Jabberwocky Festival: Through the looking-glass

By Ric Wright

This past weekend one vast room at the ExCeL Centre lay empty, the venue’s booking entry struck through with the hulking great hall silently waiting for another week of wallet-emptying wedding fairs and conferences for Home Counties insurance salesmen to come.

It was supposed to be different. ATP were due to stage their much talked-about Jabberwocky festival at the Docklands venue, filling it with grinding riffs, gantry-pulsating beats and skyscraping melodies. Unfortunately, it was unceremoniously cancelled three days prior, to the outrage of the thousands of music fans who’d shelled out for tickets one of the most appetizing festival line-ups in years featuring – among other highlights – the return to the UK of fuzz-folk titans Neutral Milk Hotel.

An apology from the organisers was swiftly cobbled together (appeasing precisely no one), distancing statements from former partners were released, column inches ratcheted up and lawyers called in over the hours and days that followed the announcement. Social media audibly crackled with lamentations and outrage at the news: ‘Devastated’, ‘gutted’ and ‘furious’, ran the perfectly understandable – and reprintable – tweets. ATP fans have all too unfortunately been here before, seeing events succumb to cancellation on more than one occasion, plagued by financial troubles. The promoters had even been liquidated, wound up owing a debt of £2.6m in 2012 before resurfacing the following year to pile their efforts into yet more events, with outstanding deficits still unpaid. It may be seen that ATP saw Jabberwocky as a statement event, a slap-bang-in-the-public-eye, eggs-in-one-basket exercise in reputation laundering. If they could pull it off, the failings of the past may be forgiven in the eyes of an increasingly disillusioned public. It didn’t pay off.

At this juncture, it’s probably worth a brief detour to explore what went wrong with Jabberwocky. Standing front and centre was the issue of the venue. While capable of holding the large audiences required to stage such an event, the ExCeL centre is not a venue with anything approaching a reputation for staging music. Such a venue doesn’t inspire confidence from an audience passionate about sound quality. Soulless megadome alternatives like the O2, just a stones-throw from the ExCeL might not be the most comfortable fit for independent music, but at least punters know that they can do a job.

Widen the aperture a bit and put aside ATP’s own failings and it’s clear that the Jabberwocky saga is symptomatic of a much wider trend, not just limited to music, but within the wider arts. Music promoters across the board are facing tough times right now, with their door under siege from a number of pocket-emptying wolves. For those in the independent realm of the industry, it’s never been the place to be to make money, but the landscape has changed even more than most could have ever anticipated with the crushing weight of liability insurance, and spiralling travel and expenses costs just two hurdles of dizzying stature to clear. Large scale events have been hit particularly badly.

Fast forward to Friday night and out of dedication or desperation, a small number of the bands by then had managed to hastily pull together replacement London shows, the administratorial equivalent of running a marathon and then being told to do it all again in a tenth of the time. Neutral Milk Hotel, Kurt Vile, Nils Frahm and Ben Frost were among those that found homes for the night at other venues through other promoters who were able to sweep in and give their fans something to get excited for amidst a week of laborious bank refund forms and on-hold dial tones. Perversely, two more acts – Chelsea Wolfe and Deafhaven – had their replacement shows presented by ATP, the very organization who four days prior had pulled the plug on the main event through lack of funds and resources.

The atmosphere at these performances was complex and strange: on the one hand, excitement was even more heightened than it would have been at Jabberwocky, with fans glad that they had a ticket to see anyone at all, though many were left at home after missing out on the blink-and-you’ll-miss-them ticket releases. On the other hand it was tense, with punters swapping stories of disappointment and maxed-out credit card bills with a mixture of outrage-laced one-upmanship and unadulterated bile: ‘Fuck ATP’, ran a common theme. The financially crippled promoter’s reputation is on life support it seems, and based on the mood at these shows, there’s little that can persuade the majority to part with their hard-earned cash to attend an ATP show again: ‘There’s too much risk buying a ticket for one of their shows,’ said one audience member, ‘They’ve been given the benefit of the doubt before, largely on account of their amazing line-ups, but the bubble has burst’.

If there was one glimmer of light from the whole replacement show debacle it was that the artists’ performances never faltered. Neutral Milk Hotel’s triumphant Friday night set saw phones held aloft, not to snap low-quality, pixellated souvenirs of a catastrophe in part avoided, but to allow absent friends on the other end of the line a chance to hear a distorted representation of the performance that they were so unfortunate to miss – a fraternal consolation through technology.

Another silver lining came courtesy of the improved concert-going experience at smaller venues – Nils Frahm enthralled in pin-drop silence for the delicate climax to his stunning solo piano performance of ‘You’ halfway through his Village Underground set on Saturday, on account of the smaller setting and hyper-dedicated audience. Such hushed reverence would be a pipe-dream in a festival environment.

So where does this leave the festival experience for those into credible bands away from the mainstream? ATP had cornered the market for such events and only time will tell if ATP resurface and/or if someone else steps into the breach. Undoubtedly it’s a difficult area to stake a claim and build a reputation but prospective baton-grabbers could do worse than look towards the continent and Poland’s OFF Festival, an event that in many ways is of similar ilk to what Jabberwocky could and should have been. It caters to a similar audience and – all importantly – it seems to be going from strength to strength. Clearly Artistic Director Artur Rojek and friends are doing something right.

On reflection and with hindsight, it seems that Jabberwocky’s title was strangely prophetic, especially in regards to the smoke and mirrors around what went wrong. Intended as a reference to portmanteaus and (much needed) promotional partnerships, perhaps ATP were missing the more obvious and cautionary meaning in the book that inspired the festival’s title, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland sequel Through The Looking Glass – that of an inverted world of fancy revealed as nothing more than a dream on rude awakening in the cold light of day: “It seems very pretty, but it’s rather hard to understand! Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that’s clear, at any rate”.

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