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ATP is dying but does the flannel-clad utopia of watching Shellac every year have to be over?

What's going to happen to Neutral Milk Hotel now? Will they have to teach sixth form?

by Oscar Rickett
15 August 2014, 2:03pm

ATP’s Jabberwocky Festival, which was meant to be going ahead this weekend at the Excel Centre, in London’s Docklands, has been cancelled at the last minute. Barry Hogan, ATP’s founder, sent out an email saying that if they had gone ahead with the festival, “it would have 100% been the end of ATP”. The Zeitgeist Agency, which had been doing the PR for the festival, responded with an email of their own, sent to hundreds of journalists, saying they were pursuing Willwal Ltd (ATP) for months of unpaid bills. A spat over who is responsible for refunding ticket-holders has broken out between ATP and Dash Tickets. Across the indie nation, Sebadoh B-sides are being broken in anger.

It seems sad that it’s come to this. Is the flannel-clad utopia of watching Shellac and Les Savy Fav every year and then going back to a Butlins cabin and fucking your platonic friend that you’ve always fancied over? What will happen to Steve Albini’s career as a full-time curator? Will Neutral Milk Hotel have to start touring In the Aeroplane Over the Sea at working men’s clubs from now on?

I was meant to be covering Jabberwocky, and there were plenty of acts I was looking forward to seeing but it’s been clear for a while that, in its current form, ATP is unsustainable. As this excellent 2012 investigation by the Stool Pigeon shows, ATP haven’t turned a net profit since 2007 and despite all the good music it’s championed, ATP’s history is also about debt, liquidation and being taken to court.

The main issue seems to be about concepts of popularity. ATP took “alternative” music and put it into a mainstream format. The choice to use Butlins may have been partially ironic and the clientele may have been more cardigans than Classics, but these festivals took the concept of indie and tried to turn a profit from it. Many of the bands that benefited from this had never made money first time around and it was only after the staggering success of Nevermind, which saw the alternative nation crash the mainstream party, blowing arena rock and hair metal out the water and ushering in a new, more discerning era in music, that bands like Mudhoney and Dinosaur Jr. could really conceive of headlining a festival.

ATP was the festival that came and gave them that chance, long after they’d ceased to be vital forces in indie music.

Whatever you think of bands like Neutral Milk Hotel, Darkside and Caribou, it’s hard to argue that they are anything other than a cult concern. I don’t mean this as an insult. Obviously success in the market has never been about the quality of music made and the history of pop music is a battlefield littered with the corpses of great bands that never made it and the gold statues of terrible bands that were boosted to prominence by the market and people’s baffling taste. The relatively well-known secret behind Nirvana’s success is that Nevermind was a slick record, mixed by Andy Wallace and full of commercially viable hits. Kurt Cobain wanted to be punk but also wanted to be famous.

This disconnection between the original spirit of alternative music, or whatever you want to call it, and the forces of the market, is well shown in the venue Jabberwocky was going to be held at. My last two visits to the Excel centre are a testament to what that dome of lost corporate souls was designed to host. Earlier this year, I was there to review Barry Manilow. The place was full of people who’d file the name “Neutral Milk Hotel” under “Kids say the funniest things”, middle-aged Fanilows who, if they’ve heard of Kurt Cobain, probably think of him as that depressed man who made a racket. In 2012, I was there to report on a weekend event of motivational speaking headlined by Donald Trump and Tony Robbins. The place was full of people who’d auditioned for The Apprentice. It was fascinating and terrifying.

Global capital is the only game in town down in the Docklands and that’s not what these bands ever really meant to get wrapped up in. The best reason ATP seemed to be able to come up with for holding it there was that the venue had Dyson Air Blade hand dryers, so there would be no “broken hand-dryer nonsense”. Punk’s not dead; it’s just got very artfully dried hands. If you choose to hold what’s meant to be a celebration of independent music in a conference centre, then maybe you shouldn’t be surprised when it all goes wrong.

ATP was a gamble that’s time is probably up. What was going to happen? Were The Cribs going to play through their “seminal” first record on its 15th anniversary? Was Burial going to do the same, with the added bonus of an expensively commissioned unique piece of video art? ATP raised the alternative heroes of the recent past onto a commercial level they’d never reached as working musicians.

It was a noble dream: take a slew of musicians who would otherwise have become sixth form music teachers and give them the livelihood they never had but probably deserved. In the end, the mass market bit back. Financial realities struck hard. That doesn’t mean indie’s dead. It just means that it might go back to being happy to exist in smaller communities. It's come a long way, from bedrooms to shit clubs to Butlins to Alexandra Palace. But when it came knocking at the door of the mainstream, Barry Manilow had changed the locks. At the Copacabana, Bob Mould's not on the guestlist.