Open letter sparks rebellion over running of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe

A rebellion over the running of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe has been triggered just days before the event’s official launch is due to be held.

Hundreds of artists, performers, venues and promoters say it is becoming “increasingly difficult” to justify the expense of taking part in the event, which will mark its 75th anniversary next month.

More than 1,500 of them have called for “immediate, meaningful action” to address a host of concerns about the handling by the Fringe Society of the run-up to the festival.

Comics Janey Godley, Greg McHugh, Daniel Sloss, Susie McCabe, Al Murray, Rob Deering and Mark Watson are among the performers backing the open letter.

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    However, the Fringe Society has hit back at the criticism, stressing the pandemic had “nearly finished us off” and claiming it was a “miracle” the Fringe was happening at all next month.

    The new campaign was instigated after it emerged the Fringe Society had dropped its official smartphone app, which has been seen as vital in generating on-the-day ticket sales.

    Concerns have been raised about acts and performers being charged £400 to register for an entry in the official programme and box office, when the society knew the app would be absent this year.

    The open letter is backed by some of the biggest venue operators at the festival, including Assembly, Gilded Balloon, Just the Tonic, the PBH Free Fringe and Underbelly. Promoters and agencies offering support include Live Nation, AEG Presents, Curtis Brown, Off the Kerb and Avalon.

    Shona McCarthy is chief executive of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

    The open letter highlights a lack of transparency and communication with the Fringe’s key stakeholders, as well as a failure to tackle key issues such as the prospect of a significantly reduced rail service in and out of the city next month and the soaring costs of accommodation.

    The open letter, to chief executive Shona McCarthy, has questioned what has happened to funding the Fringe Society was awarded during the pandemic, the quality of the official website and what has been done to attract media to this year’s event.

    The open letter states: “We are acts, agents, producers, PRs and other active participants of the Fringe.

    "We are extremely dismayed that the Fringe have failed to provide an app this year and alarmed at the complete lack of communication to the stakeholders.

    Comedian Daniel Sloss is among the comedians who have backed an open letter raising concerns about the running of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society.

    "After two years of lockdown, we feel little has been done to actively improve the Fringe experience for participants and now it’s becoming increasingly difficult to justify the expense of taking part.

    "We call upon the Fringe Society to address these concerns within the next 48 hours. These are all part of a much wider conversation about inclusivity, accessibility and diversity at the Fringe and it is now time for immediate, meaningful action.”

    William Burdett-Coutts, artistic director of Assembly, the longest-running venue operator at the festival, said: “The Fringe Society are not doing a good job of communicating with participants, whether performers, companies or venues.

    “In addition to the points made in the petition, there is also concern that with four weeks to go to the festival there is not an effective marketing plan in place.”

    The open letter was made public hours after Ms McCarthy issued a robust defence of the decision not to have an app this year due to a lack of available funding.

    In a lengthy new statement posted on the Fringe Society website, Ms McCarthy said: “Covid-19 nearly finished us off.

    “In 2020 we lost all our revenue and faced insolvency. We received a £1 million loan from the Scottish Government just to survive – £670K of that loan was immediately given directly to artists who had paid registration fees.

    “Even as late as December 2021, when so many decisions about this year’s Fringe had to be made, we were in survival mode.

    "We had no sponsorship funds, a skeleton staff and no certainty about the future of major events.

    "It is a miracle the Fringe is happening at all – and venues and artists deserve all the credit for the way they have responded.”

    Ms McCarthy said the Fringe Society had been forced to make “tough choices” about this year’s event and insisted it had been “simply impossible” to commit to bringing back the app without being able to meet the estimated £100,000 costs of reviving it.

    She said it had only been possible for the Fringe Society to revive its official performers and arts industry hub thanks to an “in-kind” sponsorship deal with the new St James Quarter complex, which has saved around £50,000 on rent and fit-out costs. She pointed out the Fringe’s registration fees had been frozen for the past 15 years and were due to remain at the same level until at least 2027.

    Ms McCarthy added: “Whilst we can’t control accommodation costs or the transport infrastructure, we have used our convening role to lobby for affordable accommodation for artists and have secured around 1,200 rooms capped at £280 per week through partners like Queen Margaret’s University, Unite Students, Edinburgh University and Theatre Digs Booker.

    “We will continue to lobby tirelessly on these matters, and will look to others to do the same.

    “We need a year of recovery before we can deliver everything we all want to see. We also need to secure additional funding or sponsorships. Resourcing and producing a new app is one of our priorities for 2023, but this requires extensive scoping and will be dependent on securing additional funding.

    “We’re about to launch the full Fringe programme. We delayed it by a month in response to requests from artists and venues to have more time to register.

    "But this week will see a tremendous 75th-anniversary programme launched with all of our marketing and PR behind it. We will be putting all our efforts into encouraging Fringe-lovers and those new to the Fringe to join us for this year’s extraordinary line-up.”