Can Performers Make a Profit at the Fringe?

At an open-access arts festival like the Edinburgh Fringe, who ends up paying the heaviest price? We investigate.

Feature by Amy Taylor | 05 Aug 2016

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is every artist’s fairytale; beginning in 1947, when a group of eight rebellious theatre companies decided to perform, albeit uninvited, at the Edinburgh International Festival.

It was founded upon (and still operates on) an open-access model – anyone can perform at the festival. However, the cost of hiring a venue, combined with the cost of accommodation, marketing, and basics like food, add up quickly. So in the age of austerity, how expensive is it to perform at the Fringe, and can artists make a profit while they’re there?

How much does it really cost to perform at the Fringe?

The price that an act pays to perform at the Fringe varies wildly, depending on a number of factors. However, beyond the standard Fringe registration fee of around £300, performers are seeing costs quickly mount up.

Kasia Lech, who is coming to the Fringe for the first time to perform Bubble Revolution, will pay £8,000 to do so. “The necessities i.e. travel, accommodation, space, the registration fee, venue marketing, and posters and flyers makes £7,150 of it. The rest are costs of performance rights (a necessity, but arguably we decided to stage a particular text), advertisement, trailer, and scenography.” 

Sam McGowan, from Fringe first-timers, JunNK , admits they “held back for a couple of years” due to the cost of the Fringe. They paid a total of £6,000 “for the venue, registration, accommodation, transport, PR and advertising. We are all squeezing into one room in a flat way out from the city which helps.”

Meanwhile, comedian Danny Buckler is paying £3,000, “give or take a fiver”, the bulk of which he’s spending on accommodation. He adds: “The admin is around £500, accommodation £1,000.”

Accommodation: The single biggest Fringe cost

For UK-based acts, accommodation proves to be the most expensive, with some groups shelling out thousands of pounds for a place to stay.

Chris Lynch, the Artistic Director of East Midlands-based Fringe first-timers C&D Productions, arriving with both TWO and Jekyll and Hyde, explains: “The biggest cost is accommodation, with 24 of us heading up to the fringe at £2,500. We're staying in two big dorm spaces, which suit us as we're a close knit group.”

But the group have spent more, as there are other costs to the Fringe, with Lynch adding, “I'd say in total we're looking at around £6,000 with registration fees etc added.”

The cost of accommodation was something that shocked Lech, who is travelling up from Kent and found that “accommodation [was] extremely expensive. In fact, I am renting a room from my friend, which is very cheap in comparison with other prices; my technician’s accommodation was much more expensive, but still nowhere near prices I found.”

Added Challenges for International Acts

For acts travelling from abroad, the costs add up quickly with travel and other fees all being taken into account.

“It’s costing us £30,000,” admits Sandy Bruns, the producer of Stewart D’Arrietta’s My Leonard Cohen, who are travelling to Edinburgh from Australia. “Flying five of us all the way from Australia, the costs are massive! It’s a big risk, but we think it’s worth it... We have a six piece band, so we’re not even thinking about profit. We will be more than happy if we cover costs."

“It is incredibly expensive to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, especially if you are coming in from overseas,” say Romana Soutus and Amy Surratt, who are set to come over from New York and perform their piece, Hyena, during the final week of the festival. They have paid, through a combination of Crowdfunding and private donations, around £1,500 for space and listings, and around the same amount for their flights and accommodation for the week.

Ways to Save Money

There’s an irony to the fact that a festival founded on open access has become more expensive for artists. There are ways that performers can save money, from booking shorter runs at the festival, to being part of the free model, as used by PBH Free Fringe. This free model doesn’t charge the performer for using the venue, and the performer doesn’t charge the audience for tickets, but instead takes donations from the audience at the end of the show.

Bob Slayer’s Heroes of Fringe goes even further, using a Pay What You Want Model. This lets the audience book tickets for £5 in advance, or pay whatever they want on the night, and has been adapted by other venues. Slayer explains: “We developed Pay What You Want to enable all our shows to actually make money. We have really considered every aspect of our model to ensure that it is possible that both us and the acts are rewarded. 

“I’m very pleased to see other promoters adopting the “Pay What You Want” model, but when I have looked at what they are doing more closely I have also been saddened that they are not using this model to ensure a better scenario for artists.”

But can being part of one of the many free festivals on offer allow the performer can make a profit? The comedian, Ian Fox, who is performing his show Picture of Things That Make Me Laugh with Laughing Horse this year, says: “In a free show, you can take a steady amount each day and without having to split it with the venue you can usually recover your costs by the beginning of the third week. So that last week is usually profit. Depending on how much you eat and drink while you're there.”

However, he warns: “We are measuring profit in terms of a couple of new car tyres not a new car.”

Can artists make a profit at the Fringe?

Kasia Lech believes that turning a profit is possible, but the costs will be a barrier to some artists. “I think it is very difficult. If it wasn’t for funding, I would need to sell c. 1,000 tickets (75% of capacity) to even break even and pay my technician… If having money and making money become the main criteria, the idea of the Fringe can become corrupted.”

The idea of the next generation of performers being put off by the cost is echoed by Soutus and Surratt: “If we didn’t have support, both financially and emotionally, we wouldn’t even consider performing at [the] Fringe… which in a way is in opposition to the spirit of a fringe festival."

Luke Emery, a Bristol-based independent producer who worked on the Fringe First-winning play The Oh Fuck Moment in 2011, believes that artists can make some money at the Fringe – if they make sacrifices. “I’d say yes, it is possible. It means restricting what you can take…it’s not a secret that the Fringe exists in some sort of weird economic bubble, where it’s entirely supported by the people who need it most, and that’s the artists.”

But if that doesn’t sound very positive, Emery is quick to reassure: “It’s not all doom and gloom, is what I’m saying. It is extremely hard to make any money… the best advice I can give you is to go prepared to lose money, but work hard to make sure you don’t.”

Meanwhile, Slayer believes that yes, there is money to be made at the Fringe, but it’s not being made by the artists. He says: “When any venue, agent, producer or PR tells you that 'No one makes a profit at the fringe' you can be sure as eggs come out of chicken's bums that they are not up in Edinburgh just for buttons.

"What they are really saying is 'Artists can't make any money at the Fringe because we want it all!' If they were even more self aware they would say 'So long as we convince artists that they are lucky to break even or not lose too much money then we don't have to work out a way that means both the industry and the artists can both be paid.'"