How the success of the Edinburgh Fringe proves that Adam Smith was right

Self-interest was a powerful motivator in making the Edinburgh Fringe Festival the phenomenal success it is today, says Dominic Frisby.


The Fringe attracts performers of all types
(Image credit: GETTY IMAGES)

The Edinburgh Fringe Festival. By some margin, the largest arts festival in the world.

If you include the unregistered groups of which there are many this year there will be more than 70,000 performances of more than 4,000 different shows. Roughly three million tickets will be sold. Then there are the unticketed shows as well.

Outside of the bubble, people don't realise just how big this festival is. The whole world watches the 100 metres final at the Olympic Games, or the World Cup final. Edinburgh has no such main event. And so the whole world does not watch on TV.

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Nonetheless, there is only one event in the entire world, which sells more tickets the Olympic Games. And that is every four years. Edinburgh is annual.

It is one of the world's most extraordinary growth stories.

Yet nobody owns it. Nobody planned it. It has all happened quite organically...

The birth of the Fringe festival

In 1947, when the official festival in Edinburgh began, there were just eight groups. The official festival the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) raised some £30,000. There was £20,000 in subsidy from the Arts Council and from Edinburgh Town Council; and another £10,000 from one Lord Rosebery, who had just had a spot of luck on a horse.

The organiser, Rudolph Bing, put on ballet from the likes of Glyndebourne and Sadler's Wells, music from the Hall and the Vienna Philharmonic orchestras, and theatre from the Old Vic. It was highbrow, elitist stuff.

His goal was "to heal the wounds of war through the languages of the arts".

It made the front cover of the Radio Times. There was a tremendous amount of excitement about it.

This was a period of zeal and enterprise in Scottish theatre at grassroots level, and several applied to be a part of this festival.

There was a left-wing theatre group from Glasgow called the Unity Theatre, whose aim was to bring drama of relevance to working people.

The novelist Christine Orr founded a group of amateur players specifically to perform there.

There was a puppeteer from Malvern in Worcestershire called Waldo Lanchester, who also wanted to put on a show.

Bing told them "no". "You're not good enough." The goal of the Festival was to present the "highest and purest ideals of art in its many and varied forms," not amateurs and such like.

"Screw you," they thought. "You can't stop us coming", and so they came anyway. They found their own venues, arranged their own affairs and took their own financial risk.

The official festival had taken all the best spaces. The Christine Orr Players put on a show at the YMCA. Lanchester did his show in the restaurant of a cinema. The Glasgow Unity Theatre found a small theatre on Pleasance called, appropriately, the Little Theatre.

There was one production of Everyman at a church in Dunfermline, on the other side of the Firth of Forth "out on the fringe", one punter is said to have said. In total there were eight groups. The Uninvited Eight, they were later dubbed.

Unplanned, unsubsidised, completely organic the Fringe was born.

The triumph of the Fringe

The following year, the EIF doubled its subsidy to £60,000. This time around nine uninvited groups came along a 12.5% growth on the previous year.

By 1959, there were 19 groups, who put on something like 35 shows. Each year saw steady, incremental growth.

It was only in 1958 that the name "Fringe" even settled. Prior to that, these unofficial shows were known as "Additional Entertainments" and "Other Events". A central box office for them only appeared in 1955.

But the steady, incremental expansion continued. By 1959, the Fringe could provide an alternative to the main festival. The tickets were cheaper. The material was more contemporary. Audiences liked it.

The official festival refused to mention the Fringe in any of its publications. It would not invite Fringe artists to its functions. Whatever. Those on the Fringe just got on with it, and it grew.

Its core principle was that there should be no quality control no artistic vetting of the programme. Anyone could come.

In 1966, a young student did just that with a play that within a year was performed at the Royal National Theatre and became its first transfer to Broadway. His name was Tom Stoppard. The play was Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

That only fuelled the dream for everyone else.

By 1974, the Fringe was grossing more than the main festival. Today, it eclipses it.

In 2015, the wheel came full circle. The Edinburgh International Festival changed its dates to "coincide with the electricity of the Fringe".

It's all about benign self-interest

Why do artists come here?

For the same reasons they always have. They want to put on shows. They want to get noticed. They want to win awards and get on TV. They want to get better. Every footballer wants to play at the World Cup so does every artist want to perform at the Fringe. They want to make money. They want to have fun.

It all boils down to one thing: self-interest.

"It is not from the benevolence of the actor, the artist or the acrobat that we expect our entertainment, but from their regard to their own interest," Adam Smith said or something like that.

More and more artists come here every year, purely with their own self-interest in mind. Yet they do not trample over each other. Instead their self-interest is tempered by prudence, morality, empathy and so there is camaraderie.

Everything is voluntary. Nobody is forcing anybody to do anything. Inequality and injustice are everywhere. Artists may moan about it, but then they get on with it. They do not have 45% of the audiences taken and redistributed to other more needy or deserving acts.

A gazillion different hurdles have been thrown in the way, from that very first festival when the Uninvited Eight were told they weren't good enough, and yet on each occasion, individuals have found their own solutions.

There is no quality control, nor any centrally-imposed directives. Any rules are set locally, according to the situation in each venue.

It is the most competitive place on earth, and the result is this incredible festival, enjoyed by millions, providing opportunity after opportunity not just for artists, but for any number of businesses from printers, to designers, to restaurant owners.

"The natural effort of every individual to better his own condition," said Adam Smith, "is so powerful, that it is alone, and without any assistance, not only capable of carrying on the society to wealth and prosperity, but of surmounting a hundred impertinent obstructions with which the folly of human laws too often encumbers its operations."

The Fringe is Adam Smith in action. Every August, no doubt, he smiles on from his grave, right in the middle of it all, at Canongate Kirkyard on the Royal Mile.

Coming to the Edinburgh Festival?

Then come to Adam Smith: Father of the Fringe, my lecture on the history of the Fringe and how it proved the realisation of everything Smith argued for. It's at Panmure House, where Smith lived for the last 12 years of his life, and takes place in the very room where he completed Wealth of Nations.

Or in the same room, but later in the day you can discuss the big issues of the day with Merryn and guests from the world of politics, economics and finance. That's The Butcher, The Brewer, The Baker and the Commentator.

Dominic Frisby

Dominic Frisby (“mercurially witty” – the Spectator) is, we think, the world’s only financial writer and comedian. He is the author of the popular newsletter the Flying Frisby and is MoneyWeek’s main commentator on gold, commodities, currencies and cryptocurrencies. 

His books are Daylight Robbery - How Tax Changed our Past and Will Shape our Future; Bitcoin: the Future of Money? and Life After the State - Why We Don't Need Government. 

Dominic was educated at St Paul's School, Manchester University and the Webber-Douglas Academy Of Dramatic Art. You can follow him on X @dominicfrisby