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Ready to reap the fringe benefits

AMONG Scotland's many claims to fame, alongside its golfing heritage, stunning landscapes and national tipple, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is a hugely important national asset.

This year, remarkably, it has grown yet again, with 2871 shows being staged by 24,107 artists in 273 venues. This chaotic frenzy of creativity helps generate an estimated £142m for the Scottish economy each year. It is a resounding Scottish success.

That is not to say it is free of controversy, of course. Every year, questions arise about the size of the Fringe and the costs faced by performers and promoters. Many an artist arriving at Waverley Station full of hope and optimism has slunk back four weeks later, battered and penniless after having to pay inflated accommodation and venue costs, and garnering only lukewarm reviews for their efforts. Producer and director Pippa Bailey has likened the whole venture to an unstable sub prime market that has expanded beyond sustainable levels.

It is certainly on a vast scale and there is no doubting that cut-throat competition is part and parcel of the Fringe experience. Big venues like Gilded Balloon, Assembly, Underbelly and Pleasance dominate in the public consciousness, making it all the harder for small, shoestring acts to get themselves noticed.

Yet these challenges are not putting artists off. Ever more of them try out the Edinburgh experience every year. Risk, as Fringe director Kath Mainland rightly points out, has always been an innate feature of the festival.

There are also signs that a certain degree of stabilisation is taking place. While comedy still dominates, there are slightly fewer comedy shows this year than last, and the growth of the Free Fringe has gone some way to countering fears of earlier years that rising ticket prices were making the Fringe unaffordable for less well-off visitors.

It is good news that the Fringe Society continues to freeze its registration fees and has this year reduced its commission on ticket sales.

Will those simple measures solve the problems independent artists face? No, but the question is, what more can, or should, realistically be done? Should the size of venues be regulated? That could risk penalising acts for becoming too successful. Should the number of performers of a certain type, such as comedians, be limited? That would surely just lead to rejected performers establishing their own festival. A comedy festival alongside the Fringe would surely be the last thing Edinburgh needs in August.

Venue and accommodation costs are a major headache, but the law of supply and demand determines prices and to regulate them would be a draconian step. There have in any case been important innovations on this score in recent years, with the emergence of pop-up hotels.

Edinburgh once held the world's biggest party at Hogmanay, but has lost that accolade as other cities internationally have sought to emulate its success. It has never lost its claim to the world's biggest arts festival. The ethos of the Fringe is freedom from regulation and openness to all, and that ethos has ultimately served it well.

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