Every August, thousands of comedians make the pilgrimage to Scotland for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. By the end of the month, those who manage to stand out in this crowded field (and it is a very crowded field) might have Live at the Apollo or Netflix calling, or maybe even a sitcom commission. But this year, with performers facing hefty registration fees, rent more expensive than a luxury foreign holiday and exorbitant marketing campaigns, all in the midst of a cost of living crisis, more and more are asking: has the Fringe lost its edge?
As the festival kicks off for its 75th year, comedian Vittorio Angelone says its culture seems to have changed. ‘It feels like the letting agents, journalists, PR companies, venues and TV industry have doubled down on all the ugliest parts of the ever more corporate “Fringe”,’ he says. ‘Rents are colossal, venue costs are insane, and performers are told the only way to get noticed is to get nominated and the only way to get nominated is to get good reviews and the only way to get good reviews is to pay through the nose for PR.’
Last month, Succession star Brian Cox warned that the festival risks ‘cutting off the lifeblood’ of talent if it doesn’t address soaring accommodation costs. Scottish actor Brian Maitland also claimed the Fringe was ‘dying’ after finding hotels charging as much as £526 for two nights during the event. But it’s not just the price of room and board that’s biting. The registration fee for performers for a ‘full run’ of six or more shows and inclusion in the official programme stands at £393.60 – which some have questioned the value of after it was announced that the Fringe’s ticketing app, designed to help audiences discover shows they want to see, has been scrapped. Last month, more than 1,600 comedians, agents and producers signed an open letter criticising the festival for dropping the app and not doing enough to secure affordable accommodation for performers.
Tony Law is something of a festival veteran with some 15 Fringes under his belt. While he admits that Edinburgh has always been expensive at festival time, he says current spiralling costs are unsustainable. He estimates that accommodation prices have quadrupled since the pandemic – and as a result, he is camping for the whole month.
Rachel Jackson has also found an affordable solution – her parents’ house. The Scottish comedian, who now lives in Hartlepool, is doing her third full run at the Fringe and will be staying with her parents in Edinburgh throughout. But she points out that a career in comedy still comes at a cost – she spends the rest of the year gigging all over the UK and paying for transport and accommodation that might be less of a burden on a London-based comedian with more opportunities in their home city.
Rachel also warns of the difficult financial decisions facing performers in the battle to secure a slice of the audience. While the idea of ‘no risk, no reward’ might hold water, with more than 3,000 shows on offer it’s a challenge to cut through the noise and reach the public, producers, agents and press – no matter how much you spend on marketing and PR. Her tips for acts wanting to do the Fringe without breaking the bank? ‘No PR, no massive posters – and work for one of the Free Fringe companies or a paid venue that respects performers, such as The Stand or Monkey Barrel. And my parents always put up comedians for super cheap, so basically everyone should just know me!’
In recent years, comedy festivals have been popping up all over the country, with Leicester and Brighton being notable standouts. Even a festival in the town of Machynlleth in Wales (population: 2,235) has pulled in the crowds. If more and more comedians feel priced out of Edinburgh, it’s not impossible to imagine the Fringe’s dominance being diluted by the rise of other – more affordable – opportunities.
So, if Edinburgh is such an expensive option, why do comedians still bother? It seems the place still holds a magic that nowhere else has yet managed to replicate. Alternative comedian Joz Norris says: ‘Other festivals that are more curated don’t offer that same “anything-goes” vibe, which is a truly electric thing to be part of. You can come up with the stupidest idea in the world and there’ll probably be an audience for it at the Fringe.’
Elf Lyons is taking her sixth show to Edinburgh this summer. She says: ‘The Edinburgh Festival has always been an amazing place as a slightly more alternative performer. It tends to be the more absurdist, more surrealist alternative performers that do well there because in a festival environment, that’s what a lot of people prefer to see – as opposed to mainstream club comedy acts. Acts that don’t tend to excel 11 months of the year tend to do very well in August.’
And despite his reservations about the commercialisation of the Fringe, Vittorio Angelone is still going. ‘I want to be a better comedian at the end of the month than at the start. Where else do you get to perform for an hour a day for 28 days as a relatively unknown newcomer?’ he says. ‘I want to drink too much, eat too much and hang out with some of the funniest people in the world.’