The Edinburgh Fringe Festival is the world’s largest arts festivals, with over 3 million visitors each August. Last week it announced a series of major reforms to the ways it does business and treats employees and artists. It pledged to work towards lessening its environmental impact, and instituted new rules to “manage the scale” of the festival over the coming years.
It’s both a recognition that “bigger” had made Edinburgh a “lesser” experience, and it also says something about where the festival thinks we are after two years of disruption of COVID. How has COVID changed what people want when they decide to put down their screens and go out? We’ll explore what Edinburgh thinks it is.
Hi: Doug McLennan here, and you’re listening to another episode of ArtsJournal’s The UnderTow, our more-or-less weekly look at the trends and ideas driving our culture. This week, some early signs of what the cultural landscape might look like post-COVID lockdown. The world’s largest festival says it is undertaking some major reforms to both address some sticky longterm problems, and second, to better reflect where it believes the post-pandemic world is right now. We’ll look at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and what its reinvention might say about the post-lockdown world. And we’ll explore what these rather significant changes say about audiences and artists and the culture.
But first, I’m interested in your thoughts on today’s topic and anything else we cover in the UnderTow. If you want to weigh in, head over to ArtsJournal and click on to the Diacritical blog to comment. Or you can email me at TheUndertow@artsjournal.com . And if you want to be alerted when we publish a new episode of The UnderTow, subscribe at Apple podcasts, Google podcasts, or Spotify. Back in a moment.
Last week the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the world’s largest festival – a rowdy, messy, raucous celebration of performance that takes over the historic center of the city of Edinburgh every August – announced a series of reforms that should transform Scotland’s iconic cultural event by “managing the scale” of the festival in years to come.
Now, I love the Fringe. Its free-spirited bedlam and desire to squeeze itself into every space imaginable is fantastic – I like stumbling upon things I didn’t know were a thing. I love being surprised and confronted with things that take me outside myself. And I also like being able to escape when I get bored, which is generally easy to do in this format. The Fringe is a smorgasbord of exotic meats and vegetables you can graze on at your own pace. The crowds are amazing. The performers are often astounding, inhabiting worlds and practicing crafts that can be foreign and exotic. And what to say about Edinburgh itself – obviously one of the world’s most beautiful cities. Almost every year, productions and artists at the Fringe get discovered and picked up to go on to a life elsewhere. The Fringe is an alchemy of place, people and moments that change the way you think. No wonder it’s popular.
It was started in 1947 as counter-programming to the official Edinburgh International Festival which itself was started as a response to the end of World War II. Fun fact – many of the world’s most iconic and successful arts festivals were founded after some big civic or national or even world-wide crisis or challenge that exhausted its citizens – The Salzburg Festival was created two years after World War One. More recently Toronto’s Luminato Festival was started in 2007 after the SARS virus outbreak shut down Toronto for a summer. And that, of course, makes one wonder what might emerge in the couple of years after COVID…
Anyway, back to Edinburgh. For many years as the Fringe got ever-bigger, performers increasingly complained about working conditions, pay and exposure and equity of venues. Attendees complained about overcrowding and the increasing inability to get in to things they wanted to see. And the millions of visitors took an increasing toll on the ability of the city to function each August.
In 2019 the Edinburgh Fringe – in a city of just over 500,000 — sold more than three million tickets for almost 4000 shows at more than 300 venues — an increase of 31 percent in five years. In short, the Fringe had become too much of a good thing. And with it, an experience widely touted as one of the best festivals in the world, had gotten so big it had gotten worse – for performers, for visitors, and definitely for Edinburghers who live there. Still, it seemed – at least from the outside, that Fringe organizers were reluctant to take the steps necessary to address the issues.
COVID changed that. Stepping back from the annual grind convinced organizers that a pause was an opportunity to make change. Not just to mitigate the crowds, which are, it has to be said, one of the attractions of gathering in Edinburgh, but new rules to make the experience more workable and rewarding for everyone. Reforms include new rules for presenters, paying living wages to employees, becoming carbon-neutral, and a pledge to “eradicate” exploitative, unsafe and unfair work practices.”
So you can look at this story as a big event examining itself in a mirror and deciding to address its problems. But I think there’s perhaps also something bigger here that responds to two trends that are increasingly going to drive the broader culture.
