When one of the people who helped give your festival its name is annoyed with you, does that mean it’s time to call it quits? The latest in a line of troubles for the beleaguered holiday camp weekender All Tomorrow’s Parties came in the lead-up to mid-April’s Stewart Lee-curated festival at Pontins in Prestatyn and the following weekend’s subsequently cancelled Drive Like Jehu event, which had already been downsized from North Wales to the heart of Manchester.
“We did our best to believe in the organizers, in the end, they let us all down,” tweeted John Cale, who had been scheduled to take part in both, and who felt he had to cancel his appearances at the eleventh hour. That and the Drive Like Jehu cancellation announcement at the climax of Stewart Lee’s event, along with some stern words from the reformed American hardcore band from the 1990s, made for one of the worst weeks in the festival’s history.
“It’s stating the obvious that there were a few hiccups,” says Barry Hogan, the promoter who runs All Tomorrow’s Parties (or ATP, as everyone knows it), of the Lee weekender, “but there was some great music; people like Sleaford Mods, (the) Sun Ra (Arkestra), Richard Dawson. It was well-received by a lot of artists and fans.” He points to an untrue but widely-spread rumour back in March that the festival had been cancelled as the beginning of this spring’s troubles. “It killed the sales, it really went against us. And the numbers just weren’t there for Jehu. I know people will ask why we waited until that week to cancel, but we really tried to salvage it and we just weren’t able to.”
This isn’t the first time ATP has found itself in a similar position; but before repeating the issues it’s had in recent years, it’s important to remember just why its fans feel so proprietorial, and why their trust has willed it on through the bad times. Created by Hogan in 2001, in the wake of the Belle & Sebastian-organised Bowlie Weekender in 1999, ATP followed the same format as Bowlie: block book a traditional British holiday resort near the sea; fill it with fans of alternative and marginal music looking for the home comforts of a chalet rather than a tent in a muddy field; book a variety of under-the-radar artists of different genres; and leave their selection up to the headliners - usually a reformed or still-active alternative titan of the 1980s or 90s, for example Slint, Sonic Youth or My Bloody Valentine – in turn pioneering the use of the term ‘curation’ when referring to festival programming.
It was a simple but very popular idea, leading to as many as three events throughout the year in its heyday. “We had the best weekend, great music was happening everywhere and when we felt a little tired we would go back to our chalet to make a cup of tea,” says Laetitia Sadier, whose band Stereolab attended the first Bowlie event. “It felt very civilised, not having to confront the discomfort of a tent and being able to go for walks nearby. The people who were there made it special; during the first edition I remember there being mostly Scottish people and Scandinavians, for some reason. It wasn't yet the hip festival to go to and be seen at, which it became later. It was strictly a music lover’s festival and it still is. That’s what I love most about it.”
For more than a decade ATP was a DIY success story, earning a move from Camber Sands in Sussex to the larger Minehead in Somerset. Events were held in London, upstate New York, an Australian ski resort and at Primavera Sound in Barcelona. In 2009 Warp released a film about ATP. Yet in 2012 the company went into administration bearing unsustainable debts, and the formation of a new company to carry on the ATP brand didn’t stop the cancellation of 2014’s Jabberwocky event in London three days before it was due to go ahead.
Now, in light of its recent problems, there’s a sense that the world may have moved on around All Tomorrow’s Parties; that in contrast to its name, its time is in the past. When it began, there was no similar national meeting place for an audience whose natural home may have been through shared listenership of John Peel’s radio show. Now, the options for listeners of marginal music are many, from city festivals like Newcastle’s Tusk and Glasgow’s Counterflows, to a venue like London’s Café Oto, whose programming is challenging and inspired. When London post-punks This Heat reformed earlier this year, they played Café Oto before ATP.
And of course, when a flight to the continent is on a financial par with a trip to Prestatyn from London or Glasgow, its competition has become the likes of Primavera itself, sometime collaborators with ATP. Contacted for this article, the rapidly-growing Primavera confirmed that numbers travelling from the UK to its festival have increased by 315% since 2012, with 61.3% of that increase happening between 2015’s edition and this year’s. “The market’s changed dramatically in the last few years,” says Hogan. “There are so many festivals out there, and people have more pressures than ever on where to spend their money.”
“I wasn't always a fan of their programming,” says Lee Etheridge, creative director at Tusk, of ATP, “and as a festival organiser myself, I wouldn't want to hand over programming to a guest curator, but it seemed to work for a lot of people. The three I’ve been to – curated by Tortoise, Thurston Moore and Stewart Lee - were all great. I'm also not personally a fan of getting bands who stopped functioning in the mid-80s to reform and play again, but then it’s fair to say they will have brought a new, younger audience to bands like Slint.”
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Amongst anyone who knows and loves ATP, and still hotly debates its future online, there are two clear camps; those who think it’s had its day and deserves to be left behind, and those who believe it’s something special which should be nurtured and cherished for as long as possible. Etheridge is in the former camp, and his view isn’t uncommon.
“ATP gives a master class in how not to treat your audiences and artists sometimes,” he says. “Seeing how they communicate leaves a great deal to be desired, to put it politely. It’s amazing, after all they've done in this regard, that they clearly still have a reservoir of good will to draw on, I guess that's because people really do enjoy their festivals. But personally, and speaking as the manager of someone who played Prestatyn, I think it’s time to draw the curtain on the whole thing. But I'm a hypocrite too, of course – I’m sceptical about bands reforming for a nostalgia trip but I loved seeing the Stooges at ATP.”
Sadier, however, thinks the opposite. “Criticism is easy,” she says, echoing a post she made on Facebook the week after Prestatyn. “Organising and running a festival isn't. People are always so quick to slag off the ones that stick their necks out. Maybe Barry isn't the best businessman but he is one of the most inspired promotors in London, he’s taking a risk for all of us. I see (ATP) as being made and organised with love, unlike a lot of other festivals I've been to, where people are treated like cattle in a field. It isn’t cool to not be paid in full, and have festivals cancelled and not be reimbursed, but if we drag the thing down then there’s an even greater chance of there being no ATP at all. No-one would benefit from this.”
ATP isn’t over yet; its website still lists a bunch of London shows throughout the year and the return of its popular event in Iceland in June, headlined by the film composer John Carpenter, and Hogan says there’s no threat to these. “April was far from ideal, but we’re carrying on as normal,” he says, pointing out that new investors are being consulted about how to move ATP forward. Band fees from April and customer refunds from Drive Like Jehu, he says, are “being processed – the money won’t be magicked overnight, but they will go through.”
Otherwise he refuses to rule out more festivals under the holiday camp banner, although he says they’re in no rush to book any more imminently. “I don’t know if it’s the right format any more,” he says. “Maybe we should leave it alone or try something new? But all we want to do is put music on that we believe in, to bring together a nice, like-minded crowd who are all into the same thing. I mean, if we wanted to become super-rich we could have been putting massive, shite bands on all this time.”
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