6 February 2013
Articles | Interviews | News

Investigation: ATP

Liquidated in June with debts of over £2.6m, then reborn in July with the support of many creditors and, seemingly, the fans. What is going on with ATP? We investigate and interview founder Barry Hogan, who admits that ‘promoting concerts is like going to the races’.

Words Alex Marshall and Phil Hebblethwaite

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This article was first published in August 2012

On June 21, The Stool Pigeon received a call. It was from Deborah Higgins, one of two directors of ATP Concerts Ltd, the company behind the legendary All Tomorrow’s Parties festivals and stand-alone gigs in London, which have secured the obsessive loyalty of music fans for over a decade and even revolutionised the ways in which events are staged in the UK and abroad.

The call concerned an outstanding invoice of £900 for advertising.

Higgins said that ATP was being closed down, a new company was being established and our debt would be settled in a few weeks.

A week later, ATP Concerts went into liquidation, meaning it could no longer pay its debts, so would cease to exist. A liquidator would try to sell any assets, splitting proceeds between those owed money by the firm (creditors). In such situations, creditors often receive a fraction of what they’re owed. Higgins had called to say that our invoice would be paid in full by the new company. Other companies that were owed money were called too.

All creditors later received letters from the liquidator outlining the situation. But news of ATP’s financial affairs didn’t reach fans who had bought tickets to forthcoming events until July 3, when a filing was spotted in the London Gazette, the official journal in which all insolvency announcements have to be published. A link posted on Twitter and Facebook spread at speed.

ATP were quick to respond. “To address the rumours going around; there are some changes currently happening with the company,” they tweeted, “however none of the currently scheduled events or future events will be affected.”

At the time, the firm was due to hold about 20 concerts before the end of the year, as well as three festivals: one in New Jersey, and two at Pontins holiday camp in Camber Sands, Sussex.

The first UK festival, headlined by The National, was sold out. A month earlier, it had been moved from Butlins in Minehead to the far-smaller site in Camber Sands, a five-hour drive away. Fans started linking that decision to the liquidation.

It soon emerged that in the days running up to the liquidation some ticket-buyers had been asked to pay money for future events directly into ATP founder Barry Hogan’s bank account, provoking further concerns. (Questioned by us on this matter, Hogan said: “We 100 per cent guarantee they would get a full refund if it was cancelled, as with any event we have promoted.” We have no evidence to suggest this wouldn’t happen.)

“I do not feel at all comfortable parting with my money [to ATP],” wrote one punter on music site Drowned In Sound. “Anyone feel the same?”

In a Facebook post (since removed), ATP promised that a full statement would be made soon.

It didn’t come any time soon.

On July 11, a new post appeared on ATP’s Facebook page thanking ticket-holders for their patience regarding the statement, while also announcing that a new show was about to go on sale.

The day before, ATP employee Jamie Summers tweeted, “Anyone out there able to recommend a good reliable Paypal alternative?”, surprising creditors who had read the following in the liquidation report: “The company has a balance of approximately £140,000 in its Paypal account. The balance is made up of ticket sales for future events. Paypal have frozen this and are refusing to release the funds to the Company. It is anticipated that all of these funds will be returned to customers in respect of events that have not taken place.”

Things appeared to be spiralling out of control. A full statement was finally posted on ATP’s website on July 13, announcing that a new company, Willwal Ltd, had been established. “We will also be dividing the business into three different companies; ATP Festivals, ATP Recordings and ATP Shows,” they said. “All future events will continue as scheduled on the dates advertised and all tickets for those events are still valid… This restructuring will ensure that ATP is around for many more years to come.”

They also apologised for the delay in making the statement, saying it was due to “needing certain legal clearances”.

Yet Willwal didn’t get off to the most auspicious of starts. The same statement revealed that the planned I’ll Be Your Mirror festival in New Jersey was being moved to New York “for logistical reasons”. That day it also announced one of the headliners, comedian Louis C.K., would not be performing due to other commitments. Refunds were available to anyone who wanted them.

A week later, another statement appeared on the ATP site: “Unfortunately without warning Ticketmaster have decided to refund a group of ticketholders for ATP USA, and have emailed them to say the event has been cancelled. It has not…

“If you received this email, but still wish to attend, due to Ticketmaster’s error you will need to rebook your tickets, which you can do at Ticketweb.”

Liquidation Nation

There is nothing illegal or unusual about a firm going into liquidation. Many businesses get into unsustainable levels of debt and this is one way of dealing with it, even if it can leave creditors out of pocket. There were over 11,000 voluntary liquidations last year in the UK, according to the government.

