When Music Midtown returned last year after a five-year hiatus, there were plenty of questions.
Would people still come? Was the lineup strong enough? Did trimming it to one day instead of the multi-day fests of yore indicate a shaky market?
The answers were resoundingly positive.
About 38,000 fans flocked to Piedmont Park last September to immerse themselves in music from Coldplay, the Black Keys, Cage the Elephant, Joy Formidable and others.
No major problems distracted from the music, the weather cooperated, MARTA handled a significant portion of concertgoers and most patrons even agreed that concessions were reasonably priced.
“Coldplay called our CEO and said it was the best festival they’ve been to,” said Peter Conlon, president of Live Nation Atlanta, the promoter of Music Midtown. “They just loved the site, but it comes down to the audience, too. Atlanta audiences tend to be very polite versus some other cities.”
Last year’s event was enough of a triumphant resurrection that Conlon has expanded the festival to two days. On Sept. 21-22, a heftier, more diverse lineup including Foo Fighters, Pearl Jam, Florence and the Machine, Ludacris, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Neon Trees, T.I., the Avett Brothers and Adam Ant will perform on two stages erected in the Meadow at Piedmont Park.
The event will cost about $6 million to produce.
Conlon said returning to the spot of last year’s scene was an unambiguous decision, calling Piedmont Park “the perfect site.”
“It’s the most obvious place to do something of this size if you want to be inside the city. A lot of festivals [nationwide] are outside the city, and I didn’t want to do one of those. [Former promoter partner] Alex [Cooley] and I always wanted to do something city-oriented, and we always wanted green space. This is the best site available,” Conlon said.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed touted the park as, “a world-class venue that is perfect for a world-class music festival.”
“Music Midtown will bring energy and excitement to tens of thousands of music lovers across the city and state,” Reed said in a statement to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Artists such as the Foo Fighters, T.I. and Ludacris will perform and bring the community together to enjoy the best that Atlanta has to offer in a fun and safe way.”
While last year’s event included Atlanta-based Manchester Orchestra on the bill, Conlon wanted to expand the Georgia connections this year, pulling in high-profile hometown rappers Ludacris and T.I., as well as Atlanta-based ambient rock band O’Brother and soul-funk singer Van Hunt, an Atlanta resident for more than 15 years.
O’Brother, which recently returned from Europe and is on a two-month tour with Circa Survive, Touche Amore and Balance & Composure, is enthusiastic about both the location and the massive platform the band will receive at Music Midtown.
“It will be our largest hometown crowd,” said the band’s drummer, Michael Martens. “And it’s an honor to play on a bill with bands like Pearl Jam and Foo Fighters, let alone in our own backyard. We’re stoked to represent ourselves and the music scene we came from.”
While the original Music Midtowns had slots for fledgling local bands, Conlon said he hasn’t decided whether to resume that aspect of the festival.
“We might do something like that again,” Conlon said. “We want to keep an Atlanta flavor.”
He cites the inclusion of SweetWater Brewing Co. as an on-site merchant, as well as the expansion of vendors to include local-based restaurants Goin’ Coastal, Food 101 and Fox Brothers BBQ as a commitment to keeping Atlanta businesses in the mix.
While this year’s fiesta offers a second day of music, at its peak, Music Midtown had ballooned to a three-day affair packed with six stages spotlighting artists ranging from Tony Bennett to Jethro Tull to David Lee Roth.
Last year, Prince was a possible addition for a Friday night show, but after “waiting and waiting,” Live Nation couldn’t get confirmation from the notoriously last-minute artist.
“I’d love to have him one day, but it wasn’t in the cards right now,” Conlon said when asked if Prince was a consideration this year.
Conlon is cautiously optimistic that a third stage could be added next year — and yes, he is already making calls for potential acts for a 2013 edition — but said he never wants Music Midtown to turn into a bloated money pit, as became its fate by 2005 after an 11-year run.
“It was too hard to control and book and very costly. The cost of talent nowadays has skyrocketed. Ten years ago, a headliner got $100,000. Now they get a million, so you can’t afford to do six stages. Will we add another day? Maybe. Talk to me on the 23rd [of September],” he said with a laugh.
As for those who grouse about the $55 advance one-day ticket price ($100 for a two-day pass, plus the usual ticketing fees and a $1 donation to Centers of Hope), Conlon has a simple response: “Where have you been the last 20 years?”
Indeed, any major upcoming show, from Rush at Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre ($40-$129) to Miranda Lambert at Aaron’s Amphitheatre at Lakewood ($25-$49) to Madonna at Philips Arena ($49-$359), is a comparable cost for a one-act show, sometimes with a B-level opener.
“I don’t even have a $55 ticket for any upcoming shows at Philips [Arena],” Conlon said. “The cheapest we might ever do there is $50 or $60 for the top level of the arena for one band. Look at Lollapalooza or Bonnaroo, they’re $200. This is, hands-down, the best bargain of the year.”
But, economics aside, Conlon is hopeful that Music Midtown will surpass last year’s success.
“It was a shame for the years we didn’t have it,” he said. “It brings people into the city. It’s a cultural thing, too, and it puts us on the map musically. I think it’s a good thing.”
4:30-11 p.m. Sept. 21 with Van Hunt, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, T.I., the Avett Brothers and Foo Fighters. 1-11 p.m. Sept. 22 with O’Brother, Civil Twilight, LP, Garbage, Adam Ant, Ludacris, Neon Trees, Florence and the Machine, Girl Talk and Pearl Jam.
General admission is $55 for an advance one-day pass ($65 at gate), $100 for a two-day pass, plus ticketing fees. VIP and Super-VIP packages available for $250-$1,000.
The Meadow at Piedmont Park, 1320 Monroe Drive N.E., Atlanta. 1-800-745-3000, www.ticketmaster.com.
By Melissa Ruggieri, Atlanta Music Scene