Music Midtown: A Midtown Perspective

By Jeff Slate, contributor 

Each year it starts the same. One is driving and approaching 10th Street near Piedmont Park and there it is – the portable electric traffic sign. The message alters a bit from year to year but based on previous encounters it is this year’s inevitable message of inconvenience: “WB (westbound lanes) of 10th street will be closed from 9/6-9/19. Expect Delays.” The initial reaction is pondering for at least a split second – what could possibly require two weeks to prevent tens of thousands of motorists from not driving West on 10th Street for two weeks? It can’t be Christmas but of course, it’s everyone’s favorite contentious festival: Music Midtown.

Music Midtown (MM) began in 1994 on an 8-acre site on the corner of Peachtree and 10th, now home of the lovely white Cherokee marble building known as the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. That year music promoters Alex Cooley and Peter Conlon had the idea to make Atlanta one of the big boys in the world of music festivals, a Peach City New Orleans Jazz Festival but much more than Jazz.

Atlanta was booming. The 1996 Olympics were coming. The Falcons had moved into a brand new shiny dome. The midtown skyline was taking shape. Georgia homegrown talent was thriving – R.E.M., the B-52s. The Atlanta Braves were in the early stages of winning fourteen straight division titles.

Within a decade, Music Midtown had grown into a 3-day festival with 11 stages and over 120 acts, one of the largest if not the largest music festival in the U.S. But the music and the good times would not last. Not surprisingly, with such a massive undertaking, there were a myriad of problems. To name a few: massive overhead, weather, and securing the right location. The heat islands of streets and parking lots made things way too humid for attendees. The 42-acre setting by the Atlanta Civic Center, utilized in ’04 and ’05, was hardly compelling.

After the 2005 fest, Music Midtown closed down. But not for long. In 2011 Music Midtown came roaring back with Coldplay and the Black Keys as headliners. It was a one-day event, ticket prices at $55. And most impressively it was back at a new locale – the crown jewel of Atlanta – gorgeous, beautiful  Piedmont Park. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Hello to Strawberry Fields and Saturday in the Park.

The Festival returned albeit without the affable and legendary promoter Alex Cooley. He had long parted his business association with Conlon prior to his death in 2015. Peter Conlon was now President of Live Nation Atlanta. He brought the music back.

Wasn’t this great? As boastfully stated on its city Permit Application, Music Midtown is “Atlanta’s premier music festival since 1994 featuring the biggest names in Rock, Pop, Hip-Hop and electronic from around the globe.”

But Music Midtown, shockingly coincidentally, is in Atlanta’s Midtown, a high-density commercial and residential neighborhood. There are beautiful homes in the neighborhood, homes that have been occupied by the same residents for over 50 years or longer, homes whose occupants were there long before the advent of Music Midtown and homes where the owners grew up listening to Frank Sinatra, not Cardi B, one of the headliners of the 2019 Festival.

There are businesses in the neighborhood such as the popular MetroFresh, adjacent to the park, that “uses the finest in-season ingredients, locally grown and organic when possible. People are going to come for delicious healthy food… they’ll come back because they had a great experience.” That’s owner/chef Mitchell Anderson. But many do not visit his health-food restaurant on the Beltline during the Festival. “I get nothing from Music Midtown, ” Anderson says. “My regular customers say ‘I’m not coming to Midtown’. It just makes business a lot harder. Ten days to set-up and one week of break-down. I hate it. Makes me crazy. Also makes me crazy is that it’s a for-profit event. And when it negatively affects other people’s business, I don’t think that’s fair. I understand living in Midtown; you get the good with the bad but this week (MM) in particular drives me crazy.”

Bo Martin, manager of the nearby Midtown Butcher Shoppe is not particularly thrilled either, firmly stating, “It kills our business. It just creates chaos and we don’t reap any of the benefits. The concert-goers just come in non-stop, wanting to use our bathrooms. We start out letting them use them but after a certain point, absolutely not. I see people urinating in public. Drunk people coming into our shop and making a mess. It happens to us and everybody around here. The bathrooms just get overloaded. By late morning (of the concert days) our regular customers just stay at home. They don’t come out. They don’t even try. One of our owners last year had an incident where someone just parallel parked. So he couldn’t come to work. Had to take a taxi. (But) the past two years Music Midtown has been really good about cleaning after themselves. And for some restaurants that do well, as one server aptly described it, ‘We make a lot of money but it’s still a shitshow.’

