Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society CEO Shona McCarthy has responded to criticisms about preparations for this year's 75th Anniversary Edinburgh Fringe in a detailed open letter.
On 5th July, the Live Comedy Association published an open letter to the head of the Fringe Society, the charity that promotes and manages the Edinburgh Fringe.
The letter provided a list of grievances about the Fringe Society's preparations, in particular the lack of a Fringe app for this year's 3,841 shows and the cost of putting on a show in Edinburgh, and concluded:
"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."
McCarthy responded to each of the individual points that the Live Comedy Association made, in her response. It reflects the stresses and struggle that arts organisations have been under in the last two years.
At the same time, some of the concerns raised by the Live Comedy Association have been brewing for some time, long before the pandemic hit. In particular, the high cost of putting on a show in Edinburgh and accommodation for Fringe participants in August has long been a source of discontent as the Fringe has swelled in size and popularity over the years.
Larger Fringe organisations like the Big Four - Assembly, Gilded Balloon, Underbelly, and Pleasance - have also taken issue with the way that the Fringe Society markets the festival, breaking off back in 2008 to form their own separate Fringe promotional arm under the edfest.com banner.
This year, Summerhall, Dance Base, Zoo, and Just the Tonic joined forces with that group to promote shows and share a virtual box office. Together the new alliance comprises of 1159 shows at 140 venues.
Summerhall, Just the Tonic, Gilded Balloon, Underbelly, Zoo, Pleasance and Assembly were among the 13 beneficiaries of £1.275 resilience funding from the Scottish government for this year's 2022 Fringe. The Fringe Society received £305,000, including £55,000 for this year's expanded street events.
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"Dear Live Comedy Association, artists, acts, agents, producers, PRs and other active participants of the Fringe,
In signing an open letter to me, you have asked for clarity on a range of themes and raised valid questions that concern you about the Fringe.
You should have already received an immediate response aiming to clarify some urgent concerns about funding for the Fringe app, alongside some other points.
I now intend to go into greater depth, to ensure you are all aware of why we have reached certain decisions; the financial circumstances we are in; and what we are doing to help. This is an important document with detailed, factual responses and I encourage you all to read it carefully, and to reach your own conclusions.
Before you read our detailed response, please know that we are always here for the Fringe community, ready to have robust conversations and to address any concerns you may have. We deliberately have a wide representation of artists, venues and others on our Board, and I am personally always ready to discuss how to improve the Fringe.
Finally, I would like to thank Pax, the Chair of the Live Comedy Association, for the quick response to my request to meet. I hope this will lead to continuous, open dialogue. We are a small charity, set up to support the Fringe and uphold its values and core principles. Doing so in the current circumstances is extremely challenging, so we are keen to work with you in a positive and collegiate way.
Shona McCarthy, CEO, The Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society
#1 Transparency (and funding)
Live Comedy Association: The Fringe was given a big funding grant during lockdown, where can we see how it was spent? What is the reasoning for not consulting with stakeholders about the lack of an app this year? There seems to have been little engagement with stakeholders this year.
Details of all the funding that has been allocated to the Fringe during the pandemic is in the public domain and was announced proactively and transparently. For those looking for more detail, we produce audited accounts with Companies House as per our statutory obligations. Below are details of the three significant public investments allocated to the wider Fringe throughout the Covid-19 period.
1. The first of these was in the form of a loan to the Fringe Society in 2020. We are a charity whose financial model is dependent on registration fees, commission from ticket sales, sponsorships, grants and donations. We do not receive any annual core public funding. When the pandemic prevented the Fringe from happening in 2020, we were facing insolvency. In order to survive, and to meet our first priority to refund all artists who had already paid registration fees for that year, we had to appeal to the Scottish Government for support. That support came in the form of a £1m loan, of which £670,000 went directly to refunding artists’ registration fees. The remainder was spent ensuring the charity remained a going concern. The Fringe Society was the only cultural organisation in Scotland to receive a loan and not a grant, which means we have to repay the full loan over the coming years.
2. In 2021, The Scottish Government established a fund called the Gateway Process to support Edinburgh’s Festivals. This was designed to deal with the additional requirements needed to deliver a Covid-safe festival season in 2021. You may recall that Covid was a live concern, and restrictions and public health were a major consideration for the events sector. The Fringe’s share of this fund was £1m, administered through EventScotland. This was allocated to support producing venues to put covid mitigations in place, delivering a scaled-back Fringe in 2021. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society did not receive any money from this fund.
3. In March 2022, The Scottish Government allocated additional funding through the PLACE programme, asking applicants to meet specific criteria to successfully receive money. In total, £1.58m was allocated to the Fringe community.
This time, £250,000 of this total fund was allocated to the Fringe Society in order to help us build back our team and services, to address some of the huge post-Covid budget gaps. A further £55,000 was allocated to support the management of Street Events.
The remaining £1,275,000 was allocated through an open application process to Fringe venues, to support recovery of the Fringe this year. It had a particular emphasis on fair employment, sustainability and inclusion.
As with all public funding, the funds were allocated against clear criteria and by a panel from Creative Scotland, EventScotland and The City of Edinburgh Council, plus one independent panellist. The panel was chaired by the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society.
