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
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