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An Obituary for Kutsher’s: Home of ATP New York

on June 04, 2014, 3:10pm

Photography by Nick Neyland.

Component is a section of Aux.Out. for one-off pieces, special editorials, and lost orphans of the music discussion. Today, Nathan Mattise recalls ATP New York and mourns the impending destruction of its home

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For less than a week at the start of 2014, Coachella was the hottest (figuratively) music festival in the world. OutKast was taking the stage again for the first time since 2007, and remote Indio, CA, was the place it would happen.

What happened next is well documented and still playing out. Five days after the Coachella lineup became official, OutKast unveiled that they would be playing 40 music festivals throughout the summer. Suddenly, the rosy hue of Coachella was covered in playa mud—it was just another festival.

“In my experience, festivals are awful. I’m sorry to blow people’s minds, but they’re miserable,” said Grantland’s music critic turned TV guy, Andy Greenwald, on his podcast after the OutKast news. “Coachella is the coolest idea ever, except you’re standing in the middle of a heat box in a desert with a 100,000 people on drugs.”

“I’m not talking you down. I don’t like festivals,” said Chris Ryan, Greenwald’s former Spin colleague also turned Grantlander. “I will go to Coachella because three of my favorite bands of all time are playing on Friday night… I’m not looking forward to it. I don’t want to participate in any of the social rituals involved in it. I’m not looking forward to how hot it is out there. I just don’t want to be in a field with you—no offense, I like you a lot.”

Neither the complaints nor the situation are new. In 2012, Spin compared the lineups for the 24 biggest US festivals: Gary Clark, Jr. and Skrillex were each on a third or more of the lineups, another seven artists were on a fourth, and 11 artists were on a fifth. And as for the glut of massively attended, often overpriced, and usually hot (literally) events? In 2013, there was at least one multiday, outdoor music festival per week from June 1 through September 1. In fact, there were more notable festivals during that time period (at least 96) than there were days (precisely 93).

All of this only highlights the one true depressing thing about festival season 2014. After the next few weeks, the best and most unique modern US festival can never happen again.

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nyart3largecorrected An Obituary for Kutshers: Home of ATP New York

Within the last month, pre-demolition work began on the famed Kutsher’s resort in Monticello, NY. In the next few weeks, the local paper says it’ll be gone entirely. For now, Kutsher’s remains a picturesque vacation destination of yesteryear, aesthetically filled with charming kitsch and surrounded by the timeless beauty of the Catskills. The old-school hangout dates back to 1907, and its longevity is only rivaled by its list of who showed up. Mickey Mantle and Dean Martin hung out here. Muhammad Ali trained. Jerry Seinfeld cut his comedy teeth. Wilt Chamberlain even worked at the resort during the off-season. The most famous Kutsher’s note is that it served as the background for the original Dirty Dancing, but the best Kutsher’s note was its recent swan song.

While the heyday of the Catskills as a vacation destination was over before most current music fans were born, in 2008, Kutsher’s found a way to reinvent itself unlike its long-lost peers. All Tomorrow’s Parties—the legendary UK promoter known for planning events that were more creatives retreats than traditional festivals—was coming to the US. Suddenly, Kutsher’s became the unlikely three-year home to the most unique concert-going experience around.

“The manager of Dinosaur Jr., Brian Schwartz, actually went to Kutsher’s as a kid. So, when he was at the ATPs in the UK, he used to be like, ‘I know this great place in upstate NY that’s exactly like this,’” says Deborah Higgins, co-owner of ATP and co-organizer of ATP New York. “So, when we were in America, we visited, and it was amazing. It had all the elements we needed to emulate, as closely as possible, the UK versions. It just went from there. My Bloody Valentine wanted to come back, and we thought it’d be an ideal location to have the first US/New York/east coast sleepaway festival.”

atpnyc An Obituary for Kutshers: Home of ATP New YorkATP festivals operate under a strict vision that’s unlike any others in the US. To start logistically, there are no sponsorships. Acura tents or Samsung stages cannot be found. To further distance the event from corporations, ATP doesn’t even do all the booking themselves. The promoters approach a band or artist they admire and empower them to help curate the festival lineup, a tactic others have employed since, but ATP started in 1999. For ATP NY, this meant 2008 with My Bloody Valentine (curating on the heels of their first US performance in 16 years), then the Flaming Lips in 2009, and director Jim Jarmusch in 2010.

On top of all that, ATP consciously tried to avoid all of the now-common festival pitfalls. The artist curation ensured that the lineup would be unique: a band like Sleep played their first and only US show in years, and Sonic Youth held one of their final performances pre-breakup. Genres ran the gamut as everyone from Raekwon and Gza to Girls, Akron/Family to Bridezilla showed up. ATP also themed an entire day of the three-day festival as “Don’t Look Back,” where bands played a single album beginning to end (and these weren’t bands doing tours filled with this concept—Iggy and the Stooges did Raw Power and Thurston Moore performed Psychic Hearts, for example).

“We were really fortunate. I’m glad they kept it unique and didn’t do the set everywhere,” says Barry Hogan, founder of ATP and co-organizer of ATP NY. “Now there are festivals where you’re seeing the same bands across every single festival. I’m sure people are sick of OutKast this year, but that’s what made ATP stand out from the rest of the crowd. It was really us asking bands to perform our record collections.”