But not all businesses particularly restaurants or bars share the same feeling of dread. Woody’s Cheese Steaks’ Xavier Edwards says, “I love it. It’s a really cool experience. I’m always excited when we’re doing $500 to $1000 hours. It’s like a stress test. I love testing my limits and really enjoy feeding people. That’s why I’m in the business. We put smiles on people’s faces. You can’t do any better than that. A 12-hour shift feels like a 5-hour shift. Next thing you know it’s time to close. It’s entertaining and I get to feed you. It’s Atlanta at its finest.”

Josh, a bartender at Blake’s on 10th, also finds the festival “great, great for the community, for locally owned business. I don’t how anyone could not like it. Brings more people into the city, this neighborhood, a wide variety of people, a wide variety of music. It’s always safe. It’s a win-win for everyone.”

“A win-win for everyone” is not the most common expression heard by many that call Midtown home. Rather “massive inconvenience,” “public urination,” “trash, parking and road closures and blockades for two weeks” are terms more frequently heard on the streets and sidewalks of Midtown Atlanta. Sexton, a property manager on 10th street, doesn’t hold back, saying, “It’s really an inconvenience now since they don’t give tickets to people who live on 10th like they use to. All the people, the tenants who live here are hampered by the traffic, the noise, and they don’t get anything from it now. I know it brings a lot of money to the city, but at least take care of the people who it’s obstructing…Since I work and stay on the property, I keep people away from vandalizing and urinating. But you can’t have a cop every minute here to catch somebody. They’re urinating all over in the alleyways. During the event I clean up the trash myself. My tenants who have to get to work complain about where they can park, where they can drive, so we have to park off-site. And they use to have two lanes, now only one (on 10th). It’s a huge inconvenience and all we get is a little flyer or little paper (from Live Nation) telling us about all the inconveniences we’re going to have (and) we get nothing from the Festival. We shouldn’t get penalized because we live near the park.”

Rob Brown shares many of Sexton’s sentiments “I loathe it (Music Midtown). I live in this high-rise (Piedmont & 12th). It disrupts our lifestyle for not just two days but for (2) weeks. There’s the destruction it does to the park. People just dump their trash, their cigarettes all over the building. Some throw up and vomit in front of the building and rip the landscape. The (people at the) building are cleaning up, not Music Midtown. We could use more
trash cans (but) I hope they have a great time, everyone is safe, that it doesn’t rain, that the park doesn’t get destroyed. Every year they have gotten better. But there has to be a balance. My taxes bring a lot to this city. I pay a premium amount of taxes to live here (in Midtown).”

Not all residents are unhappy to see Music Midtown roll around each and every year. Many enjoy listening to a “free concert” from their porch. Consider the sentiments of Shannara Rimmey: “Listen, when you live in the city, in Midtown, you get the good with the bad. You live in Midtown. A lot of people can’t even afford to come here or to have a drink in Midtown. I love the Festival. It brings a lot of money into this area. This area wouldn’t be as
valuable if it wasn’t for the bars and the festivals and all that. I have no sympathy (for those that complain). It’s one paid festival out of hundreds of free festivals we have. Two weeks out of 365 days? You can take 14. You’ll live to see another day. Get over it.”

The students at Grady School also welcome the 2-Day Festival, at least the many this reporter talked to. An overwhelming majority attend. A Grady teacher, who wished to remain anonymous, also added, “We handle it pretty well as a school. We got it pretty down pat. We carpool. We want to make sure all our families feel like they know how to navigate.” In addition, the school received a $1000.00 donation from the Midtown Neighborhood
Association for their technology fund.

The President of the Midtown Neighborhood Association (MNA) is Courtney Smith. She is probably not Sexton’s favorite individual. Live Nation used to distribute 200 tickets to those most directly affected by the traffic, the blockades and all the other inconveniences. In other words, those living on 10th Street. Unfortunately the distribution of the complimentary tickets was not without its problems. Some tickets landed in the hands of people not even living in Midtown or tickets were scalped. Live Nation wanted out. Beginning last year the music giant simply gave the 200 free tickets over to the MNA. One less problem for Live Nation but maybe one more for Smith. Those on 10th Street, who previously had received their complimentary tickets, were not pleased when the MNA decided to have a raffle — one that cost $20 to enter. “We wanted to use the tickets to benefit the neighborhood. The ability to win a $20 ticket that’s normally $150 is still a benefit for the residents and also for fundraising so we can have a long-term benefit that lives well beyond Music Midtown,” Smith said. “(But it’s) a gift not quid pro quo for us to then ignore incompatible behavior… We appreciate their (MM) gift but we did vote to oppose their festival this year just like we did last year.”