Every application was considered and scored against the set criteria in a robust and fair process. The results were announced publicly and you can read the press release here. Venues in receipt of the Resilience Fund were (in alphabetical order) Assembly, BlundaBus, Gilded Balloon, Greenside, Just The Tonic, Laughing Horse, Monkey Barrel Comedy, Pleasance, Scottish Comedy Festival, Summerhall, theSpaceUK, Underbelly and ZOO.
Reporting against stated objectives is a key part of the funding agreement with recipients, with 15% of funds withheld until final reports have been submitted.
Sadly not all who applied were successful. It remains a great regret of mine that there were not more opportunities for engagement with the unsuccessful organisations, to help them improve their applications. Such funding programmes are run to strict schedule and formula, that are outwith our control. We have continued to recognise the recovery needs of everyone and try to use our resources as smartly and fairly as we can to support the Fringe in other ways.
We will be working with the panel to assess the success of the fund in supporting artists and producers and this will inform future lobbying and funding distribution. I would encourage artists and producers to speak directly to their venue (if their one received funding) about the positive impacts of this funding on the artist experience, as I have no doubt there will be many.
#2 The Fringe app
Why is there no app this year? And worst of all, no communication, consultation or explanation offered. It is absolutely vital during the fringe, especially selling tickets on the day or closer to the time of the show. It is shocking that there is no reduction in registration fee either and that the way performers found out such a huge change to this year’s Fringe was a response to a tweet asking where the app was.
I am sorry.
We really should have better communicated that the app would be one of the casualties of our financial constraints this year. I apologise unreservedly for the distress that this has clearly caused.
While we did remove the app from the benefits of registration, the confirmation receipt and all our media and artist advice content, we should have communicated more clearly on this point specifically.
In addition to the response we have already published, I have provided a bit more explanation below.
Like everyone else, we love our Fringe app. But let me be clear: an app that serves the whole Fringe is incredibly complex and requires a six-month development cycle for a total cost in the region of £200,000. The redevelopment required for 2022 alone would have been £100,000. Remember where we were in December last year, when our budgets were being agreed: we were going into another lockdown, facing another strain of Covid, we didn’t even know if the festival would definitely happen, we had a depleted team, no sponsors and a huge hole in the budget.
For those of you hoping for even more detail behind those figures, the 2019 version of the app was developed in 2015/16. The versions were both native Android and Apple apps, operating on a separate platform to web. Annual maintenance of these apps alone cost us approximately £75,000. We had intended to move away from native apps, in line with app trends and improvements in technology, since 2015. The cost of a 'new' app would be approximately £150-£200K (dependent on scoping). The cost of updating the 2019 app in line with current operating systems, devices, payment card processing and to deliver changes to geo location services, would have been in the region of £100-£125K and would have required scoping, development, testing and an approval time of six to nine months.
This is why we had to make the difficult choice to postpone this critical development to the app in December 2021 – we had neither the investment funds required, nor the risk appetite, given the fact we weren’t convinced live events would even be a possibility. Again, I have learned the lesson and heard your message – we simply should have told you this at the time.
On a positive note, instead we have put all our efforts into making the mobile website as effective as possible, with additional functionality, including the valued “Nearby Now” function.
I can only repeat my heartfelt apology for not communicating this detail more clearly, and earlier, with a wider body of stakeholders. It is a big learning for us and I can assure you it will not happen again. You have our commitment that we will be doing our utmost to provide a fully developed Fringe app for 2023, and with the Festival back this year, we will work to re-build the resources needed to do that.
On the point of consultation. The Fringe Society consults regularly and widely. Through our Fringe Connect and Artist Services activities we are engaging with and listening to artists every day. We have a quarterly meeting of the full complement of Venue Managers from across the Fringe, and all Fringe Venue Managers are welcomed to, and encouraged to, engage in these meetings, contribute to the agendas and openly discuss any emerging Fringe matters. From Free Fringe managers to representatives of much larger venues, all are represented in these forums. We also host a regular Producers Forum and have Board members who represent artists, venues and producers. Whatever your chosen career or passion, I would encourage you to sign up for our free services and comms channels on Fringe Connect, and to become a member of the Fringe Society, where you can stand to become a Director of The Society and have a direct impact on the strategy of the Fringe.
The website search function is poor. Has this been discussed and is anything being done to improve it before the Fringe starts? One main concern is the lack of an easy to find search button for shows. If the Fringe is moving towards e-ticketing, what is going to be done to combat the generally weak wifi and spotty phone signal?
Edfringe.com includes information on all of our services – tickets.edfringe.com is our ticketing site and the homepage is optimised for ease of search. The search functionality itself replicates that of the app, and includes advanced filters to help audiences narrow down their programme. The top result for a search of Fringe tickets on Google is tickets.edfringe.com – this means it is easy for audiences to find tickets to the show. We have focussed on optimising the website for mobile to offer the same functionality as the app.
If anyone feels the search functionality is poor, we would welcome specific feedback. We rarely receive criticism of the search functionality from audience members or artists, so would be particularly keen to hear more.