- The first is that our traditional system for measuring success has generally been: bigger is better. Not just better, but tangible proof that it is better. Culture is often a squishy, intangible thing that is hard to measure objectively. How do you measure how much someone is affected by something they’ve seen or experienced? But bigger-is-better is easy. If so many people want to buy what you’re selling, then it must be good. That idea is what our capitalist system is built on, and in live performance Edinburgh has been the Gold standard. In fact, no other event in the world sells so many tickets other than the World Cup and the Olympics. For Edinburgh to recognize that its size has now maybe become a liability is a paradigm-shifting notion.
- The second idea is that those running the Edinburgh Fringe have taken the COVID time-out to look around and see that we’re now living in a different era. The world looks significantly different than it did in 2019 and this was impetus to use the pause as an opportunity to grab ahold of some longterm trends, address some of issues that have been festering at the festival for years, try to match new post-COVID values and recognize new opportunities. That Edinburgh realizes that the world has changed significantly and that the festival needed to change is a bold move.
So let’s talk about these one at a time. First – the bigger-is-better model has always been an awkward fit for culture. In the capitalist model the measure of success is easy – the more you sell, the more money you make, the bigger you get and the more successful you are. Growth equals success. In business, if you stop growing, even if you’re Microsoft or Boeing, you get punished for it. And it isn’t about quality of the product. Cheap and disposable often beats high quality and durablilty. Success depends on matching market expectation with demand. So growth is almost always rewarded while quality might not be. That isn’t, by the way, a criticism – the balance between quality and sales is a fascinating dance around how consumers define and reward value.
In culture, the determination of value is much messier. It’s important for Edinburgh to be big and messy and crowded, because that’s part of its essential energy. Performers feed off it and want to be there. Crowds also like to feel they’re part of something big and that they’re also a significant part of the experience.
But as crowds return from being locked up for two years, many of the world’s most popular attractions are realizing that their popularity has been choking them. Venice is being damaged by the throngs, so much so that it finally banned cruise ships and instituted a visitor charge that every visitor to the city now has to pay. Macchu Picchu, Angkor Wat and the Louvre, Vatican and Ufizzi museums are now so swarmed with tourists that it has become almost impossible to appreciate the art inside – definitely degraded experiences. Last summer a record nearly 5 million tourists trekked to Yellowstone Park – an increase of 18 percent from the previous record, making it difficult to protect the wilderness the millions had come to see. And we’re starting to see some of the world’s biggest festivals begin to think about the issue of their size and impact. The shine has gone off the once-iconic Coachella and Burning Man Festivals as their size and scale began to diminish the experience.
For a lot of these places and events I’ve mentioned, attempts to limit or control access to them will change them, institutionalizing access to them. That means that instead of just showing up and discovering on your own, being serendipitous, you have to plan ahead and anticipate, and that necessarily changes the experienceand the kinds of people who will come. Not always for the worse, but it will be different.
On top of this, there’s another longterm trend that may be at work here. A curious thing has happened to the bigger-is-better model in culture in recent years. The internet decoupled the “bigger” part from the better financial rewards that had been tied to it. That is – while selling more albums or books used to make you richer in the previous era, that’s no longer the case when streaming your music or whatever can wrack up millions of views but pay you next to nothing for it. In short, we’ve begun to detach from the default mass market model. Instead, it’s more important to find the “right” fans to match the product.
As the economics of creating culture have become disrupted, the old economics of cultural production often no longer make sense, and the new models reward in different ways. Ah, and that’s the rub. It’s not that social media doesn’t reward creators, it’s that it rewards different creators for creating different things, and often what they create bears little resemblance to traditional work that used to be well compensated. All of which is to say that the equation Edinburgh and its artists have to figure out in deciding what’s worth presenting and where has changed. And everyone may now be recalculating the risks of participating in Edinburgh – performers and audience alike.
And that brings me to the second big idea: What does Edinburgh’s new vision for itself say about where it believes the world is now post-COVID? To back up a bit – by 2019, the world had gotten quite used to ever-accelerating change, and the digital revolution had been overturning long-established industries and institutions for twenty or more years. The dark side of the internet was already apparent, and the attacks on our political institutions also. But as de-stabilizing as these all seemed, they weren’t existential threats in the way COVID has been. COVID was the first global threat since World War II that significantly affected virtually every one of us.