Smith continues: “The biggest issue is Midtown residents, aka MNA, need to be considered a permanent stakeholder in pre-planning discussions. Music Midtown’s planning starts back in April. We need to weigh in on logistics, lane closures, timing, security, sanitation. We were not included in pre-planning this year.”

One issue that almost all parties agree on, including the Atlanta Bicycle Coalition, was the new 2-way bike and scooter lanes in the middle of the 10th Street. In the past there was no access. Daniel Mane, a passionate cyclist and owner of Aurora Coffee in Little Five Points expressed the opinion of many, “This is absolutely perfect, considering the past. You get a wider lane and they (Music Midtown) get to set up their behemoth festival. They’re making a concession of having us drive down in the middle of the lane and as long as I don’t get hit by a forklift, what could be better? There’s more cyclists than ever in Atlanta. I find this safer than the cycle track during a normal day.” The Coalition, in a press release, was also quite pleased: “This outcome sets a new standard for temporary bicycle and pedestrian accommodations during the festival.”

But, as in everything, there are dissenters such as Ilene Brown, who states, “I would be more accepting if it didn’t start so early. Two weeks is just ridiculous. When you put the bike lane in the middle I’m sure it’s uncomfortable for a lot of people. You have massive trucks passing by you. We walk our dog through here and it’s frightening for her because of all the noise.”

Since it restarted at Piedmont Park in 2011, Midtown Music has made enormous improvements regarding the concerns of the residents and the welfare of the park. Even those that despise the festival concede there has been progress in addressing the disruption it causes. In addition to the opening of 10th Street for bicyclists and scooters, porta-potties were placed outside the event at Charles Allen Drive, the Midtown Marta Station and Grady
High School for the first time. Clean-up crews were working day and night before, during and after the event inside and outside the park. The event staffers continued their efforts in being far more courteous and sensitive to the residents than in years past.

But there will always be discontent, understandably, with the two weeks it takes to load-in and load-out. Cliff, from the Tactical Production team, offers an explanation: “Building four huge stages it’s not what like everyone thinks. You have so many stages of this. You got the permit people, the OSHA people, the city liaison, the park people, all the investors. We try our best not to hurt the land. And on the first day, they pump into your head – safety, safety, safety. We’re set up to withstand 50 to 60 mile per hour winds. We got to keep the crowds safe, the public safe and naturally the multi-millionaire superstars safe. We are riggers. That’s what we do. We bring on the heavy machines, laying the foundation…the really very heavy steel or some kind of weighted ballast. We build the pieces on the ground and hanging motors for all the lighting… A lot of stuff goes into it. A lot of people put a lot of work into it. It takes so long because again, you got to be safe.”

So congratulations to Live Nation for creating a world-classic music festival. The weather cooperated despite the sweltering heat. With no rain, no chance of anything like the 2013 deluge which caused great damage to the park and general outrage among park-lovers. There also were no major incidents or criminal activity reported. By all accounts, an impressively run festival.

One can only assume Music Midtown will be back in 2020 along with the same inconveniences imposed on the residents of Midtown. There will be legitimate complaints and valid concerns. Live Nation, in its own interest, will undoubtedly continue to work with the residents to address those concerns. But basic questions remain. Should a multi-national corporation be permitted to utilize a public park, particularly Piedmont, for its own economic enrichment? Music Midtown is the only ticketed-gated event at Piedmont Park. The cost of the permit fee is $400,000. The City of Atlanta may be severely undervaluing itself. Despite using a public park Live Nation does not disclose any financial information regarding the profits it receives from the Festival. The books are closed. Live Nation Atlanta runs a tight ship. Information is not easy — it’s virtually impossible — to obtain. We reached out to them but they did not get back to us.

Live Nation should have returned our calls. They could have claimed bragging rights for previous donations they’ve made toward the upkeep of the park they occupy each September. According to a 2017 column in Saporta Report, Live Nation had made annual donations of $100,000.00 from 2013 through 2015 to the Piedmont Park Conservancy and then gave the same amount to the city’s parks department in 2016. Also, Amy Han Dietrich, the Director of Marketing, Communications and PR for the Piedmont Park Conservancy, informs us the conservancy “received $41,007 from Live Nation in late 2017.”

Next year there will be a new slate of entertainers and again there will be no consensus regarding Music Midtown and its impact on the residents of Midtown. And assuredly some residents will be enormously inconvenienced and some businesses will be negatively impacted. So get ready. As you approach 10th Street near Piedmont Park, with the sun rising in the east, those adorable black rectangle electric traffic messages will majestically appear informing everyone we can’t ride West. EXPECT DELAYS.