How the cost of living crisis is impacting the Edinburgh Fringe | A view from Dylan Emery, actor, director, producer and... financial journalist? © Ray Burmiston

How the cost of living crisis is impacting the Edinburgh Fringe

A view from Dylan Emery, actor, director, producer and... financial journalist?

If you want to go to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe to make money, then either you are either a) a well-established act with tight cost controls or b) a pickpocket.

In the 15 years I've been bringing shows to the Fringe, I've heard more or less the same criticisms of the whole shebang: that the artists who mine the precious seams of their blood, sweat and tears to create the actual festival do the worst out of it. This is often followed up by warning taps of fingers on noses and dark mutterings of those to blame: the Big Four, Edinburgh University, the Fringe Society, greedy landlords, The City of Edinburgh Council, our secret lizard overlords and so on. 

My main show, Showstopper! The Improvised Musical, started out in a 90-seater metal box and we have slowly built up to being in the Pleasance Grand so we've seen all the different stages of success of a show and I've never seen a spike in costs anywhere near as sharp. Our cost per room for our actors in 2024 is around twice what it was in 2022. It's not fun. 

The easiest thing to do is to become enraged at the organisations mentioned above, blame them for what's happening and demand they somehow fix everything.  And it is of course true that they haven't always acted in the best interests of artists (except the lizards - great people, won't hear anything against them).

But sometimes just because something has been repeated a lot, doesn't mean it is true. So let us question our assumptions and ask: who is really winning here? 

Now here's a sentence you might have assumed you would never see in a Chortle article: let's have a look at some economic data. The graph below shows inflation over the past 10 years. The line marked CPI is consumer price inflation - how much living costs are going up.

Ten year inflation graph. it's not pretty

You can see that until autumn 2021, prices went up anything between 0 per cent and 2.5 per cent. It's not on this graph, but according to the Office for National Statistics, average salaries in that same period went up between 0.7 per cent and 4.1 per cent every year. So it's vaguely in the same range, which means salaries more or less keep up with prices. 

The economists among you will know that there are big caveats to this data but let's leave all that aside for now.

Now look at October 2021 - absolutely enormous spikes in prices - up to 10 per cent rises - four times higher than any time in the past decade year and much higher than salaries. 

That's the cost of living crisis in a tiny, unforgiving statistical line.

But now look at line marked OOH - that is the increase in cost for home owners. That also has massively gone up since October 2021 - and unlike CPI, this one still going up.  Owning property is getting more and more expensive. One reason is because, especially post-Brexit, construction material prices have sharply gone up. Got a leaky roof? Roofing tiles are double the price. Want to underpin the house? Cement prices have spiked. And because you have to hire builders to do the work and we're in a cost of living crisis, they need to charge more. 

Add to that the fact that in times of economic distress, governments often clamp down on immigration. Immigrants are an easy blame target for voters who are worried about rising crime and unemployment. And there aren't enough British-resident builders, plumbers, carpenters and electricians for all the demand. So prices go up and owning property becomes less and less of a sweet deal.

Anyway, let's go back to Edinburgh and think of all the people who rent their houses out. Some are people who live there during the year and then rent their place out for August to boost their income; others bought a house in Edinburgh to boost their pensions; others might be professional landlords doing it for a living; Edinburgh University uses the money it makes during the festival to subsidise its academic activities. 

When Covid hit, all these property owners' incomes collapsed for two years - and then, when people started to come back, the cost of upkeep went through the roof (as it were).  That means firstly, it's not going to be necessarily possible for landlords to just reduce their prices; and secondly, it's not fair to brand all landlords as somehow complicit in a grand rip off - they are also suffering.

What does this mean to the Fringe? 

The cost of producing shows has gone up so much that it's harder to take risks on new shows, especially those with any kind of production value. Even a one-person theatre show needs a director and a lighting and sound designer to create it and a similar crew to operate it. 

Three types of show will tend to still be possible in this environment. a) the super cheap to put on - one person, one mic, one light; b) shows with government subsidies or a rich patron that know they are using Edinburgh to showcase themselves and know they are going to lose money; and c) well-established shows that are fairly confident they can sell well without bankrupting themselves on marketing. 

In the meantime, Fringe-goers have also been hit both with cost of living but also the higher costs of accommodation in Edinburgh. They tend to have less income for shows and because show prices have gone up, they can see fewer shows. And that means they will also find it less appealing to take a risk on a show they might not like.

Again, that punishes the new and edgy and interesting and favours the already established brands or a big media presence. 

The Fringe was created by a bunch of chancers trying to cheekily tap into an audience that was there for an entirely different festival.  The forces of the economy are relentlessly crushing, reducing the amount of space for free, creative thinking. 

What can we do?

If you are a producer, try to find space in your roster for some larger and more ambitious and newer shows. 

If you are a punter, please don't give up on taking risks on seeing shows that you don't know.

If you are a voter, then get out and vote on Thursday.

We live in a capitalist system and that means owning things is far more richly rewarded than doing things and there are few parts of society that do more and own less than those in the creative arts. 

If you want a world filled with crazy creative people creating crazy creative things, the economy is not designed to help that happen by itself - it requires political will. 

The value systems of a society are both represented and reinforced by its leadership: make sure you vote for an MP who represents yours.

Showstopper cast

Showstopper! The Improvised Musical will be at the Pleasance Grand at 5.30pm during the Edinburgh Fringe.

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Published: 2 Jul 2024

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