There is also nothing illegal about the directors of a failed firm setting up a new company, or in them buying the old firm’s brand names and reusing them. (Hogan and Higgins are the directors of Willwal and purchased all ATP brand names off the liquidators for £70,000 following an independent valuation.)

But it doesn’t happen often to prominent promotion companies like ATP, and it definitely doesn’t happen with such dramatic levels of debt.

ATP Concerts owed over £2.6m at the time it went into liquidation. Included in the list of debts from £90 upwards owed to 63 companies were the following:

£876,716 to ticketing company Gigantic (for loans)
£749,355 to another ticketing company, See Tickets (also for loans)
£352,000 to Butlins, whose Minehead site hosted many ATP festivals in recent years
£36,000 to the organisers of Primavera Sound in Spain/Portugal, where ATP hosts a stage
£30,000 to the band Portishead who had headlined two ATP-promoted ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’ shows in 2011
£11,000 to The Union Chapel venue in Islington, which is run by a charity

Money was even owed to a harp rental firm and a piano tuner (although he says he was subsequently paid). Their unpaid tax bill is £26,080.

The seriousness of the debts is illustrated by the fact that ATP was taken to court five times between February and April by creditors desperate to get paid. One of those, speaker hire firm Skan PA (still owed £10,500, according to the list of debts), subsequently secured a court order to wind up the firm. It was that which prompted ATP’s liquidation.

The situation around ATP should be of concern for anyone interested in music — not just people who have enjoyed any of the firm’s 30-odd festivals in the UK and 10 abroad, or have tickets for future shows. How can one of the UK’s most lauded concert promotion companies, which created a whole culture and even started the trend for bands playing their classic albums in full, get into a position like this? And what does it mean for the future of music events in general? Can a festival promoting largely independent music only survive now if it’s associated with a corporate sponsor or venture capitalist firm, something ATP has previously spurned? And should fans feel confident buying tickets for ATP events in the future?

A question also arises about how the debts may affect Willwal’s cashflow and ability to stage future events, and whether the debts could have an impact on ticket prices (there’s been no evidence of any change so far).

The Stool Pigeon has looked into ATP’s business history. It initially proved difficult to untangle, involving six firms. We have also spoken to creditors, a record label and other concert promoters, and interviewed Hogan, who answered every question we put to him (although he wouldn’t disclose the source of finance for the purchase of the ATP brand names from the liquidator).

World Famous

Anyone telling the history of ATP normally starts at the Bowlie Weekender, a music festival curated by the Scottish indie pop band Belle & Sebastian at Pontins, Camber Sands in April, 1999.

Barry Hogan, then 26, decided to take the idea behind that event — a curator, and three days at a holiday camp — and turn it into a phenomenon. The next year, he held the first All Tomorrow’s Parties, named after the Velvet Underground song. It was curated by Mogwai, featured acts like Sigur Rós, and was easily the most talked-about event in the UK music industry that year.

In business terms, the history of ATP actually begins on July 26, 1999, when Hogan registered two firms: Headphone Music Ltd to promote London shows, and All Tomorrow’s Parties Ltd to run the festivals.

Neither lasted long, both being dissolved less than two years later in May 2001 just after the second ATP. Dissolving a company does not mean it had debts; it just means the directors had decided not to continue running the firm as a business.

Indeed, Hogan says the decision to stop operating those companies had nothing to do with debts and everything to do with a former business partner: “[He] withdrew £80,000 in cash from the bank the day before ATP and instead of taking it to the venue to pay some bands, he ran off with the money. This left us £80k in the hole so we had to borrow the money to stage the event… We then spent years paying the loan back.” (The Stool Pigeon has had this story confirmed.)

To distance himself from this rogue business partner, Hogan and his then-girlfriend, Helen Cottage, started to promote ATPs as a partnership under the name Foundation Concerts.

They seemed to do well, eventually expanding to stage ATPs in Los Angeles and Long Beach, California, as well as in the UK. So in February 2005, Hogan decided he needed to form a limited company again (in a partnership, the partners are liable for any debts). He called it World Famous Ltd.

That firm started trading in 2005, putting on an event called Easy To Swallow in London featuring experimental electronic acts like Aphex Twin. It then took over the ATP festivals, and the following May ran the celebrated United Sounds of ATP, which took place over two weekends. The first weekend had days curated by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Mudhoney and folk artist Devendra Banhart; the second by Dinosaur Jr, Sleater-Kinney and The Shins.