If this sounds amazing, it’s because it was. Admitted festival agnostic Sasha Frere-Jones of The New Yorker was so compelled by the buzz of ’08 and the lineup of ’09 that he showed up (“I am lodging a strike against reason and going to the Catskills for all three days”). This spring, Pitchfork debuted a 30+-minute documentary on the first ATP NY from Vincent Moon, the main filmmaker of La Blogotheque Takeaway shows and music video creator extraordinaire. And for this writer’s nearly 10 years of covering shows and festivals, not one has compared to spending a Saturday at Kutsher’s in 2009. Where else would Wayne Coyne hold court in a hotel lobby the same day as Bradford Cox and Jim Jarmusch covering Neil Young in a hotel room?

Bands were just as giddy. Shellac frontman (and host of the annual ATP NY card game) Steve Albini told the Village Voice after ’08, “The thing that instantly seemed different about ATP was the degree of respect that the patrons and the bands were treated with: privacy and a bathroom, a normal, regular bed to sleep in, indoor venues with proper PAs, electric power that worked and you couldn’t get rained on and electrocuted. It just seemed like an incredible leap forward.” And just this year, Mogwai guitarist Stuart Braithwaite told The Guardian, “ATP NY was one of my favorite ATP memories. We played with Dinosaur Jr. and My Bloody Valentine—it was a dream come true for me. As a place, [Kutsher’s] is weird—a Scooby Doo kind of atmosphere and the place was falling apart.”

Unfortunately, some of the very things that made ATP special were what doomed it. To start, Higgins says there were logistical issues with Kutsher’s every year, though “everyone really loved it” in the end. “It was one of those things, when you turned up, you were a little alarmed at the state of the accommodations. But after you were there for a night, you saw how magical it was regardless of the fact that maybe your toilet bowl was pumping out boiling water; some of the less attractive aspects of an older hotel got brushed away by the communal spirit and the fact that everyone was on this sleepaway camp together.” And as you might expect for an indoor, somewhat remote festival, nearby and on-site lodging were limited. “We had a bit of a problem with the capacity,” Higgins says. “As soon as the accommodations sold out, people weren’t interested in coming. There wasn’t enough accommodation there to sustain it from an economic point of view; there weren’t enough people who were interested in coming just for the day.”

bignewyork An Obituary for Kutshers: Home of ATP New York

But the biggest demise driver, as you might expect, was money itself. The independence, intimacy, and accessibility of ATP NY came at a steep price. To start, the event had limited earning power. It lacked corporate money, and it was capped at 3,000 people. Endless sponsors and 90,000 can show up at Coachella on a given day. You could buy an entire ATP NY weekend pass for $250, and a 3-person room for three nights at Kutsher’s would only cost $450 total.

Compare that $400 cost for an individual to some of the festivals today, and it’s apples to oranges. In 2013, the average one-day, no lodging, non-VIP ticket for the 90-some-odd festivals referenced above was $193.25. Nearly half of those festivals offered camping, more than 30 percent promoted VIP experiences, and each of those options involved significant upcharges. The average VIP ticket across a 3-day festival in 2013 was slightly more than $900 (though, take note that includes things like the $5,865 Good Life experience at Electric Forest but not the $30,000-ish Roll Like a Rockstar treatment at Bonnaroo). Hogan told the New York Times in 2010 that the first ATP NY was profitable, but the second was a loss: “It was a six-figure sum” loss.

Inevitably, ATP moved its US festival away from Kutsher’s. In 2011, ATP NY tried to recapture its off-the-grid essence by relocating to Asbury Park, NJ, but it was an outdoor affair. In 2012, that was scrapped for Manhattan. There were no ATP US events in 2013, and none are currently planned for 2014. “There was a bit of a difference,” Higgins says. “Asbury Park was good and it had potential, and there wasn’t any accommodation issues because obviously everyone could stay nearby. Same with the one in Manhattan, but there was definitely a different vibe to those.”

Higgins and Hogan don’t rule out a future installment of the ATP US series, one that would be reminiscent to ATP NY’s heyday (“We haven’t totally discounted coming back to America, maybe in another state,” Higgins says). But take that with a grain of salt, as ATP even ended its flagship UK sleepaway camp style last year. “With Kutsher’s, it was unique in the sense it was an abandoned playground,” Hogan says. “There’s the charm of the old fixtures and stuff—that’s what really made it. Whatever we try to do, everyone will try and reference it with Kutsher’s.”

Exterior

To make matters worse for those still clamoring for the days of Monticello music, Kutsher’s is finally going the way of its old-world-resort colleagues. After a few years of being on the market, it was sold last winter to a media company hoping to turn it into the new, $90 million “Nature Cure Lifestyle Management Center.” All of the memorable decade pieces that made Kutsher’s—right down to the glam sign out front—were auctioned away in recent months. Demolition, and losing any hope of an ATP NY resurgence in its original form, is imminent.

To this day, however, people still fondly look back on the festival. And while some of that centers on a few memorable performances—that first MBV return show, Bob Mould crafting a Hüsker Dü set with No Age—a lot of the nostalgia focuses solely on the experiential. No festival today keeps out the bad (overwhelming crowds, heat, prices, and repetitive music) while offering the same vast amount of unique (from the artist cameos all day to an annual Shellac wiffle ball game?).

“It was a magical place. People still write to us and say, ‘Why can’t you do it again?’, though I know it’s about to be torn down,” Higgins says. “People really loved it out there.”

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