A Q&A with Peter Conlon

Music Midtown co-founder talks growth, diversity, and the power of Journey

Returning for its third year in a row the weekend of Sept. 20-21, the rebooted annual Music Midtown lineup was unveiled earlier this month and it features performances from Journey, Queens of the Stone Age, Kendrick Lamar, Black Lips and more. As news of Music Midtown’s return spread, co-founder Peter Conlon took a few minutes to talk about perception, diversity, and the value of meaningful criticism.

The full Music Midtown lineup is announced? No late additions?

This is pretty much it.

One word that’s being tossed around is “diversity.” AJC noted Music Midtown’s increased diversity this year, but commenters on the Internet criticize its lack of diversity. What’s your take?

It’s always a challenge. No matter what you do people will say it’s not diverse enough, but you have to find balance. You don’t want to be so diverse that you don’t appeal to anyone. I think we’re more diverse this year than we have been in the previous two years. From Journey to Imagine Dragons, Phoenix, Kendrick Lamar, and 2Chainz, it’s pretty diverse. You’ll see us striving to get even more diverse as we’re able to add more elements to the festival.

That’s the plan you laid out when we talked in 2011, when there was virtually no hip-hop or urban music presence at Music Midtown.

Yeah, and it was only one stage back then. It’s a growth situation. This year we’ve added a third stage. Eventually we’ll get back to being a multi-day, multi-stage thing; I don’t think we’ll ever get up to six stages again, but we’ll continue growing.

Are you particularly excited about any of the acts this year?

This might kind of define me, but I like Journey a lot. Journey’s songs — the anthems — nobody does it like Journey! They’re just a really fun, great band. I’m also really excited about seeing the Chili Peppers. I haven’t seen them in a long time, and they haven’t played Atlanta proper in many years; they always play out in Gwinnett. This might be the first time they’ve played Downtown Atlanta in maybe 10 years, maybe longer.

New bands, too. I’m looking forward to Phoenix, and I’m looking forward to Imagine Dragons, because I’ve never seen them. Queens of the Stone Age, too. We book bands that we really want to see. Our business plan is simple: Show a good, diverse lineup for an inexpensive ticket. $90 for two days — $45 a day — you couldn’t see any of these acts on their own for that.

Does the fest pay for itself and turn a profit by sheer volume of ticket sales?

It is an expensive undertaking, and it’s a risky proposition. It makes money, and that’s why we do it. But the margins are always tight. But yes, it is volume oriented. It would be easy for me to say let’s do it for $125 and have less people there, but I want to make it affordable to a cross-section of people. It’s a tough nut at times.

You have a few locals on the bill this year: Black Lips, 2Chainz, and Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ ...

We’ve always had local acts and we’ll continue doing so. We used to have a local stage for up-and-coming acts, but I don’t know if it will become the focus for a stage again.

How did you decide who plays the third stage?

There are different levels of production involved. There wasn’t a defining element, if that’s what you’re asking. It’s acts that we felt would fit on a smaller stage — it’s not as large as the other two stages, but it’s still pretty large for a festival.

You’ve often addressed public complaints about Music Midtown in public forums, which I haven’t seen a lot of festival founders do in the past.

You can’t ignore meaningful criticism. I learn from the festival every year. Some things aren’t as successful as you want them to be, and some things are just miscommunications. The port-a-lets thing: We actually had plenty of port-a-lets last year; they just weren’t all in one spot. If you have them all in one spot you have a tremendous gathering of ugly port-a-lets. They’re spread throughout the site. People wanted to go to the ones that are right at the back of the meadow, because they’re right there, but they had to stand in line. Around the corner and maybe another 100 feet away, there are more. We couldn’t put any more of them by the field. If we did there wouldn’t be room for people; not to mention you don’t want to stand next to 150 port-a-lets during the show.

Music Midtown predates Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo, and more nationally known festivals. Moving forward, how do you see Music Midtown in relation to the others?

The Bonnaroo guys and Austin City Limits came to Music Midtown and studied our model. The differences? We’re not a camping fest. We’re an urban fest. Pricing is a big thing, too. I’ve been kind of amazed by the prices at Bonnaroo. The similarities? Even Lollapalooza is an urban fest, but really, every fest has to fit its town. This is Atlanta and this is an Atlanta fest. It always has been, and it has to fit its town. I don’t think Lollapalooza would be right for Atlanta, and I don’t think Music Midtown would work in Chicago. The fest is defined by elements of the local community.