All Tomorrow's Parties is no more

Will artist-curated festivals become a thing of the past?

Before last week, the future seemed bright for artist-curated music festival All Tomorrow’s Parties. With a string of international events, including the Yeah Yeah Yeahs curating I’ll Be Your Mirror at Alexandra Palace, Nick Cave taking the ATP festival to a former NATO base in Iceland, and a positive spate of holiday-camp merriment set for 2013, the last thing anyone was expecting was for it to come to such an abrupt conclusion. The two weekend events at Camber Sands this November and December will be the festival's last.

ATP’s extraordinary, 13-year run started in 2000, when founder Barry Hogan persuaded Mogwai to curate the first-ever festival, bringing together acts such as Arab Strap, Sigur Rós and Clinic to the Butlins holiday camp in Minehead, Somerset. It proved a winning formula. Musicians liked the fact that it was driven by artists as opposed to promoters, and had a low-key, sponsorship-free atmosphere that stood in stark contrast to the bigger festivals such as Reading or Glastonbury.

For the audience, the fact that there were no separate areas for artists meant that going to ATP gave you a chance to mingle with bands over the weekend, as opposed to simply glimpsing them on a distant stage. Back in 2000, before the rapid mushrooming of boutique festivals, this was a pretty radical concept. And it took off. Within two years, there was a US version, and the British event split into two separate weekends instead of one. An ATP stage appeared at Barcelona’s Primavera festival and an Australian incarnation of the festival was launched. As if this wasn’t enough, a new series of one-day events were launched. I’ll Be Your Mirror – named after the B-side of the Velvet Underground single "All Tomorrow’s Parties" – is essentially the same format as the festival but minus the holiday resort.

Listed like this, the sudden end of ATP makes more sense: it has outgrown itself. Its charm lay in its DIY mentality – using a holiday camp as a base, allowing bands to dictate the line-up, and relying on a core attendance of dedicated music fans to support it. The sheer number of events has taken its toll on the line-up, which in recent years has seen a core group of regulars emerging. Although they’re undeniably good bands, the events have lost the freshness and diversity that characterised the early years. Added to this, as ATP has evolved into an ever more global affair, the grass roots element has been eroded.

Founder Barry Hogan’s desire to preserve the festival’s authenticity – by calling a halt to it before it has a chance to stale or mutate into another commercial-driven affair – is manifested in his unusual choice of headliner for the final weekend: eighties alt-rock band Loop, who are temporarily reforming for the event. In previous years, line-ups were selected by bands such as Portishead, My Bloody Valentine and Animal Collective, although the curators weren’t exclusively musicians – Jake and Dinos Chapman, Matt Groening and Jim Jarmusch have all taken a turn at the festival.

The two remaining weekends will be a swan song for All Tomorrow’s Parties. Pontins holiday park at Camber Sands will be a sadder, if quieter, place.

I’ll Be Your Mirror will take place at Alexandra Palace on 4 May

Karen O performing with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs in 2009. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Skellig Michael is hardly an island - but it's the one I love most

On a rock in the Atlantic, I felt the magic of place.

I am on the vaporetto from Marco Polo Airport to the Venetian island of San Giorgio Maggiore, gulls and terns drifting back and forth over the boat, cormorants on the docks, wings spread to the sun, that late August light, unique to this place, shimmering over the waters. I haven’t been here in 20 years but I remember the greys and silvers of the terns (four species are recorded here, including the black tern, Chlidonias niger, which I find particularly elegant in flight) and the miles of tantalising reed beds, where anything might be hiding – only the city, when it finally emerges from the haze, is more postcard than recollection.

It’s a mental flaw, I suppose. I remember habitation in a formal, almost abstract way, whereas light – which is always unique to place – and flora and fauna are vivid and immediate to my mind. At the same time, every approach by water, anywhere in the world, reminds me of every other, whether it’s the crossing from Staten Island to Manhattan or the ferries that run up the coast of Norway, stopping in at one tiny harbour town after another along the way. So it comes as no great surprise, as I disembark, that I find myself remembering the island landing that I love more than any other, even though I have made that passage only once.

Skellig Michael is hardly an island. A thin needle of rock soaring more than 600 feet high straight out of the Atlantic, seven miles from the Kerry coast, it was once refuge to those contemplative monks whose desire for undisturbed reflection reached such an extreme that they braved the choppy waters common in these parts in simple coracles to settle, in tiny beehive huts, at the windy summit of the Skellig. On the day I made the crossing, most of the charter skippers refused to go out, citing the stormy weather, but I finally managed to persuade one man – whose name really was Murphy – to make the voyage and, though the water was indeed rough, the approach to the island and the hours I spent ashore were nothing short of beatific.

Nobody else was there, apart from two archaeologists who kept to their billet in the one stone house by the quay and the rabbits that had run wild and multiplied after the monks left. Halfway up the needle, I turned oceanwards as a pure light cut through the clouds, illumining the sky and the water so the horizon looked like one of those mysterious sea photographs by Hiroshi Sugimoto.

All through the crossing, gannets had swarmed noisily over the boat in spite of the weather, before dropping back, disappointed, to their colony on Michael’s sister rock, Little Skellig. Up here, however, at the top of the needle, everything was calm, almost silent, and inside the first of the beehive cells it was utterly still. I have no time for gods, as such, but I know that I was touched by something in that place – something around and about me, some kind of ordering principle that, though it needed no deity to give it power, was nevertheless sublime.

Back in Venice, as I changed boats at San Zaccaria, the noise and the crowds and the now golden light on the water could not have offered a greater contrast. Yet what was common to both landings was that quality of unique to this place, the sensation of the specific that makes any location – from gilded Venice to a bare rock, or a post-industrial ruin – magical. As long as we have such places, we have no real need of outside agency: time and place and the fact of being are enough.

Place, first and foremost, is what we all share, living and dead, in our griefs and our visions and our fleeting glory. It is what we should all strive to protect from the blandishments of commerce and the appropriations of agribusiness and other polluting enterprises, not just here, or there, but wherever our ferry boat puts in.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses