There’s a huge problem with this year’s Edinburgh Fringe

If you are on Twitter and connected to comedy, you might have seen the outpouring of outrage from comedians – some of whom have written an open letter – that, with a month to go, the Edinburgh Fringe Society have chosen to not bother with the app they have been providing for years that allows audiences to find and book tickets for shows.

It’s easy to understand how the uninitiated might wonder what the big deal was. As the Fringe Society have said themselves in response to the criticismthere is a function on the website that allows you to do this (via a convoluted route that would make the average user experience expert cry, but it exists).

What they’re missing, however, is what the withdrawal of that app means on a wider level – and how it affects disadvantaged artists. That’s because comedians on the lowest budgets rely on this kind of app to promote their shows – they can’t possibly compete with acts that have the money for bigger marketing efforts.

Edinburgh Fringe is one of the biggest arts festivals in the world, bringing together thousands of creative people. It provides a showcase for the best of British and international talent; it is the place to see and be seen. As a result, the cost of participating – from accommodation to venue fees – has been steadily escalating, slowly pricing out all but the most established and privileged.

This year, with the impact of Covid forcing the hand of hospitality venues to try to recoup years of losses – plus the cost of living crisis – artists have had to make tough decisions on whether to take their shows to the first Fringe back after the pandemic .

those who have made the brave decision to go for it will have had to weigh up the benefits of registering their shows with Fringe Society (a condition of working with a lot of the venues on offer, as it means you are included in all the central listings on the site) or going it alone – a tough gig, by anyone’s standards. Being part of an app that allows potential audiences to look up what is starting at that moment, near them, is essential.

It is a vital marketing tool for small shows; unlocking the footfall from people who are “in between plans” and looking for something to do to make the most of their time in town. The only other main options outside of this are flyering (which comes at an additional cost) or scraping together funds to pay a central organization to put up posters on your behalf, in areas you get little say in – so your beautiful poster that you’ go saved up for could end up behind a bin.

With costs for everything so eye-wateringly high, first time Fringers like me have wondered if the registration fee – which can be anything from £96 to do a single show, to £393 for a full run (six shows or more) – is actually an investment worth making. More experienced comedians have been quick to point to the app as a reason it is worth the money.

But over the last few weeks, there has been some noticeable disquiet in the comedy community that the app had not been unveiled yet. And on Sunday, the truth finally emerged via a tweet replying to a question about it – there was not going to be an app this year.

At this point, thousands of shows have been registered – representing thousands of pounds paid into the Fringe Society – with the expectation of this service. A statement was finally released and posted directly to Twitter: they couldn’t afford it.

Comedians like me can’t help but feel outraged. The Fringe Society states that its founding principles are to support, advise and encourage everyone who wants to participate; to provide information and assistance to help audiences curate their own Fringe experience; to celebrate the Fringe and what it stands for all over the world and – finally – to ensure the Fringe Society is sustainable. It also pledges to “utilize its resources to the greatest benefit of the Fringe and its constituents”.

So why withdraw something that has been deemed essential by acts and audiences alike? Especially if you’re offering no viable alternative, without consultation with the people affected?

To me, this feels like nothing short of a massive mismanagement of the funds they have been trusted to administer, and I’m left asking: where is this money? Under which other scheme would you pay nearly £400 for a mysterious service that a small group of people have the power to strip back on a whim?

The lack of transparency on how this funding has been used for 2022 is staggering, and feels like a real betrayal to the people who actually make up the Fringe: the acts that put their heart and soul into bringing shows and the audiences that appreciate them.

The UK is renowned for world class comedy, but decisions like this jeopardize the future of our reputation. It is shows in smaller venues with the smallest budgets that are going to be hit the hardest – it’ll make them almost impossible to discover and reduce the diversity of voices.

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The Fringe has a global platform – but has never looked more like a two-tiered system than this summer. It will divide what should be accessible to all – with those with cash and representation able to throw money at everything; from wallpapering the city with posters to paying for brilliant PR people to get them into listings.

The withdrawal of the app specifically hits shows on the Free Fringe, established by Peter Buckley Hill, a passionate advocate for making the Fringe accessible to all. The Free Fringe does not charge performers for use of performance spaces, on the condition that they do not charge an entry fee into their shows – arguably the true spirit of the Fringe.

Part of the magic of the Fringe is the potential to stumble across the next Caroline Aherne in a tiny room above a pub, but this is less and less likely as it becomes a pay-to-play festival pricing out working class, underrepresented voices.

As comedian Joz Norris pointed out on Twitter, the Fringe Society is not the Edinburgh Fringe, we are. And we want answers.

Vix Leyton will be performing her show, pedestrianat Edinburgh Fringe from 4-28 August 2022

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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