Party in the park: Co-founder looks back on decades of Music Midtown – The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Music Midtown didn’t start small. In its first year in 1994 when tickets cost $10 a day, or $17 for the three-day music fest, 85,000 fans showed for acts including James Brown, Joan Baez, Al Green and KC and the Sunshine Band.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution described it at the time as “smaller than the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival but bigger than Lollapalooza.”

Since then, Music Midtown has become “one of those ‘rite of passage’ type events,” co-founder Peter Conlon said ahead of the Sept. 15-17 music festival.

“I was talking to the drummer of Imagine Dragons awhile back. He said one of the inspirations for him becoming a musician was his uncle had taken him to Music Midtown when he was a kid,” Conlon said. “For many kids, it’s probably the first time they’ve seen a real concert, so we’ve always been determined to give them the best show possible.”

The annual event has become one of the premier multi-act festivals in the country, though the last few years have been rocky. The festival didn’t happen in 2020 due to COVID-19 lockdowns. And last year, it was canceled just weeks ahead of time. Though Music Midtown organizers haven’t publicly confirmed why the fest was scrapped, multiple government officials linked the decision to an expansive Georgia gun law. According to this year’s festival website, “weapons or explosives of any kind” remain prohibited.

After last year’s abrupt cancellation, Conlon said his team was determined to deliver an incredible live experience for 2023.

“It’s the biggest talent budget we’ve had,” he said.

The four-stage lineup of more than 40 artists covers pop, rock, electronic and hip-hop. The acts include headliners Pink, Billie Eilish, Guns N’ Roses, Flume, The 1975 and Atlanta’s Lil Baby.

“I like to think it’s the best lineup ever,” Conlon said.

Typically, multi-act festivals tend to skew to younger audiences and Conlon said he’s aware of the challenge.

“It’s a balancing act,” he said. “A lot of the older folks just don’t come to big shows like these for a number of reasons. They may not want to stand up or be outside as much, so it really does seem to become a younger person’s game. “

However, Colon said, the festival continues to program for a wide range of ages.

“I’ve found that a lot of kids are also into the classic acts,” he said. “They’re interested in Guns N’ Roses, for example. So it all sort of works out, and you never know if this could be the last time you can see some of these classic bands because they move on and stop touring.”

Credit: Robb Cohen for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Robb Cohen for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Conlon and company, in addition to planning and promoting a myriad of other shows throughout the year, plot the Music Midtown lineup for months, if not years, in advance.

“Basically, there are about four of us involved in the booking. We come together initially with ideas of acts we’d like to see. Then we proceed to see who we can all agree on, and who makes sense for the event,” he said. “Then it becomes an issue of either timing, artist availability and, pretty much like everything, it also comes down to finances. We always have to weigh whether we can afford what the artist wants. That’s pretty much the whole process in a nutshell.”

As a devoted music fan, Conlon is always happy to include some of his favorites in the mix.

“I definitely always have a wish list in mind,” he said with a laugh. “I mean, I want to see some of these bands as much as anyone else. I remember the year we got Eminem, I was really happy. This year, I really wanted to have The Cure, but they weren’t going to be anywhere near here, so it just didn’t work out logistically.”

Many of the acts on the 2023 roster could draw a massive crowd on their own, Conlon said. “The challenge is to present them in a way that makes sense for them and for the audience.”

He cites Pink as a prime example.

“She’s doing these massive shows on her Summer Carnival Tour, and she’ll be doing the same big show at Music Midtown. Acrobatics and all. It’s a really big challenge to create that in Piedmont Park, but we’re doing it.”

Conlon has seen most of this year’s bands perform, but not all.

“I haven’t seen The 1975, and I’m looking forward to their show. I always like to see Pitbull, and Billie Eilish is always incredible. This will be her third time here. The first year we put her on here, when she was just starting to break out. She said her favorite thing that year was playing Music Midtown.”

The performers blur every possible genre, echoing the best of veteran promoter Bill Graham’s legendary shows in San Francisco in the 1960s. “That was part of the original approach of Music Midtown, to offer an eclectic show that everyone can enjoy,” Conlon said of himself and co-founder Alex Cooley, who died in 2015.

Conlon and Cooley also managed to take a sprawling outdoor show concept and make it more accessible for in-town consumption.

“Alex had done these huge outdoor festivals, like the Atlanta Pop Fest and all that,” Conlon said. “But the goal was to make it more of an urban experience and not have all the camping and the whole racetrack mindset. That’s how the whole ‘Midtown’ concept came to be.”

From the first few years in the Federal Reserve Bank area, to the Civic Center location to the area that eventually became the Aquarium, the festival was a roving production. Now based in Piedmont Park, Conlon seems content to have found a permanent, centrally located home for Music Midtown.

“We wanted to have a place where we didn’t have to move every two years or so,” he said.

Conlon is aware of the site’s rich history, which included early concerts featuring The Allman Brothers Band in the early 1970s.

“Gregg loved playing Piedmont Park,” he said. “I put him on a show with Dave Matthews there, and he was so happy to be back. I remember he told me that he had gone to see concerts ‘on the green’ in San Francisco. And when he came to Atlanta, he got a map to find a big park to play in. He found Piedmont and loved it immediately.”

But Piedmont Park wasn’t exactly equipped for an electric rock band at that time.

“I remember Gregg said they’d set up and then run across the street to see if anyone who lived in the area would let them run extension cords from their houses,” Conlon said. “Times have changed a lot since then.”


Music Midtown

Sept. 15-17, $155 to $1,525. Piedmont Park.

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