Has the holiday-camp indie festival had its day?
There’s perhaps little appeal in the idea of spending a weekend at a desolate holiday camp listening to challenging music. But from 1999 to 2016, All Tomorrow’s Parties made the format into a festival that inspired devotion from its audience and a regular appearances from bands – that is, until it blew all that goodwill after a series of cancellations and site changes. In June 2016, two months after one last festival curated by comedian Stewart Lee, ATP announced that it was folding for good.
It seemed logical that another promoter would try its hand at what had been a successful model, and in October 2016, the founders of Gateshead’s Tusk festival and shop/label Alt.Vinyl announced the Safe As Milk weekender. Due to take place in Prestatyn Pontins this month, the 3,500-capacity festival was to feature artists such as returning folk godmother Shirley Collins, eyeball fans the Residents, and Syrian wedding singer Omar Souleyman – precisely the kind of leftfield acts that had populated ATP. The news met with a warm response, both for the fearless lineup and a return to holiday camps, where booze is easily smuggled into the venues, punters can cook in their chalets, and rain can’t hamper proceedings. But last week, a month before the festival was due to start, Safe As Milk announced that it was cancelled, owing to to low ticket sales.
All Tomorrow’s Parties’ closure had perhaps influenced those curious about the event. Within days of Safe As Milk’s announcement, Google searches for the festival auto-completed to “safe as milk festival atp” as wary fans checked to see who was behind the scenes. John Rostron is the founder of Cardiff’s Sŵn festival, a board member of the Association of Independent Festivals, and a national adviser to the Arts Council of Wales. “I think the Safe As Milk audience was, broadly speaking, the All Tomorrow’s Parties audience,” he says. “And that’s not a huge number of people – it’s a few thousand. A lot of them had been stung by ATP, and as a result, they’re a lot more informed about how a festival comes together, paying more attention to where they were buying their tickets, and who had their money.” AIF general manager Paul Reed says the knock-on effect is obvious, and emphasises a need to rebuild trust between organisers and consumers.
Safe As Milk founders Lee Etherington and Graham Thrower knew that the perceived association could be an issue. “We went out of our way to make it very clear that we weren’t ATP in disguise, and we’re confident we got that across. To be honest, we are still not sure where we went wrong. Maybe people are tentative about a new festival and want to see how the first year goes before they commit, says Thrower.” The pair are hesitant to expose their overall ticket sales. “Let’s just say we didn’t sell enough to break even or to give us confidence that we would achieve anywhere close to that in the last three weeks’ run-up to the event,” Thrower adds.
ATP isn’t wholly to blame for SAM’s failure. ATP started in 1999; many of those festival-goers have kids now, and will be looking to more family-friendly festivals – if they’re still going to any. These are economically challenging times, and holiday camp festivals require group chalet bookings, rather than individual ticket purchases. “It’s a real hassle to organise,” says Benjamin Bland, a longterm ATP-goer who decided not to attend SAM.
Some fans also wondered whether SAM lacked a killer headliner. “I like obscure noise acts as much as anyone, but I think a festival needs someone with songs you’ve loved for years as well,” says Adam Bowman, who did buy tickets. “You need a Venetian Snares and a Pavement.” But the ATP curated in 2010 by a reunited Pavement was under-attended – even at the better-known end of the scale, this is fundamentally obscure music. “Most of the people who had booked Safe As Milk I know from Supersonic,” says Frances McLaughlin, “so I think there’s a finite group of people who want to listen to this kind of thing.”
So how do British niche festivals survive? Since 2003, Supersonic festival has brought an avant-garde programme to a spread of Birmingham venues. They fundraise year-round to help with cashflow, though the festival wouldn’t be viable without extra funding from the Arts Council, British Council and PRS, says co-founder Lisa Meyer. “A lot of artists that we have on the bill are completely unknown, or they are producing a performance that they might not be able to do anywhere else, and so that needs to be subsidised.” Even with funding, keeping a niche festival afloat is “really hard work”, she says. “Whereas Supersonic was the blueprint for a number of festivals early on, that marketplace is now saturated. These things are a white-knuckle ride – the early-bird tickets go very quickly, but after that it’s a very slow trickle to the end. People are increasingly looking to make sure that it’s definitely going to happen.”
Safe as Milk didn’t apply for any funding. “Had we got through year one, we think we would have brought a sponsor and/or a partner on board,” says Thrower. “But no, we felt we had got a solid plan and a lineup strong enough to back that up.” Many British festival organisers don’t even realise they are eligible for funding, says Paul Reed. “We recently ran a Funding for Festivals training day because we thought we should be signposting our members towards what’s out there. Though there isn’t a great deal of support underpinning festivals in that sense, really. There’s just a couple of pots.”
Some will say that obscure music festivals don’t deserve public money, but this such support aids the long-term development of artists outside the major label system – the ones who push music forward. “It’s not an easy task in these times to defend the existence of art forms that [don’t serve] the goal of profit-making,” says Nan van Houte of the EU-funded International Network for Contemporary Performing Arts. “Avant garde is about inspiration, searching for the unknown, using the utmost unique talent of the artists; to see what others don’t see yet, or from a deliberately different perspective from the rest of the world.”
But funding isn’t the only life or death issue for niche festivals. A common complaint about All Tomorrow’s Parties – and SAM – was that the lineups were always familiar (“I can go to my grave never seeing Fuck Buttons or Younghusband again,” says Adam Bowman). In Europe, the likes of Poland’s Unsound and Berlin’s CTM may be supported by EU money, but they use it to take a creative approach to programming, foregrounding novel collaborations and new work being made on site. Supersonic is one of the few UK festivals working along these lines. “It comes back to seeing music as an art form and not just a shopping list,” says Meyer. “Festivals are 10 a dozen, and you need to think about what you can offer in a different way.”
She praises Supernormal (no relation), an outdoor Oxfordshire festival that also invites artists to propose unusual projects. Running the festival “can be a struggle”, says co-founder Jimmy Martin, “but I think we feel at this stage – without wanting to sound unduly hippyish – like the boundaries between the audience and the organisers have been dissolved to a degree in which we have everyone’s interests at heart, and that’s what drives us onward.” He says every member of the Supernormal team bought early bird tickets to SAM, and that he hopes ATP doesn’t leave a mark on experimental and alternative music festivals. “There’s really a lot more to this world than that one defunct organisation, and it would be unfair if the legacy of that festival hung over the underground music scene like some kind of albatross in a Slint T-shirt. A lot of us are extremely bored by 90% of festival culture and are constantly seeking for ways to keep music events fresh and exciting. Safe As Milk felt to me like a chance to wipe the slate clean. It wasn’t, sadly, but we all keep on moving.”
Avant-garde festivals may be under pressure, but they’re not going anywhere, says Olly Burch, another Supernormal co-founder. “It will just have to survive in the margins, unfunded and struggling.” That’s what makes theories that Safe As Milk was some kind of cash-in so galling, says Jimmy Martin. “Nobody gets involved with an event like that because they think it’ll make them loads of money – it’s a labour of love, and you can guarantee that if everything falls apart, the roughest ride of all goes to the promoter, who had next to nothing to gain from it all financially in the first place.”
“If we do try this again, I doubt it will be any time soon,” says Thrower, admitting that he and Etherington are feeling raw in the aftermath of the cancellation. “We entered into this very cautiously and put our plans together very carefully over several months before deciding to go ahead. We failed, but we can’t help thinking it was a really thin line between us folding and having an amazing weekend that set us on the road to years of Safe As Milks.”