Last weekend the indie music institution that is All Tomorrow’s Parties hosted I’ll Be Your Mirror, their first event in Japan and with a line-up featuring the cream of Japanese alternative music – the Boredoms, Boris – alongside post-rock legends Godspeed You Black Emperor, Fuck Buttons and cult Japanese toy-maker AMOS providing visuals amongst others, it’s perhaps no surprise that tickets for the event were sold out weeks in advance.
The growth of ATP over the last 10 years is an amazing story – and one that a lot of brands could learn from. What began as a single event put on in an old Butlins holiday camp by Belle and Sebastian in 1999 has now become a true phenomenon, with regular festivals in not just the UK but also the USA, Australia and now Japan, alongside its own in-house record label.
So what’s behind their success?
Well first off, unlike many of the identikit festivals that appeared (and promptly disappeared) in the UK over the last decade, trying to cash in on the festival trend, ATP has never been about the money. In fact, it doesn’t even have any brand sponsors, with everything funded by ticket sales alone. It’s clear that ATP really is all about the music.
But what really distinguishes ATP festivals from others is the way that it hands creative control over to the musicians. Each event is curated by one of the bands, who selects the line-up, creating what the events founder, Barry Hogan, has described as being like a mix tape of their favourite bands. The curators, which include Portishead, Animal Collective and even Simpsons creator Matt Gorening, each select what will be played on the TVs in each of the holiday camp ‘chalets’ over the course of the festival.
This approach is at the heart of what makes ATP so special. By handing the festival over to the musicians, they’ve created something that musicians love and want to be a part of. This approach opens more doors than money ever could because artists genuinely want to get involved. That’s why ATP is able to attract names such as Jeff Magnum from Neutral Milk Hotel, who will be curating an upcoming festival in the UK. It’s why the Boredoms chose to play what is likely to be their only gig of 2011 at ATP last week in Tokyo.
This sense of community runs right through the ethos of the events. The artists and promoters stay in the same accommodation as the fans, bringing everyone closer together. For several events ATP have handed creative direction over to the fans, allowing them to collectively select the line up. The collective spirit is even reflected in a documentary that ATP released in 2009 , All Tomorrow’s Parties: The Film, which was made up of footage taken by fans, musicians and the organizers over the course of the last 10 years.
It’s these values that have allowed ATP to grow beyond their initial base in the unlikely setting of Butlins in Minehead and become the institution that they are today. In the process they’ve created something far more valuable than profit, a movement that people genuinely want to be a part of. Instead of trying to give people what they want, they’ve done what they believe in and led by example, no doubt in the process creating their own fans, people inspired to share in their values.
ATP has done something that all brands would love to do but very few actually achieve: they’ve become part of the cultural fabric. Not all brands can be music festivals and not many could inspire the same sense of community as ATP but most could act a little bit more out of their own beliefs. In doing so, they may just find that this is the quickest way to win over customers that they’re usually trying so hard to please.