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The Fringe controversy: exploitation in Edinburgh

As students throughout Warwick University and beyond are beginning to return from this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival, two online arts publications, The Mumble and Shortcom, have found themselves in a little spot of bother, having attempted to demand payment for their reviews of productions. The two publications were subsequently accused by the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society of discriminating against performing arts companies and producers not prepared to meet the cost, and have been denied accreditation.

The denial of accreditation, in case any of you were not aware (I certainly wasn’t) will prevent these two publications from accessing a variety of benefits that one imagines would be most convenient to arts publications, including identity passes and lanyards for arts industry professionals, an opt-in buddy scheme for industry delegates, and help in navigating the fringe programme and finding the most relevant work for the interests of specific organisations.

Luke Emery, a Fringe producer, felt that this punitive measure lacked effectiveness, stating: “As far as I’m aware, the Fringe doesn’t accredit people who charge for reviews, and has never accredited The Mumble”.

Perhaps this is my soft liberal gut showing, but isn’t the Edinburgh Fringe supposed to be about the art, not the money?

Nonetheless, it is difficult to deny the symbolic undertones of the Fringe Society’s decision, even if the steps they took may be perceived as lukewarm to some. The question we are left to consider is this: was the transaction being offered by The Mumble and Shortcom a fair one?

I admit, my instinctive response is to curl my lip in disgust at the actions undertaken by these online magazines. Perhaps my soft liberal gut is showing, but isn’t the Edinburgh Fringe supposed to be about the art, not the money?

These publications were fully aware of how desperate the writers, actors, singers, directors, dancers and producers are to gain recognition, and sought fit to exploit that – with The Mumble insisting on a payment of £50 for a review and interview (the review alone costing £30). Indeed, the innate expense of taking a production to the Fringe makes the entire venture an immense risk, with which the primary source of compensation is the potential reputation that a particular production can garner for itself. Although, this dream of developing a reputation (which may or may not transition into a full blown career) only follows thousands of pounds worth of investment.

Maybe decades old publications like The Stage can still afford to operate on a model that pays its reviewers via advertising and subscriptions, but newer publications need to find fresh ways to break even

David Bullen, Editor of The Mumble

So, on the surface, I do lack sympathy for Shortcom and The Mumble. Even the excuse provided by David Bullen, editor of The Mumble, somehow managed to make my stomach turn: “Maybe decades old publications like The Stage can still afford to operate on a model that pays its reviewers via advertising and subscriptions, but newer publications need to find fresh ways to break even.”

Some might call it “fresh”; I prefer “unprincipled”. The Edinburgh Fringe should be about the exposing and testing of talent, first and foremost. It is already a massive financial burden to take a production to the Fringe (especially if you are a young performer) and these publications should not go out of their way to make it harder.

And yet, one does have to raise one’s eyebrow at the sudden moral indignation of the Edinburgh Fringe Society at this supposed exploitation of production companies. After all, when faced with criticism within a Fair Fringe report, which outlined how non-creative workers at the Fringe were forced to endure abysmal living conditions and poor compensation for their work, the Edinburgh Fringe Chief, Shona McCarthy, gave a rather weak response herself, claiming that the report “is a about vilifying individual operators without actually understanding the whole landscape.”

Such a proposal would be enough to give those with a financial interest in the Fringe as it currently exists a nervous shudder

It was only in the wake of increased criticism that McCarthy flip-flopped, instead issuing a statement on the Fringe website and going on to invite representatives from Fair Fringe to a meeting of venue managers to try and “explore ways forward”.

Indeed, the more one looks, the more one realises that there truly is no refuge from bureaucracy and greed anymore. After all, everyone is trying to make a living: artists from their art, exploited, so-called ‘non-creative’ workers by assisting the less glamorous side of productions, publications through reviews, and the pseudo-politicians at the top by managing this vast display of art as best they can.

Perhaps the size of the festival is what has produced this? Perhaps the answer is to simplify, to downsize; strip back and return to basics – though how I do not know. Besides, such a proposal would be enough to give those with a financial interest in the Fringe, as it currently exists, a nervous shudder.

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