It was at this time that ATP’s model hit the mainstream. The BBC ran TV reports on ATP and the culture it had created. Copyists soon sprung up, notably the dance music festival Bloc, which hosted two events at Pontins, Hemsby and three at Butlins, Minehead from 2007 to 2011, before its disastrous move to London this year. Even NME had a failed attempt at running events at holiday camps.

Despite its success with the public, World Famous’s accounts don’t make for pretty reading. In its first year, it had a turnover of almost £1m, but owed creditors over £230,000. In the second, its turnover doubled, and it made a small profit of £41,786. But the amount of money due to creditors within the next year increased to £370,000. The following year, those debts hit £630,000. Hogan says the debts crept up purely because some events “didn’t perform”.

Nonetheless, ATP carried on operating without a hitch. This is because Hogan had already set up another firm to run the festivals. In September 2007, he established ATP Concerts Ltd with his new girlfriend, Higgins. World Famous became dormant in 2008.

“All creditors were taken forward into the new company,” he says. He didn’t stare at the debts and decide to give up business because, he adds, “I knew that [in 2009] we would have a strong year where we could reduce the amount outstanding. We also knew that if we had stopped then, the creditors including artists and suppliers wouldn’t get paid, which we didn’t want to happen.”

ATP Concerts’ accounts, however, don’t show that hoped-for success. This is how its liabilities grew during its lifetime:

2008: £171,213
2009: £535,808
2010: £1,496,792
2011: £2,102,324
2012: £2,640,817

The directors’ report, required for its liquidation, blames the problems squarely on the recession. “In 2008, the economic recession hit industries which relied on discretionary levels of spending by customers,” it says. “The concert and music industry was no exception and the company had to intensify its effort to market events in order to attract customers.”

In particular, it blames festivals in the US. Events curated by My Bloody Valentine, The Flaming Lips and film director Jim Jarmusch lost a total of £520,000. (The Flaming Lips event began on September 11, 2009 — an odd choice for the first day of a music festival in New York.) A UK festival curated by Simpsons creator Matt Groening lost £500,000 alone.

Going To The Races

Hogan is blunt about the reason behind the debts ATP Concerts accumulated. “Promoting concerts is like going to the races, some win and some don’t,” he says. “When a festival doesn’t sell out everyone still gets paid except for us. We have always been committed to putting on amazing events, so even if the numbers weren’t there, we didn’t ask bands to take less money, or put on an inferior show.”

The debts led to cashflow problems for the firm, although the first impact of that wasn’t publicly seen until last year, when ATP announced a festival curated by Jeff Mangum, who made a cult album in the nineties under the name Neutral Milk Hotel. That event was due to be held in December. ATP rescheduled it with six weeks’ notice to March 2012, which didn’t go down well on music message boards: “Fucking hell. I spent £200 on train tickets for four people, and my brother and his girlfriend each spent £100 on flights for this,” one person wrote on Drowned In Sound. “All non-refundable. This is unacceptable.”

ATP told ticketholders they had until the end of the year to apply for refunds. On November 29, it told them they actually had until December 2.

A second incident occurred soon after. ATP were due to hold an event in Japan this April, but it was rescheduled with two weeks’ notice due to poor ticket sales. Some people were travelling from the US and Europe to go to that event. A new date for the event has yet to be announced.

According to the directors’ report, ATP Concerts did try to get investment from other organisations like Vice Media and the behemoth Live Nation to overcome these problems. It even tried venture capital firms. But nothing worked out. Matters with the debts reached a head when Skan PA applied for its winding up order.

No Regrets

The Stool Pigeon has spoken to a number of ATP Concerts’ creditors about the current situation. Those who would talk to us on the record, perhaps surprisingly, seemed unfazed.

John Bryant, managing director of On Stage, a lighting, rigging and sound firm owed £100,937, said: “Barry and Deborah have promised they’ll pay it back and my gut tells me that’s what they’ll do. You can’t wave bye bye to debts in this industry. It’s too incestuous.”

He’s been working with ATP for seven years, has had some extremely good years out of the firm and had not had any issues until things “started to get a bit tricky” last year. He wished them all the best with the new firm and said he hoped to work with them for years to come.

A spokesman for the Union Chapel took a similar line. “In any business debts build up and we will get it back. Barry and Deborah are not going anywhere. We trust them.”

Geoff Barrow of Portishead said the following in a tweet posted on July 31: “Glad to [be] workin with @atpfestival again on London shows!”

The only dissenting voices we heard were Skan PA, who said, “I don’t have time to pick over the bones of ATP,” and Butlins.