As previously mentioned, we are pulling out all the stops to introduce a Nearby Now button for tickets.edfringe.com, which will offer the same one-click option for audiences. You won’t be able to see it on the website yet, because it will only go live during the Fringe, given it isn’t needed in advance. So don’t worry if you don’t see it there today!
We have worked extensively with a group of Fringe venue managers since early 2022 to interrogate and plan for the arrival of e-ticketing, including issues around connectivity in the city. We have also engaged directly with key landlords, including the University of Edinburgh and the City of Edinburgh Council to address Wi-Fi access in their spaces. Venues were able to apply for funds to improve delivery for e-ticketing through the fund discussed earlier.
We will be communicating to audiences in advance of the Fringe about how to have the best e-ticketing experience, and have made improvements to the user journey to ensure it is an efficient and easy experience for both audiences and venues. We are operating an in-person box office at 180 High Street, and many venues will also have this service to support audiences.
What is being done to help prevent the vastly inflated cost of accommodation during the Fringe? It is now at tipping point, acts are deciding they can’t afford to go this year. Acts, press, agents, and producers are losing money and this is the main cause.
Since 2018, we have been bringing on board affordable accommodation providers who can meet an appropriate standard, through the universities in Edinburgh. This year we have secured 1,200 rooms for £280 or less per week.
I know this isn’t enough. Increased short-term accommodation costs have increased exponentially across the UK and Edinburgh is no different. It is incredibly expensive and I do know how much of a barrier this is to participation at the Fringe. We have formed a relationship with the ethical platform TheatreDigsBooker.com with the same caveats of providing proper accommodation facilities. These can be found by artists via the accommodation portal on our website. We continue to lobby local government, universities and student accommodation providers to set aside affordable rooms for our artists.
In addition, we are acutely aware of the number of accommodation challenges facing cities across the UK. So our lobbying and conversations on this issue have to be balanced, diplomatic and respectful, to ensure the best outcome for everyone.
We are calling on the Fringe Society to lead lobbying efforts on transport in order to address this and to communicate the outcomes of this lobbying clearly with Fringe participants. Accommodation is also severely affected by the train timetable to and from Glasgow which is cutting out the second city in Scotland from providing cheaper rent and providing staff for the festival as late services are infrequent due to the current revised timetable
We share your concerns about the impact of the train timetables, which are affecting millions of people across Scotland and the UK. We called an early meeting of the Transport Scotland Forum to address our particular concerns related to the festivals. Subsequently, alongside Festivals Edinburgh and our sister festivals, we have been given assurances from the Scottish Transport Minister Jenny Gilruth that “ScotRail and Network Rail have a plan for the festivals which will feature more capacity and no disruptive engineering works on routes in/out of Edinburgh. However, these at subject to the ASLEF issues being resolved.”
You will appreciate that there are limits to our influence over national rail strikes. That said, Transport Scotland and the citywide planning team both convened calls last week, both of which recognised there should be a dedicated planning session for peak Edinburgh Festivals season if things weren’t resolved soon. Be assured that the Fringe Society ensures the voice of the Fringe is at the table and heard.
Why has there been a reduction in booking accommodation for press to come to the Fringe? Why has there been no investment in bringing more press up? We need press support this year as we recover from Covid especially. There are still key press seeking accommodation — as early in the run as possible as early reviews support ticket sales. We need to know what the Fringe is doing to remedy this and how the situation can be salvaged
We have been working with the University of Edinburgh and UniteStudent for a number of years, through support of accommodation for visiting journalists who cover arts and culture newsdesks. Over the last decade the media landscape has changed significantly with a considerable reduction in arts critics. As such, we do our best to support journalists who, without our help, simply wouldn’t be able to cover the Fringe.
This summer we are supporting critics from The Times, The Guardian, The Daily Mail, The Evening Standard, I-newspaper, Beyond the Joke, The Stage, The Observer and The Sunday Times with accommodation in the city.
Our media service is available all year round, with an enhanced team from mid-July until early September. For anyone struggling with accommodation, we work with them to source hotels or apartments, often working with key accommodation providers in the city to try and help journalists secure beds.
Half Price Hut
There are rumours that the Half Price Hut may not be present this year. We require immediate clarification on this as this is an incredibly useful resource for Fringe shows.
The Half Price Hut service will be in place at the Fringe this year. The Half Price Hut (HPH) has historically been positioned on the Mound, and functioned as a collection point as well as for HPH services. With e-ticketing in place for 2022, there is no requirement for the same style of physical collection points.
Given the rise of e-ticketing and the investment needed to build a new structure, we decided to reinvent the Half Price Hut at the Fringe Box Office at 180 High Street.
The principles remain the sale – an ‘on the day’, limited offer that shows can opt into in a dynamic and flexible way, and audiences can choose from the list of available shows. Listings will be online, as in previous years, and tickets will only be available in person, as in previous years.
With the removal of ticket collection in all box offices, we have streamlined the delivery of these services. Tickets sold at the HPH in 2019 represented 2.2% of the programme while tickets collected for all Fringe shows at the HPH were 4.9% of total tickets issued.