In the summer of 1994, Atlanta concert promoters Peter Conlon and Alex Cooley put together a two-day outdoor music festival in the middle of the city, partially as an experiment. They wanted to gauge the public's interest in such an event, and within a few years Music Midtown became an annual weekend festival featuring six stages that drew as many as 300,000 concertgoers at its peak. Acts as varied as Bob Dylan, James Brown, Devo, Hole, Funkadelic, Wilco, Iggy Pop and hundreds of others were all part of the annual lineup.
But over the years, rising production costs, waning interest, and battles with city government took the wind out of the festival's sails. After experiencing two years of dwindling profits, Cooley and festival-backers Clear Channel parted ways. Following the 2005 fest, Conlon pulled the plug. Now emerging from a six-year hiatus, Music Midtown returns Sat., Sept. 24. The show will settle into the greener confines of Piedmont Park, with a leaner, single-day lineup, featuring headliners Coldplay and the Black Keys. Rather than a continuation of years past, Conlon prefers to view it as a new beginning.
Approaching 60 — or, still "in his 50s," as Conlon fancies it — the president of Live Nation Atlanta took time last week to talk about the legacy of Music Midtown, the importance of measuring James Brown's limo, and how he went from law school dropout to Jimmy Carter's intern overnight.
Most kids drop out of school to be in a band, but you went a different route.
Peter Conlon: Yeah, my parents definitely would not have approved of that. Luckily for them, I was never into music in that sense. Like Alex [Cooley] used to say, "The only thing I can play is the radio."
You've been booking events since working for Jimmy Carter's presidential administration in the 1970s, right?
Actually, I started booking shows when I was at the University of Georgia. I worked on the concert committee and for the interfraternity council. Both had sizable budgets and I tried to get them to work together. Prior to my involvement they were booking whatever music someone on the committee happened to like. I had more of a business approach and brought in people like Elton John and the Allman Brothers, and started making money. Then I went to law school and started interning for the Carter campaign.
It was right after Watergate and I saw on the news that Carter was running. He had a great image and was an honest guy, so I called to see if they needed help, and they did. When I started there were very few people on staff, maybe 20. I had been coming in between classes, but by the end of the first quarter [Chief of Staff] Hamilton [Jordan] said to me, "We love having you, but you have to make a decision to be full-time or not." So I told my parents and they thought it was a great thing to be involved with, and they were right. We won the nomination and then the presidency.
I worked for the president for two campaigns and during his administration. I was National Fundraising Director for the president in the 1980 campaign and Special Assistant to the Administrator of the Small Business Administration for the White House Liaison. We're talking about a period of about a five or six years, from 1975 until about 1980. I was going around the country meeting with people who had relationships with President Carter, like Willie Nelson and promoters like Alex Cooley and Bill Graham. I got into the network that way. I didn't really do any entertainment stuff until after I left my position at the White House.
Why did you pull the plug on Music Midtown after 2005?
It had become very big and unmanageable, and was costing us a lot of money. The margins are tighter on these sorts of things than what a lot of people think, and there was a lack of cooperation from a lot of sectors. It was a fight with everybody. Finally I decided, "I'm just not doing it next year." But it wasn't an easy decision, and I didn't know for how long. I hoped that it was more of a hiatus than an end.
Why bring it back now?
You can't think of it as the 13th year for Music Midtown. It's the first year. Originally we did a two-day festival on 10th Street. Me and Alex got to talking and mostly wanted to see if people were even interested in going to something like this, and it grew from there. It generated a ton of money for the city, and now there are people in [the mayor's] office who think that's a good thing. At one point we were the biggest festival in the world with over 100,000 people everyday.
Next: Conlon talks about the lack of a hip-hop stage and addresses the Prince rumors
This year we got a late start. Normally we should have [announced the acts] by January or February, but we didn't start booking bands until April. We could possibly add an additional day if it comes together the way I want it to. If not, we'll just keep it one day because it's costly and I don't want to do a lackluster, "Let's make a second day happen."
Alex Cooley came out of retirement to help launch the Buckhead Theatre a couple years ago. Is he involved with Music Midtown's return?
He's not involved at all this year. Alex stopped being involved in Music Midtown prior to his retirement.
Why did you choose Coldplay and the Black Keys to headline the event?
I wanted the day to be filled with new, independent acts that are on the threshold, getting satellite airplay, and some terrestrial airplay as well, and have a good buzz. For the headliners I wanted acts who were in the daytime acts' shoes five to 10 years ago. The Black Keys were that act five years ago, and Coldplay was that act 10 years ago. As we go forward you'll see more diversification in the talent that we bring in.
How do you plan to handle any criticism you might face as a result of the headliners selected?
The only regret that I've ever had with booking is adding the country stage to the last Music Midtown. I was pressured into it, but it didn't fit. We even had Keith Urban on a Friday night and not that many people showed up.
The hip-hop stage usually worked well with past performances from Big Boi, Ludacris, Lil Jon and artists like that.
It was an urban music stage, not just hip-hop. We had Black Eyed Peas, B.B. King and Funkadelic as well. We even had James Brown play one year. I remember he refused to come out of his hotel room because he didn't think that his limo was long enough. I had to measure it with a tape measure to prove that it met his rider.
So why is there no urban component to Music Midtown this year?
As we get started, we have to go after our core audience. We can't be everything for everyone right now. That comes later. Right now we need to draw in younger people who are invested in the music and will go see acts in a nice place while keeping it affordable, and that's the original Music Midtown formula. In the future we will expand and be more diverse, and if we announce a second night this year, maybe ...
Can you address the rumors about the possibility of Prince playing this year?
There are rumors but like I said, Saturday, September 24, is done, and I can't say anything about the rumors you've heard. I'd rather deal with the reality of the festival, which is a pretty strong show in itself. It's a one-day festival with two stages on the Piedmont Park meadow.
The same place where Dave Matthews, Paul McCartney and the Eagles played benefits for the Piedmont Park Conservancy?
Yes, but it's set up a little differently because there are two stages. It will have a festival vibe, and that's what we're really trying to foster. Tickets are $55, which is an exceptional value for the amount of talent we're bringing, especially in this kind of economy.
The music festival climate has changed a lot since the last Music Midtown. Coachella and Bonnaroo have both become nationally successful, and Music Midtown predates them both.
Actually, Bonnaroo's organizers flew to Atlanta to spend a weekend studying Music Midtown, and walked away with a lot of ideas.
How do you think Music Midtown stands up next to a Bonnaroo?
It's a different type of festival altogether. We're a city festival, and a day festival. Bonnaroo is a camping festival and has a completely different nature. We want to bring people into the city to see an event that a city like ours can support, and do it in a great location. But essentially, Bonnaroo isn't the model that we look to for Music Midtown.
The other festivals foster more of a niche sound and scene as well.
They're kind of all over the place now. Bonnaroo started off as a jam band thing, but they booked Metallica two years ago, and then Springsteen? When you do a festival over a long period of time you reach a point where you try to reinvent it every year, but there are lives to these things. I pulled the plug on Music Midtown to redevelop it. The other festivals are probably getting to that point as well, where you don't want to do the same thing every year, but when you start changing you find yourself off the path, and all of the sudden you've lost your formula for success.