A Butlins spokesperson said they chose to end their relationship with ATP after the firm started advertising The National event without having signed a contract, and when they still owed £352,000.

Hogan does not deny the money owed, but says there was nothing unusual about ATP not having signed a contract. “For The National event we had a verbal contract,” he says (under the law these can be just as binding as written ones). “Every contract at Butlins has always been verbal first and then the formal contracts were issued after the on-sale date and often not signed until the weekend of the event!”

He says Butlins’ deputy resort director had given him the dates for The National event “like he always did”. But then he left Butlins, and that’s where the problems began. “We considered legal action against Butlins, but in the end we were able to move the event,” Hogan says.

Butlins says it is still considering legal action itself.

Concerning his two biggest creditors, Hogan says: “We are working with Gigantic for all events in our new company and would like to work with See [Tickets] again. Considering how much money we make ticketing agencies, it makes sense for them to work with us again.” (Gigantic and See Tickets both declined to comment for this piece.

Outside Help

The majority of creditors seemingly have no ill-will towards Hogan or Higgins; they just see the debts as part of the vagaries of the concert business and expect Willwal to make good on the promises it’s made to pay the debts back. Some told us they’d ask Willwal to pay for any services up front in future, and they expected other creditors to do the same, but that will be the extent of it.

Given that ATP Concerts had not turned a net profit since 2007, should we consider such goodwill to be unusual? Hogan says the firm’s accounts are misleading in this respect: “It is paying off old debts that stopped us making profits. We have altered our structure and are looking to bring in outside investors, which will help in future.”

He adds: “We’ll see how things pan out, but our priority will be to pay the smaller creditors, particularly those who have always and continue to support us.”

Of course, Hogan’s explanation does not help deal with the fact that debts continued to mount as old ones were paid off. Also, if concerts are like “going to the races”, there can be no guarantee that the new firm will thrive to finally pay everything off.

Furthermore, we did come across some people in the music industry who were unsurprised that the situation had arisen. A recent record of poor ticket sales for some events is well-known, and some feel that ATP — or its festival wing, at least — has run its course.

One label employee told us: “To be honest, there are so many festivals, ATP is just part of the circuit. It would have been a big loss [for us] 5-10 years ago, but not now. Guessing who’ll play their festivals is like guessing who is going to be on the cover of Mojo each month. It’s that predictable.”

Hogan rejects those comments. In fact, he only sees ATP’s empire growing. “We have plans to do events all across the world in countries that are begging us to come,” he says.

There will be changes to how ATP operates, however. Principally, it looks likely to start taking sponsorship. “In the years that we have stuck by having no outside company involvement, the world has changed,” Hogan says. “People don’t pay for music consumption like they used to, including live music. So the money has to come from somewhere, and that somewhere is other companies. Yes, we would entertain sponsorship, if it was something relevant and executed in a tasteful fashion.”

He points out that a lot of ATP fans go to the Primavera festivals in Spain and Portugal, both of which have stages hosted by ATP and both of which have a lot of ads for beer and sunglasses. He also claims ATP Concerts surveyed fans about the issue and found most didn’t care.

However, what Willwal has to be concerned about is not really its expansion plans or putting on gigs, it is the views of their ticket-buyers. How will they react to the events of the past month? Will they feel they can still trust ATP given the delayed and vague statements? Will any of those who have lost travel tickets or had to rearrange holidays want to give the firm money?

“Every single event we have promoted over the past 16 years has either taken place or if anything changed about an event, such as a date or a location, we have offered and given refunds to anyone who wanted them,” says Hogan. “There is no reason whatsoever to think that our current events will not go ahead.”

Hogan says fans are already showing their colours. Shows announced after the liquidation have sold out, he says, pointing to a gig by Yeasayer at London venue The Lexington (perhaps inevitably, given the size of the band compared to the venue). He also claims this December’s UK festival curated by Shellac is “the fastest-selling event since the Pavement weekend”.

Nonetheless, all tomorrows for All Tomorrow’s Parties remain uncertain. The directors of Willwal have to cross their fingers and hope most fans have similar views to a man calling himself JimmyHuntspill, who posted this comment on Drowned In Sound shortly after the liquidation, while ATP was dithering in issuing statements.

“Despite everything, they have managed to keep putting on stellar events in the face of what looks like horrendously stressful conditions,” he wrote. “Poor customer relations or not, the actual events are always fantastic… They deserve a big chunk of credit for that.”

Note: this article originally reported that Barry Hogan is Scottish. It has been corrected. 

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