Few festivals have a legacy like that of All Tomorrow’s Parties. For 15 years ATP drew the likes of Nick Cave, Patti Smith, Belle and Sebastian, Iggy Pop and Mogwai to Pontins holiday camp for weekends that became the stuff of indie legend. And at the heart of it all was Barry Hogan, the straight-talking promoter whose goal was to stage a festival that was “without the bullshit egos, shit bands, Ticketmaster or corporate sponsors”.
Yet in April, for the second time in 18 months, ATP was forced to cancel a weekend festival with just a few days’ notice, leaving fans and musicians out of pocket and a trail of disappointment, anger and legal threats.
The two-day event, which was to be curated by cult hardcore band Drive Like Jehu, had been dogged with problems from the off. First it had to move venues, from Pontins at Prestatyn in Wales to a warehouse in Manchester. It then emerged the festival had failed to pay for any of the promised flights to get musicians to the festival and the Manchester venue had still received no down payment. Indeed, Hogan was so short of cash he even asked John Reis, singer of Drive Like Jehu, for a short-term credit card loan to pay the deposit on the warehouse just over a week before the festival.
The Guardian has talked to several of the 30 bands who were due to play, and they spoke openly of about the “months of chaos” in the buildup to the festival. After waiting months for ATP to buy their plane tickets, during which prices increased by the day, bands such as El Vez “gave in” and purchased their own at a cost of more than $5,000 (£3,400), with promises from Hogan they would be immediately reimbursed. The money never arrived, and following the festival cancellation, El Vez singer Robert Lopez told the Guardian he is now planning legal action against Hogan to get the money back.
Chris Coole, from band the Clawhammer, also due to play, said it was “a disaster from the get-go”.
“People really love ATP and I think Barry sincerely cares about music, which is why he put these festivals on in the first place,” he said. “But in the end he was gambling with literally thousands of people’s plans and money, and that’s just incredibly irresponsible, it’s almost sociopathic.”
To add insult to injury, Hogan did not email any of the bands to inform them ATP was cancelled, ensuring most found out via Twitter or the lengthy statement released by Drive Like Jehu on their Facebook page, which was adorned with a picture of a toilet roll with the letters ATP written on it.
The fiasco mirrored ATP’s London festival Jabberwocky, which was due to be held in August 2014 but was cancelled with just three days’ notice, many bands having already travelled from the US. Then, fans hastily organised shows for the groups at other venues around London, so their financial losses were reduced. But there was no one to compensate the fans: two years down the line, some say they are still waiting for ticket refunds.
“It’s like Barry has a sickness, he’s addicted to putting on these ambitious festivals but doesn’t have the business knowledge or funds to back it up – and everyone else has suffered,” said Mike Blaha of the Blind Shake, who were on Drive Like Jehu’s ATP lineup.
Speaking to the Guardian, Hogan admitted that ATP “are clearly not good money-makers and businesspeople; for that we are terribly sorry”.
He added: “We did everything in our power to make Manchester happen. We tried to borrow the money and were prepared to just work to pay it off over time, but the deficit was so large that we just couldn’t get the credit to get it to go ahead.”
So how did it all go so wrong for indie’s most beloved festival?
For many music fans in the early 2000s, All Tomorrow’s Parties - named after the Velvet Underground song – was revolutionary. It was inspired by the Bowlie Weekender, the festival organised by Belle and Sebastian at the Camber Sands Pontins in Sussex, in April 1999. Two years later, ATP put on its first festival, at the same venue, curated by Mogwai. Stuart Braithwaite of Mogwai said the festival “arrived at a time when festivals were becoming increasingly corporate and sterile and I believe that they have provided a fantastic alternative to that world.”
He went on: “By having bands curate, they have created bills where fans can see the musicians that influenced and excited the curators. The removal of separation between the artists and the fans was refreshing.”
It was this unique setup that inspired a ferocious loyalty among both fans and musicians, pulling in acts as varied as Sonic Youth, Iggy and the Stooges, Vampire Weekend and even Yoko Ono, who, over the course of a weekend, turned Pontins into a fleeting indie utopia. It was the subject of an acclaimed documentary in 2009.
Yet even at its peak, ATP and Hogan were battling financial difficulties. Company reports going back to 2007 show that ATP Concerts was grappling with liabilities that started off as £171,213 in 2008, rising to £1.5m in 2010 and £2.1m in 2011. While most of the British ATP parties were sellout successes, the burdens of hosting some of the world’s most famous musicians, expanding into the US and the recession all took their toll. Even their UK festivals did not always break even; one curated by Matt Groening, the Simpsons’ creator, lost £500,000.
Hogan conceded that balancing the books was not always easy: “Yeah, that is always a tough one,” he said in an interview in 2009. “I get tempted and want to go crazy on the budget so we can have these insane lineups that I know will blow people’s minds.”
