I’VE worked in pretty much every capacity you could imagine at the Edinburgh festivals. Over the years I’ve flyered, taken tickets, worked the bars, written reviews, helped out behind the scenes, produced shows and even (don’t ask) appeared as a performer.
Invariably I made a loss out of the experience, but collectively those years of festival jobs in my twenties taught me a great deal.
This kind of work is the only option many of us have to truly participate in the festival. But the opportunities to throw yourself in are so numerous and the experiences so strange, that it’s hard to define what’s work and what isn’t.
For one month in August, the thrawn Scottish capital becomes a pre-eminent global city and it draws in people of all ages, backgrounds and incomes.
Yet with every passing year the nature of work at these events has become gradually more politicised. A new blog, Fringe Whistleblower has offered a space for disgruntled performers and staff to disclose instances of low pay, overwork and exploitative practices off-stage.
For some time now the Fringe, once the edgy open access wing of Edinburgh’s festivals, has been dominated by a small number of large corporate players.
But while the average price of a ticket has soared and wages have stagnated, many of the large venues rake in cash by letting out venues’ with all the lack of scruples and exorbitant costs of the London housing market.
The Fringe is now culture brought to you by Generation Rent. It is powered by desperate, deluded and determined performers who fork out huge sums in proportion to their income and take on mountains of personal debt, simply to access the basics.
The risks involved, both creative and financial, are borne by the individual. Meanwhile the city’s buy to let landlords make a killing as demand for accommodation soars.
The city itself knows what is going on, but is still dining out on the prestige half a century after the whole thing started.
Like most of the bits of this country’s economy that still function, the festival has settled on a model that generates major revenues for the few off the backs of a young, precarious, and remarkably adaptable casual workforce.
There’s a danger that the harsh economic realities of our times will begin to erode the entire spirit of Edinburgh’s annual August transformation. Privilege and wealth, rather than raw talent and hunger, are becoming the ultimate arbiters of access to culture. But these problems are not restricted to the Edinburgh festivals. Over the past year Scotland has shown that huge corporate ventures take priority when it comes to funding.
While T in The Park received government subsidy, the nimble and talent-nurturing Arches was abandoned with hypocritical tutting about the chemical substances that were being consumed there.
“Socialism for the rich” is distorting our cultural life. Mogwai’s Stuart Braithwaite has described an “Etonification” of the music industry, working class bands without the means to support themselves are becoming squeezed as the game becomes dominated by those with enough inherited wealth to keep on trying for that elusive breakthrough.
We rarely stop and think about how the structure of our economy impacts on culture. But when you place an entire generation into a precarious position – when stability is something that has to be fought for as a prize for successful economic performance – creativity cannot take root.
The results aren’t surprising, as the system becomes rigged in favour of those with the good fortune to self-fund their ambitions, the diversity and the scope of the arts is radically diminished.
In recent decades forces in Britain have militated against creativity, but not through a direct policy of censorship or discrimination.
There’s no need for those. Rather, the simultaneous effort to weaken any social safety net while privileging private wealth has excluded and stifled the creative talents of young people far more effectively.
Yet even established artists face regular financial hardship. In an exceptional move earlier this week Creative Scotland signalled its intention to campaign on the issue of low pay for artists.
In its most recent report it shows that roughly 80 per cent of artists in Scotland earn less than £10,000 per annum through their artistic output. A mere two per cent earn over £20,000.
When creativity doesn’t pay it can be easily bought.As creative ambitions become stifled by a hostile economy, the inherent value of art gets eroded.
Throughout a country cannibalising its youth, the basic foundations of creativity; youth subcultures, economic idleness and relative equality are now explicitly socially unacceptable (particularly in urban areas).
Once cheap and accessible spaces that acted as breeding grounds for counter-cultures and alternative lifestyles are now almost entirely commercialised.
The flexibility of the “gig economy” was supposed to be the sweetener for this generation of workers buzzing with imagination and possibility. But as has been well documented, it has only served to lower conditions, increase hours and normalise economic instability.
Against this backdrop it’s easy to forget that when we display confidence in collective creative ability, transformation is possible.
The original creative risk involved in turning a provincial and Presbyterian Edinburgh into a global cultural capital is a case in point.
The arrival of the festival in Edinburgh in 1947 was a defining moment in the history of modern Scotland.That it almost didn’t happen had become the stuff of legend.
But here was the rarest of things: a capital city that wasn’t really a capital, with all the grand venues you’d expect therein but with only the occasional need to make use of them.
In one of the few European cities relatively unscarred by war, the festival represented a process of healing and optimism.
An enormous gamble was taken based on a feeling of confidence in the inherent value of art and creativity.
In Scotland we need to foster that kind of remarkable, bold and era-defining vision again. If we don’t, we will be abandoning young talent to lives of odd jobs, low pay, high rents and bad debt. They deserve better.