Hidden treasure 

Atlantis Music Conference serves a purpose

Last week I drove to Marietta to meet with Mark Willis, partner and co-founder of Atlantis Music Conference. Tucked away in a nondescript building, he and his small staff share a somewhat congested office space. The modest surroundings belie a successful nonprofit organization that grossed more than $300,000 last year.

As one of the top music markets in the country, Atlanta is full of industry conferences and festivals. In July alone, there's the International Soul Music Summit, MondoHomo, Corndogorama, the Alternative Black Arts Festival and the ongoing National Black Arts Festival. Atlantis is used to competition, says Willis.

"Any time you're a large event, you're going to get positives and negatives. We've heard it all," says Willis. "When we started, friends of mine in the industry were, like, 'Three hundred unsigned bands a year? That's a dumb idea.' Now, 10 years later, all those people are gone and all of their events are gone. Music Midtown, On the Bricks, Downtown Rocks – gone," he says, noting several Atlanta music confabs from years past. "We're still here."

Atlantis will return for a 10th installment Sept. 19-22. But it still doesn't get much respect. Part of the problem is that it caters to the bottom-feeders, the unsigned acts, small businesses and indie record labels hoping to gain a foothold in the music industry. Unlike SXSW, however, Atlantis doesn't supplement its core mission with concerts full of overexposed major-label bands. Its showcases usually feature the same unsigned acts that go to the panels. "We've always been the little guy. We've never wanted to be a CMJ or a SXSW," he says.

Despite a relative lack of star power, more than 37,000 people attended Atlantis in 2006, says Willis. I went to four parties, including showcases at Vinyl and Star Bar and an opening party at Eleven50 (now called Opera). Each one was packed with music publishers, producers, talent buyers, record label executives, musicians, and even people who run auxiliary businesses like T-shirt and CD manufacturing.

"Every single year since we started the label – and that goes back to 2001 – I have met somebody or made a relationship at Atlantis that has ultimately profited my business," says Brian Knott, co-owner of Arc the Finger Records. Knott was dismayed by Atlantis' dowdy image as a poor-man's conference, so he volunteered to help with publicity this year. "A working-man's music conference is more accurate," he says.

"When Atlantis first started, I think artists got this impression that, 'Wow, there's this music conference, all these A&R people are going to teem upon Atlanta, and bands are going to get signed.' That's never been the idea," says Knott. "[Atlantis] has never done an accurate job of saying, 'Hey, what we're here for is to help you take one step forward to turning your band into a business.'"

Willis says Atlantis has made several tweaks to its formula. When it takes place in September at CW Midtown Music Complex, all of the daytime panel events and most of the showcases will be centralized there. (Other showcase locations include Smith's Olde Bar, Apache Café, the Masquerade, Red Light Café, Drunken Unicorn and Star Bar.) It's a drastic change from last year's conference, which was split between the Sheraton and 18 nightclubs. The performances will shorten from 40 minutes to 20 minutes.

"There's always room for change, there's always need for growth. The one thing is, there's always great things that come from education and networking. Atlantis has always striven to be the greatest avenue for discovery of talent in America," says Willis.

CRIB NOTES IS HERE! Hey, CL has launched Crib Notes, a blog dedicated to the wonderful sounds of Atlanta. You can read plenty of scintillating musical ephemera, and listen to podcasts of live performances by Juju B. Solomon, Heston and many others. Many of the random news bits printed in my column will move to Crib Notes, too. Check it out at http://blogs.creativeloafing.com/cribnotes.

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