In July 2012, after threats from one of ATP’s 63 creditors, Hogan was forced to dissolve his company, which had around £2m in unpaid debts to everyone from Butlins to the band Portishead. It also had an outstanding tax bill of £26,080.
This was not to be the end of the festivals, however. Days after the liquidation, Hogan announced on ATP’s website that he had established another company, Willwal Ltd, which would continue the running of the festivals. He purchased the ATP name from the liquidators for an agreed price of £70,000 – though it was reduced to £50,000 last year after Hogan could not keep up the payments due to “severe financial difficulties”.
For devoted fans of the ATP brand it appeared that little had changed. Weekend festivals at Pontins, curated by bands such as the National, Deerhunter, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and TV on the Radio, continued throughout 2012 and 2013, though Mogwai’s event in late 2013 was billed as the last ever holiday camp weekender.
In 2014, ATP announced Jabberwocky, which was due to take place in August. ATP had expanded into London weekenders before, with its I’ll Be Your Mirror events at Alexandra Palace in 2011 and 2012, and Jabberwocky seemed like one of its strongest events yet, with Neutral Milk Hotel, James Blake and Caribou headlining.
But the cracks soon began to show. Tickets were originally sold on the basis it would take place at the Olympic Park in east London, but the mayor’s office claims it never received a booking. The event was later moved to the Docklands ExCel Conference centre, to the disgruntlement of fans, who mocked Hogan for responding to complaints about the new venue by saying the toilets had good hand-dryers. Then, three days before it was due to happen, the event was cancelled, with Hogan bluntly stating: “If we had gone ahead, it would have 100% been the end of ATP.”
Many saw this as the swansong for ATP. It had angered loyal fans, musicians and even its PR company, Zeitgeist, which claimed Hogan failed to pay it. Yet ATP still had its defenders and Hogan announced last year that 2016 would see the return of ATP’s Pontins weekenders – the first curated by comedian Stewart Lee and the second by Drive Like Jehu.
Stewart Lee’s weekender did eventually take place on 15-17 April this year to mixed reviews (the Guardian gave it four stars), and the comedian admitted he had been unsure whether it would go ahead. Several musicians, such as folk singer Olivia Chaney, did not turn up for fear they would not be paid. More damagingly, John Cale – who had been due to play at both Lee’s and Drive Like Jehu’s events – pulled out of the shows. “We did our best to believe in the organisers,” he tweeted. “In the end, they let us all down.”
Unresolved debts saw Hogan taken to court eight times between 2013 and 2016 and at least two equipment-hire companies told the Guardian they had sent bailiffs to ATP’s offices last year due to unpaid bills – but there were “no assets to take”. Adding to this, the cost of moving Drive Like Jehu’s ATP from Prestatyn to Manchester, coupled with poor ticket sales, left Hogan in further dire financial straits, with a deficit of around £300,000.
However, it was only after Hogan asked Drive Like Jehu’s singer John Reis for a loan to help pay for the venue – and admitted that he had no accommodation for the ticketholders who had purchased a Pontins chalet – that the band took matters into their own hands. The band forced Hogan’s hand, releasing a statement.
“After four months of a long and bumpy ride, the wheels finally fell off the wagon and crashed and burned,” wrote Reis. “We were so committed to seeing this through that we remained hopeful (blind, in retrospect) amongst the ritualistic turmoil and crisis and trusted their solutions that would ensure that the show would definitely go on and the attendees would be treated fairly and the bands would be respected and celebrated.”
He added: “Forty-eight hours ago word started to trickle in that Barry hadn’t honoured his agreement with many of the bands … ATP is out of funds.”
Yet it took another eight hours for ATP to admit it was over – during which time tickets still remained on sale. “We have had to accept defeat due to its lack of financial viability,” its eventual statement said. ATP has pledged full refunds to all ticket holders, a promise Hogan reiterated to the Guardian.
“We realise now that doing things for the love of music alone is not enough,” Hogan told the Guardian. “The last thing we ever intended to do is hurt fellow fans and will work to make it up to them. We have put everything we possibly could into this … We really are devastated we couldn’t make it work.”
Nonetheless, Hogan is determined that this should not be the end of the road for his beloved festival, though he admitted he had been forced to face some hard truths. ATP will no longer be self-financing its larger shows and festivals, and instead will license out its name to outside investors and promoters.
Yet many in the music industry, bands and fans alike, felt that this time there was no resurrecting the good name of ATP.
“I feel certain that this incident signals the end of what was once a beautiful, brilliant festival,” said Martin Quintron, another musician left disappointed last weekend. “We played one of the earliest ones in Camber Sands and it was life-changing – but that was long ago.”