The global pause knocked us out of our routines and habits – both from the things we loved as well as those we didn’t. And as the world opens up again, many of us are making different choices – working more from home, traveling in different ways, working at different jobs, even.
COVID and our reaction to it, made us all feel a little less secure, a bit uncertain about how the world is working. Add climate change, whose effects are becoming harder and harder to ignore; the war in Ukraine which has destabilized the global political order; and any number of other growing threats, and this feels less and less like a no-consequences moment. We’re revisiting our values with new eyes, which means that the old values are under new scrutiny and Edinburgh’s policies about workers and equity and what shows and artists will be presented and the kinds of impacts the festival has and says it has – think things like carbon footprint and wellbeing of workers — have to realign.
However, I think it would be a mistake just to interpret this moment politically – on climate change, on diversity, on equity, on protecting democracy – and these are all worthy and worthwhile causes. But I think there’s something deeper going on, and the politics are perhaps just a manifestation of that but not the thing itself.
What the that is, I think, is that people are – consciously or not – rethinking their relationship with the world around them and how they interact with it. It began when the internet turned every camera into a TV studio and anyone online became a publisher of whatever content they wanted to make. That in turn allowed people to find one another around the things they liked or discovered – no matter how trivial, and these likes and interests were affirmed and amplified by their communities, which resemble intense, almost hyper-local micro-cultures, but which can actually involve thousands or hundreds of thousands of members.
If anything, the pandemic shutdown intensified this burrowing deeper into online cultures. So now that the world is reopening, more of us than ever want to insist that the real world around us align with those online values or we won’t participate. Hence the scramble to align politics.
It has also made us perhaps more intentional about going out when we do. And I wonder if that might be something of an opportunity. One complaint about being online is how deadening and empty it can be if it takes over your life. Not enough that it makes us stop being online of course, but you’re probably familiar with the feeling – the endless doom-scrolling through posts and stories and videos. It’s cheap and highly addictive, especially since we can do it whenever there’s a lull in real life. It’s junk food that fills in the cracks. It’s so easy to be distracted by something new every few seconds. But also, it can be deeply unsatisfying.
If you think about pre-internet distraction, while there was certainly choice, most of them required conscious effort. What you chose you had to go out and get; it mostly didn’t just present itself. You had to pro-actively seek out the things you wanted – go buy a newspaper, find out what time that TV show was on so you didn’t miss it, wait for the post office to deliver letters from friends. Each of these involved choices and effort. And they weren’t infinite.
Now, many of our choices involve little more than clicking on a screen, a teeny tiny poke of your thumb that can open up miraculous riches. Or more usually, not. When everything is easy to access, involving no effort, surely we lose something in our ability to calculate what’s worth the investment of our time and what is not. Presented with an inexhaustible stream of distraction, the empty calories squeeze out the nutrients.
But what’s that I hear? The collective exhaustion of the endless online scroll? The popularity of unique events – big concerts and festivals, immersive experiences – and the astonishing ticket prices fans are willing to pay for them, suggests there’s still enormous appetite for in-person events. It’s just that they have to be very clear about the unique value is.
Edinburgh’s problem isn’t getting people to come. It’s the opposite. And those who come have been willing till now to endure the annoyances that overcrowded events force on them. It may be, ironically, in fact, that one of the reasons the crowds want to be there is because of the investment of aggravation it takes to be there and to be transported out of everyday routine. But that only works so long as the crowds mostly still get access to what they want. Thus, Edinburgh’s investment in creating a better experience by perhaps being lesser in size.
If that’s true, it’s more confirmation that experience trumps everything else. While everything may start and end with the art, it’s the experience that will get people out of their screens.
Thanks for listening. I’m Doug McLennan, editor of ArtsJournal.com. You can write to me at TheUnderTow@artsjournal.com. If you liked what you heard today, check out our episodes. This is episode 5. You can hear the others and be notified when new episodes come out by subscribing, wherever you get you podcasts. The easiest way to find us is search for “ArtsJournal’s The UnderTow.” That way you filter out all the undercurrents. Till next time.