A mix of complacency, lack of vision, the effects of the pandemic and the ongoing cost-of-living crisis means the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is under “existential threat” and is "creaking at the seams", according to Shona McCarthy, head of the organisation which underpins it.

Adding to Ms McCarthy’s concern is the tension between the desire to make the festival a successful and “inclusive” event “that everybody can take part in”, and the reality of covering costs which rise year on year.

Speaking on a podcast, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society chief executive said: “It’s not an exaggeration to say that it [the Fringe] is under existential threat. And my big fear for Scotland is that because we’ve evolved over 75 years it’s easy to assume ‘Oh, they’ll be back next year’. There’s definitely a level of complacency about it.

“My biggest concern is who’s looking at the long view? And what does our city, what does our nation look like when we’re out the other side of the current crisis? And what is going to be the collateral damage?”

She added: “We’re really good at storytelling and art and creativity and I do have a deep concern at the moment that we’re in danger of being complacent about it, and nobody’s got their eye to that particular ball.”

Ms McCarthy (pictured below) also suggested that if the Fringe were to be treated as an event which could be put out to tender, such as the Commonwealth Games, the FIFA World Cup or the Eurovision Song Contest, it would be funded accordingly.

“We’re second only to the Olympic Games in terms of ticketed events so we’re putting on something of an Olympic scale. If you were to put that out to tender now, every city in the world would want to host it but it would come with a £100 million investment package. And yet we’re just every year going ‘Right, how in our medieval little building on the Royal Mile, with our 20 or 30 people, do we pull off this thing?’ I think we’ve got a real challenge on our hands.”

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Despite Edinburgh being an “unbelievably compelling place for anybody who’s interested in the performing arts”, she said there is a widespread misconception that the Fringe is a curated arts festival paid for by public funds. 

Likening it to YouTube she said: “It’s an open access platform where anyone who wants to be part of it can come and be part of it, but everybody does so at their own cost.

“We provide all of the navigational tools for audiences from the printed programme, the website, the app, and do all the central box office. Then we promote the Fringe in its entirety locally nationally and internationally. That’s all paid for. It’s had its own self-financing eco-system for years.”

But even before the pandemic that eco-system was “creaking at the seams. Then Covid hits and our entire income is gone in one fell swoop.”

Ms McCarthy was speaking on the Leading Conversations podcast hosted by Barry Fearn of Edinburgh-based marketing company Land Media.

But while veteran promoter and founder of Assembly Festival William Burdett-Coutts agrees about the threat, he thinks the Fringe Society itself is part of the problem.

“There’s definitely an existential threat to Fringe coming out of Covid,” he said. “The effect of that, the cost of accommodation and inflation are three things conspiring together which have basically created an almost impossible scenario for the festival looking forward. Sustainability over the next couple of years is going to be really hard unless there is some real thought put into how we make this work better.”

He identifies failures on the part of the Fringe Society and calls for a more joined-up approach to managing the Fringe in the future.

“I think they’ve acted of their own behest without really working with those of us who create the event. I think there really needs to be change where we all work together in a more coherent way. If there isn’t, this festival won’t survive.”

Despite seeing infrastructure costs at Edinburgh's Summerhall venue rise by 40%, executive director Sam Gough thinks the Fringe will continues as long as performers and promoters are willing to gamble.

“The Fringe will always happen in Edinburgh. I don’t see the Fringe moving or dying. It will change, as it has done over the years. I genuinely believe it will always happen,” he said.

“The shows would come to Edinburgh whatever, if the venues, the artists and the producers are still willing to do it. They’re the ones taking the risk. Whether or not there’s a centralised box office, whether or not there’s a centralised programme is another question.”

But he was dismissive of the idea of the Fringe as an entity which could be put out to tender.

“You couldn’t put something out for tender that you don’t own or run or are responsible for or curate any elements of.”

Nor does he believe that if the Fringe Society itself wasn’t there, the Fringe would not happen.

“I think the Fringe Society has a massive benefit to the Fringe in terms of centralising box office, helping those participate both as audiences members and as companies. But the Fringe would still happen without the Fringe Society.

“The Fringe Society ticks a very important box for the city and for the Fringe. But the Fringe Society isn’t the Fringe. It’s those who take the risks, they’re the ones we should be helping financially, to make the Fringe better for them.

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In an effort to mitigate against rising costs for artists, Summerhall is this year initiating a new scheme to offer direct help to participants.

Its Support The Artist Ticket will see a £2 levy added to the price of a normal ticket, with all of that money going to the performers. The scheme is voluntary and can be applied to as many tickets as audiences members wish, and it’s estimated it could put as much as £1500 extra into the pockets of performers.

But the combination of higher ticket prices and steeper fees for participants in the post-Covid era is causing some performers to reconsider whether it’s worth coming to Edinburgh in August at all.

Comedian Richard Herring is one high-profile refusenik. He announced in January that he wouldn’t be performing, citing the high cost of accommodation in the capital as a main reason.

“I don’t like how it’s become a festival that only people with a fair amount of wealth can attend, both as participants and audience,” he wrote in a blog post. “It should be for everyone, as it felt like it was back in 1987 when I first went there.”

Another problem is affordable accommodation. According to Scottish Government figures in May 2019 there 31,884 active Airbnb listings for Scotland, three times the number there had been in 2016. Of these over half were either in Edinburgh or the Highlands.

Katy Koren, co-artistic director of Gilded Balloon, has previously called for Olympic Village-style accommodation, to help with the near-prohibitive cost of flat lets in Edinburgh during August.

“Universities should be doing more to provide free rooms to artists,” she said following last year’s Fringe. “They gain a lot of recognition and cash from venues like us renting their rooms … Artists would get affordable or free accommodation.”

In an acknowledgment of the £300 million that Edinburgh’s summer festivals contribute to the UK economy, UK Chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced an £8.6 million funding boost in his Spring Budget.

Edinburgh’s portfolio of festivals also includes the Edinburgh International Festival and the Edinburgh International Book Festival. But the bulk of the Treasury money will go to the Fringe and may be used to build a new headquarters for the Fringe Society, a move which is proving controversial in its own right with some promoters expressing doubts over the plan.