Why the law of the jungle won’t work for the Edinburgh Fringe

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is a 21st century concept born 60 years ago ahead of its time.  Always about openness and community, the Fringe Director holds the ring and does not curate, programme or select product. Her job is to support all comers in participating in the Fringe.  The Fringe Society “aims to continue to be the world’s foremost ‘open access’ arts festival.

And what a success it is. A huge array of diverse performance activity from amateur groups, students and fledgling professionals, from all over the world.  Last year there were 31320 performances of 2088 shows in 247 venues.  The Fringe contributes £75 m to the Edinburgh economy , a fat slice of the aggregated economic impact of the Edinburgh Festival to the Scottish economy of £186m. It employs 15 people. And all of this with a tiny amount of public subsidy, £20,000 from Scottish Arts Council  and £48,000 from City of Edinburgh Council , according to the 2008 accounts.

 What fantastic value for money.

For years there  have been healthy grumblings about controls and costs, the power of the supervenue, the preponderence of comedy. Last year these were quietened by the roars around the havoc created by the failure of the new  box office system but this year, with the added  pressures of the recession, this year the rumblings are becoming thunderous.

Is the Fringe too big?

Is it too expensive?

Why does City of Edinburgh Council charge so much to grant licenses to venues?

The Fringe Society and others are considering these and other issues.  The Fringe intends to review and modernise its constitution. Some of this will be around a modernisation process to comply with contemporary good practice in for good governance around skills and the number of terms for which a trustee can serve. And around avoiding conflict of interest.  The 2008 accounts reports that two of the directors, Antony Alderson and Charlie Wood, are associated with Red61, the company which runs the box office systems, and  that they have declared that interest. Alderson is also director of the Pleasance and Wood director of Underbelly, two of the ‘big four’ super promoters.

But constitutional matters are only part of the equation and structure must follow strategy.  The primary issue is how to create the right conditions for the Fringe to thrive for the Common Good.  The rising costs which make participation prohibitive for many companies are not simply the easily targeted costs of licensing venues.  The largest costs identified by some performers are the cost of advertising and promotion and many believe it to be essential to hire a professional PR firm in order to be able to compete for audiences with the professional venues.  For in the free market of the Edinburgh Fringe, its the big cats who are kings.  Getting an audience is cut throat because you have to make sales very fast in a very short space of time in the most competitive market imaginable.

So some important decisions for the Fringe Society.  It can change its consitution. It can make some interventions to protect the non professional and new. If the Fringe remains committed to open access and the free market,  there is no guarantee that the fledgling, amateur and small beasts, birds and bees will flourish or even survive.  Even if it decides to restrict or ring fence, or to change pricing structures, the big cats will still be the kings of the jungle. So the Fringe Society is not the only stakeholder who needs to look at how to create a healthy cultural ecology. Those stakeholders who  share in the Common Wealth of the Fringe should collaborate  to create the right conditions. And that means putting in some frames and trellises, protective potting sheds and glasshouses and some judicious pruning and weeding.  And cutting costs of licensing venues.

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