Mood music around the Fringe was different this year as ticket sales rose – Brian Ferguson

The audience for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is half a million more than a decade ago

Crunching the numbers for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe has long been a traditional way to bring the curtain down on the event.

For many years, the story was relatively straightforward, if increasingly divisive. Year after year, the Fringe would reveal a bigger programme and at the end of August, its overall attendance would rise again.

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The two notable exceptions were in 2008, when a new box office system collapsed, and 2012, when the event found itself competing with the London Olympics.

Dancers from the Havana Street Party show at the Fringe outside their venue at the McEwan Hall. Picture Jeff J Mitchell/Getty ImagesDancers from the Havana Street Party show at the Fringe outside their venue at the McEwan Hall. Picture Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
Dancers from the Havana Street Party show at the Fringe outside their venue at the McEwan Hall. Picture Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

But the growth of the Fringe dramatically increased between 2014, when two million tickets were sold for the first time, and 2019, when the three-million landmark was reached.

The prolonged impact of the pandemic, which saw live events wiped out in 2020 and seriously hampered by restrictions in 2021, inevitably means the pre-Covid concerns about the impact of the Fringe were largely forgotten about. But I wrote countless stories documenting concerns from council officials, heritage bodies and community groups about the ability of the city centre to accommodate any further year-on-year growth.

Mercifully, the mood music about the Fringe has been different in the city in recent years. Perhaps absence has made the heart grow fonder for those people who missed the Fringe more than they might have anticipated.

But maybe a slight smaller-scale Fringe is also a better fit for the city.

Fringe-watchers will recall the many difficulties encountered last summer due to lower-than-expected audiences, the cost-of-living crisis, rail and waste worker strikes, and the impact of soaring accommodation costs.

A joint statement from eight of the leading venues warning of a growing risk of audiences and artists being “priced out of town” put a real downer on the end of the 2022 festival. The contrast this year is striking.

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The Fringe Society has reported an 11 per cent increase in ticket sales, while the venues have been upbeat in their end-of-festival round-ups.

The overall audience of 2.44 million may be more than half a million down on what it was in 2019, but it also happens to be around half a million higher than it was a decade ago.

The change in mood music may be down to a realisation that year-on-year growth for the Fringe to reach the same level as before is simply no longer sustainable while accommodation is so expensive.

It has become crystal clear the key priority for the future of the Fringe is to make it easier and more affordable to get to Edinburgh and put on shows. That means the Fringe Society, venues, the city council, and both the Scottish and UK governments work together to come up with imaginative and meaningful solutions.

That may be in the form of pop-up Olympic style villages to offer low-cost accommodation of the kind provided at music festivals, including Connect, which was staged at the home of the Royal Highland Show at Ingliston at the weekend. Or it may be initiatives to expand late-night public transport links combined with a campaign to encourage artists and audiences to stay outwith Edinburgh.

But the simplest short-term solution may be to find a way to ensure that way more of the money generated in Edinburgh in August finds it was back into the pockets of those who are putting on shows.

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