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Conlon Music Midtown's mastermind

Peter Conlon and his hard-working staff at Live Nation and other volunteers are putting together the finishing touches in preparation for Music Midtown 2012.

Peter Conlon and his hard-working staff at Live Nation and other volunteers are putting together the finishing touches in preparation for Music Midtown 2012.

Carlton Fletcher

carlton.fletcher@albanyherald.com

ATLANTA — For a couple of years, Peter Conlon quit thinking about Music Midtown altogether. The music festival that had consumed so much of his life for the 12 years of its phenomenal run had, he and partner Alex Cooley thought, run its course.

But after a time, the festival started worming its way back into the Live Nation executive's thoughts. It didn't help that everywhere he went he was bombarded with the same question: When are you going to bring Music Midtown back?

"Everywhere I went — restuarants, work, the parking garage — people would stop me and ask when we were going to do another Music Midtown," Conlon said in an exclusive interview with The Herald. "Everyone had a story — 'I met my wife at Music Midtown,' stuff like that. Eventually, I actually started to miss it."

Conlon brought the festival back last year on something of a trial basis ... if you can call having Colplay and the Black Keys a trial ... and knew the time was right for the baby he and Cooley had brought to life in 1994 to become a part of Atlanta's entertainment culture once again.

"A city like Atlanta should have a major music festival," he said. "And if it was going to have one, it should be Music Midtown."

Conlon and his hard-working staff at Live Nation and other volunteers are putting together the finishing touches in preparation for Music Midtown 2012, which will be held at The Meadow at Piedmont Park Friday and Saturday.

The music legend took time from that preparation to talk with The Herald about the festival's past, present and future:

ALBANY HERALD: As was always the case with Music Midtown, you have an exciting list of artists performing this year. Do you rely on personal relationships you've built in the business over the years to get these acts to come, or is it all a business decision?

PETER CONLON: It's a little of both. You have to build those kinds of relationsips to get the artists to consider coming, but the business comes into it, too. I do feel, though, that bands of this magnitude have to have a certain level of trust to play for you.

AH: How do you decide what acts to go after?

PC: There's no real science; it's really a process. I get together with my staff and we talk about what acts we'd like to have. We make a list; usually the short list is around four or five big names. With this kind of festival, you have to "book down," get the big names first. We put out feelers and determine the availability and interest. It's sometimes more difficult than simple and sometimes frustrating. But when you look at it in hindsight it seems to be a little easier.

AH: In 2005 Music Midtown stopped. I think it was during an interview I did with Alex Cooley that he told me about how difficult it was to work with the city of Atlanta. Was that part of the reason you guys pulled the plug, or were there financial and other issues as well?

PC: It's a strange thing about cities: You'll see them bend over backwards for sporting events, but with music events they throw up hurdles. That's puzzling because music events, I think, bring in more money. It's not as bad now as it was 30 years ago, but it's not like (Atlanta) rolls out the red carpet. Our decision to end Music Midtown was mostly an economic situation. We were at a low in our relationship with the city at that point, and it seemed silly to keep fighting them so we stepped back.

AH: That left a hole in Atlanta's entertainment. Was it hard for you not to do Music Midtown?

PC: Not at all, it was actually great. For the first year or two, I just quit thinking about it. But I started to miss it, and everywhere I went people stopped me to ask when we were bringing Music Midtown back.

AH: Why did you ultimately decide to give in?

PC: It seemed like the right time. There was a new administration in the city, and other people started talking about doing a festival here. I felt if there was going to be a festival in Atlanta, it should be Music Midtown. All the other festivals out there — Bonnaroo, those places — they came to Music Midtown to see how to run a festival, so we must have been doing something right.

AH: I always felt MM was short-changed by the national media. You guys had larger crowds than the other festivals and bigger names, but national publications never gave you credit.

PC: I absolutely agree. I think it was prejudice against the South from Northern journalists. Just look at Alex's Atlanta Pop Festival (in 1969). They did that before Woodstock, had Jimmy Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Led Zeppelin, the Allman Brothers and all those bands and made a profit. There were no real issues. Woodstock was poorly managed, was a disaster and it becomes this "Age of Aquarius" "gathering of a generation" event. All the press was in New York City at that time, though. Ted Turner and CNN changed that.

AH: You're still a young man, but you've stayed on top of the music business. Now you get one of the biggest up-and-coming groups (Neon Trees) and one of the biggest comeback acts (Garbage) for this year's festival. Is there a knack to that?

PC: It's just the business we're in. You promote smaller shows on all levels and stay involved or you lose. We wanted an eclectic mix for Music Midtown, but we wanted synergy, too. That's the line you have to walk.

AH: You're considered a music icon without ever having played an instrument. Pretty neat trick.

PC: I just like music, always have since I was a child. I tried to play but was terrible. But I had to be around music, so I found my niche.

AH: What's the best thing about this whole process?

PC: It's always the audience. Alex and I have always got a kick out of watching people enjoy music. It's a communal experience, and we love seeing that look of satisfaction on fans' faces.

AH: I know you have a ton of stories from Music Midtown. What are some of the cooler — or weirder — ones?

PC: I think the weirdest thing was when I got a call over the walkie talkie and was told that Courtney Love wanted to see me. I drove a golf cart all the way across the grounds and came to this white tent draped in white curtains. There were two guys standing there, and they told me to wait just a minute. They went in the tent and I waited ... and waited ... and waited. About 30 minutes later Courtney comes out, takes my hand and says, "I was told I should meet you." That was it. She went back inside the tent.

I also remember about the second year of the festival, before it got so big, seeing Chris Robinson (of the Black Crowes) walking around, barefoot, in the crowd and no one recognized him. It was also pretty cool that Bob Dylan's agent told me Bob was so pleased when he came offstage after playing for 90,000 people that he hugged him. He said that was the only time Dylan ever did that.