Council chief says 70-year-old Fringe has 'sold its soul'

One of Edinburgh's most senior councillors has launched an outspoken attack on the Fringe in its 70th anniversary year.

Tuesday, 14th March 2017, 2:22 am
Updated Friday, 24th March 2017, 11:20 am
The Fringe will be celebrating its 70th anniversary this summer.

The event has “sold its soul” by becoming too corporate, according to the city’s deputy economic development leader.

The festival, is also dominated by middle-class male comics and exploited by “old Etonian” promoters who travel up from London every year, Gordon Munro said.

And he suggested the financial model operated by many Fringe venues which sees acts pay to perform was broken.

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Munro, one of the city's longest-serving Labour councillors, called for the introduction of an “open book” policy for Fringe operators who secure permission from the council to run venues to ensure they give something back to the city.

He also praised the Free Fringe model, which sees acts paid via donations made after each show, for helping allowing unknown performers to emerge.

The comments were made by the former member of the Edinburgh International Festival’s ruling body and a previous chair of Leith Festival during a public debate at the Scottish National Gallery and have emerged weeks after the first tickets went on sale for this year’s Fringe.

Last year’s event was the most successful in its history, with more than 2.45 million ticket sales notched up, up 7.7 per cent on the previous 12 months.

However last year saw the launch of a new “whistleblower” website set up by an anonymous collective of artists and producers, who said they were “increasingly dismayed” at the way the event was evolving.

Mr Munro said: “One of the problems we face is the corporate exploitation of culture that happens. Some of the people that come up here make some really good money and a really good life out of Edinburgh in August and the artists they promote.

“There are promoters whose names are well known in this city and are well known to artists, but we never get told how much is made. An open book policy with regard to the way they conduct their business would be quite interesting to get a contribution back.

“If they’re truly philanthropic in intent, let them demonstrate it. But we know from artists themselves that they get charged top dollar.

“The main problem with the Fringe is that it has become dominated by corporate comedy performed by, in the main, middle-class males who are repeating tropes that I thought were long gone.

“The Free Fringe has been really interesting. It goes back to the Fringe as I remember it when I was younger where the artist, rather than paying for a theatre being provided by an old Etonian, gets what they take at the door. It’s based on their own efforts. The Fringe has become too corporate. It has sold its soul a wee bit and needs to recover it. The Free Fringe can help it do that.”

SNP councillor Richard Lewis, the authority’s culture leader, said: “There are commercial providers in the arts in Edinburgh, as there are in any city in the world. But I think we have to be very careful about making sweeping generalisations.”

A spokeswoman for the Fringe Society said: “The Fringe is an open-access festival that accommodates anyone with a story to tell and a venue willing to host them.

"We are here to support the venues, artists and audiences taking part in the world’s largest arts festival.

"We do not control or run venues, which come in different shapes and sizes with many differing financial and business models.

"We offer comprehensive advice and guidance to all venues and participants and work to support the Fringe to continue to thrive as a diverse and truly open access festival."

Peter Buckley Hill, founder of the Free Fringe, said: "I'm glad to see some measure of support for the Free Fringe from official quarters.

"If we could obtain more useable venues, we could have an even larger presence. But we are handicapped by pay-to-play promoters' ability to use artists' money to rent spaces, whereas we can pay no rent.

"Our vision was always that 'free' would become the normative mode for Fringe shows. We're getting there, but it will take many more years yet.The biggest scandal is not the profit, if any, made by promoters but the massive losses made by many or most performers who go the pay-to-play route."

Promoter Bob Slayer, who introduced the "pay what you want" model for Fringe shows several years ago, said: "It is great to see someone in his (Gordon Munro's) position taking this kind of interest.

"As we all know the Fringe is the largest arts festival in the world based on an open access platform. The spirit of the Fringe must be to put creativity first.

"This offers unlimited possibilities where anything could happen and yet we have let the Fringe be hijacked and turned into a model of our wider broken society. It is dominated by the financial interests of a few people.

"More than two million tickets are sold and yet the big venues and producers continue to pedal the myth that no one makes money."