe and find new, supportive ways of working together to ensure work can be showcased more equitably throughout the year. We have to change the conditions within the festival, but we also have to challenge the systems within which those conditions have been able to flourish.

Anyone up for a boycott? Some kind of artistic intervention? I’m fairly sure we have the skills… 

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Jo Mackie is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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