Feature: What role does music play at Edinburgh Fringe Festival

The Royal Mile, stretching through the centre of Edinburgh, is a remarkable location at any time of year.

Every August, as the world-famous Edinburgh Fringe Festival rolls into town, it takes on a life of its own.

Performers, artists, promoters and tourists flood the streets in their thousands as they urgently seek their next destination.

Accompanying the chaos is a constant musical backdrop, thanks to more than 800 street performers from 50 different countries filling every spare square metre.

Australian Hugo Bladel, delivering improvised rap with his keyboard here for the last three years, has never had his own show but instead garners crowds and donations from constant street displays.

“I make sure I mix it up every year and always have something new. You have to do that to survive. I love coming here, it is like nothing else.”

The Royal Mile is a huge attraction for those, like Hugo, who are not fortunate enough to have their own production but still want a little fill of the magic and exposure the festival brings.

Irish singer Camille O’Sullivan is in her 13th year at the Fringe, having first arrived in 2004 and missed only three festivals since.

This year, she opted to return to Edinburgh with her performance of the works of Nick Cave.

However, music is increasingly an endangered art at the fringe. Rising costs for equipment, lighting and promotion have made it an economic risk while comedy continue to surge in popularity, now accounting for 37% of all acts compared to 34% in 2015.

O’Sullivan admitted the landscape had changed significantly since she first started out, voicing her fears at what may become of music at the fringe in coming years.

She said: “This year I was really struck that there wasn’t much music there are, the majority seemed to be tribute shows.

“I took a year out in 2018 and the whole thing has changed, it does feel like comedy is the overriding thing now.

What I think is a positive for musicians is that it helps me create a new show every year, it is the fear that Edinburgh puts in you.

“It makes you really have to reinvent yourself, I may have given up years ago if I didn’t have Edinburgh as a go to every August.”

Asked whether she thinks music will continue to be prominent at the Fringe, O’Sullivan said: “I would dearly like it to but it feels like a scary world now. We used to sell CDs after gigs, but now people don’t buy CDs anymore, people don’t go to gigs so much.

“Comedy seems to be where the money is at for promoters because it is just one person on stage.

“It is more expensive to put on music; that is a simple economic fact. When we played this year we had to rent extra lighting, sound equipment and all the extras. People wouldn’t imagine the scale of the extra cost.

“It was very strange to me this year with the tribute acts, but you always get artists who come up and do music, their own stuff. I’d like to think the trend would come back.”

Irwin Sparkes and Alan Sharland performed at Edinburgh Fringe Festival as Felix and the Scootermen

Irwin Sparkes and Alan Sharland, of noughties chart-toppers The Hoosiers, reinvented themselves as Felix and The Scootermen for TED Talk-themed show ‘Self Help Yourself Famous’.

Drawing upon their experiences as a No 1 band, the five-point guide gives way to the darker side of their climb to the top and was borne out of a conversation with Jo Whiley 13 years ago about how to deal with game.

The show, put on at Underbelly’s Bristo Square venue, brings together the drama and the music.

Sparkes, who had worked on lights and sound at the Festival in 2004, admitted he was surprised at how much it had grown in the intervening years.

Sparkes said: “Alan and I had been throwing ideas around for a decade, and getting something to the Fringe was always a target.

“It was certainly more intense than being on tour, on tour you get the odd day off, whereas we had one day off which we spent playing a Hooziers gig in Rochdale.

“It was fascinating to see the acts the Fringe venerates and the sheer variety of backgrounds these performers come from.

“The Fringe asks a lot of people, especially their bank balance, and you have to pay more for more exposure.”

This year was also notable for the number of musicians coming to the festival in different guises.

From Akala, now delivering a talk on social history after the success of his book Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of an Empire, to Jessie Ware and her mum bringing their wildly popular Table Manners for three live shows, the festival provides endless opportunities for reinvention and rebranding.

There are, however, still definite problems with the festival; a vast number of performers will be left out of pocket due to the costs of accommodation and promotion.

O’Sullivan admitted that her shows have often run at a loss and left her wondering how she would recoup her expenses.

She said: “Some people get bitten by the cost. Having spoken to a friend, she said it was very rare for a musician to stay in as long as I have, because we can’t come back with the same show. Some comedians do.

“One year, I remember losing so much money, thinking how did it I lose so much money?! I was lucky, but a lot of people aren’t.

“I have done gigs where I’m counting the audience going ‘Well as long as there’s not less than this number I will not lose too much money’, which is crazy.”

Sparkes was particularly forthright on the issues surrounding financing a run at the Fringe.

He added: “I think there are a lot of people falling between the cracks and for anyone going it is worth thinking about what they hope to achieve.

“You must weigh up your expectations are and what your definition of success is. I can feel better about our show if I can frame it as the beginning of something, rather than the awards we didn’t win.

“That’s a good lesson in life, especially in the performing arts.”

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