AS he first faced the challenges of the pandemic over two years ago, Edinburgh International Festival director Fergus Linehan speculated that it would not be until 2022, the 75th year of the event and his own final programme, that things would be “back to normal”.

That assessment has proved optimistic. Covid is still with us, even if its worst effects have been mitigated by the mass vaccination programme. It remains a factor in problematic travel arrangements on trains, planes and ferries as well as in all other workplaces, and in the arts it has led to an unprecedented call on the services of understudies, covers and deps for performances to go ahead. And although preventative measures against the disease are now voluntary and largely ignored, many people point to audiences big and small as demonstrably “super-spreader” events.

As is now being recognised, the UK’s furlough scheme and other efforts to compensate for the measures taken against the disease were not as world-beating as claimed, and for workers in the culture sector, especially those employed on a freelance basis, there was often little or nothing at all.

Despite all the hardship, creativity thrives, and a packed summer of events is underway, that significant anniversary of both EIF and its rumbustious Fringe being marked with full programmes opening later this week. The only question – and it is a crucial one – is whether the audience is also in the starting blocks.

There are some worrying signs. Fringe ticket sales are reportedly well down on previous years, and a similar dip has been reported at the BBC Proms in London. Alongside the outdoor popular music festival successes we have seen on television, must be considered the last-minute cancellation of other such events. Promoters have had to be brave in the face of slow advance sales with evidence of last-minute “walk-up” ticket-buyers making the difference between profit and loss. Scotland’s small-scale chamber music festivals, a success story of the new millennium, rely less on box-office than patronage, which is a model of arts funding found in the USA that has obvious implications for access to culture and the whole shape of society as Britain was remade after the Second World War. Like education and the NHS, culture is becoming a political football, despite the fact that there is little evidence of any public appetite for change.

The public appetite, however, is also a problem. Audience sizes are varying hugely for no apparent reason; on its recent summer tour of Scotland’s smaller towns and cities the Scottish Chamber Orchestra could be playing to a capacity house one night and a very sparse crowd the next. Touring theatre productions have reported similar unpredictability, with some curtailing their schedules. And while other music fans are prepared to shell out huge sums to watch “heritage acts” as the industry terms them, innovative and new music plays to small audiences for scant reward. It is surely odd that top prices are paid to hear musicians whom even their fans would admit are a half a century past the peak of their powers; map that against the change in “classical” orchestral and chamber music over any 50 years in history, and it is rock’n’roll that looks concerningly conservative.

Linehan has blurred the distinction between Festival and Fringe (high and low art, as some would still see it) in important ways. From the start of his tenure, his programmes have included small-scale theatre alongside spectacular events and a strand of contemporary music alongside the Festival’s bedrock orchestral, opera and chamber music programme. Importantly, that difficult-to-label “contemporary” strand has specialised in more experimental and boundary-pushing artists, of the kind that are not usually showcased in an international arts festival that also includes opera and orchestras. That endorsement is exactly what is needed to counteract creeping box office conservatism. Although she herself makes a living in the classical world, it seems likely that his much younger successor, Nicola Benedetti, will want to continue that work.

At the Fringe, with its “come all ye” ethos of making it possible for anyone to present their work in Edinburgh in August, and a facilitating rather than curatorial remit, you would hope that the fresh and new would always have pride of place, but there is a long history of theatre-makers, although the largest contingent of the programme, shouting to make themselves heard over the comedians.

Of course there is plenty of room for both (even if a room to rest their heads at the end of the night may now be shockingly overpriced), but the recent row about the non-appearance of the Fringe “app” this year should be seen in that context.

Technology can be as dangerous as it is beneficial, and the convenience of being able to buy tickets easily on a mobile phone has to be measured against the effect that ease has on ticket-buying decision-making. Back up to well over 3000 shows, there is a wealth of work on offer at the Fringe, but on the app it is the familiar names and the most famous multi-space venues that will catch the eye first – it is the lazy way of buying tickets. Fringe boss Shona McCarthy has not quite said as much, but her robust attitude in the face of an open letter critical of her administration suggests that she sees that as part of the “access” equation she has pledged to address.

Leafing through the Fringe brochure, or reading a leaflet thrust into your hand on the Royal Mile by a performer committed enough to do their own publicity when they are not actually on stage is much more in the spirit of Edinburgh’s summer feast of culture than scrolling though availability on a phone. A little more work as an audience member can reap undreamed-of rewards, or at the very least an excellent story to tell about your visit to the capital – often for a great deal less expense.

Whether you choose Festival or Fringe, a "back to normal” audience would be the best present for Scotland’s globally-famed cultural bonanza on its 75th birthday – and a good night out is always the best tonic for whatever ails you.