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Music Midtown's Conlon has knack for signing top acts

Crowds rock out to the music at Atlanta’s 2012 Music Midtown Festival.

Crowds rock out to the music at Atlanta’s 2012 Music Midtown Festival.

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Ludacris performs at last year’s Music Midtown in Atlanta.

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Scott Avett entertains with the musical pickings on the banjo.

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T.I. sings his most popular songs live at 2012 Music Midtown.

ATLANTA — It’s not, as Live Nation President Peter Conlon points out, like Atlanta is some backwater dot on the map that no one’s ever heard of.

Actually, with some of music’s top country, rock and especially hip-hop artists either headquartered in Georgia’s capital city or frequent visitors for recording or performances, the ATL looks up only at New York and Los Angeles as an American music Mecca.

Why, then, are Atlanta events such as the Conlon-produced Music Midtown festival all but ignored by the national media?

“The only thing I can figure is that the South’s always going to get the short end of the stick when it comes to the national media,” Conlon said during a recent conversation. “Back when we did Music Midtown before (1994-2006), we had three days of more than 100,000 people each day. None of the other festivals that have sprung up — Bonnaroo, Coachella, any of those — has come close to that many people.

“And the folks who put those shows on, they came to us to see how to run a festival.”

Yet when national publications like Rolling Stone magazine do their yearly preview of major music events, Conlon’s Music Midtown is conspicuously absent. Never mind that last year Midtown offered not just super headliners Pearl Jam and Foo Fighters — the only show where the two were on the same bill — but some of music’s hottest acts, among them Garbage, T.I., Florence + the Machine, Ludacris, the Avett Brothers and Neon Trees.

And there was little national love for Music Midtown this year even after a lineup that included Red Hot Chili Peppers, Queens of the Stone Age, Imagine Dragons, Journey, Weezer, 2 Chainz, Jane’s Addiction, Kendrick Lamar, Arctic Monkeys, Cake and Yeah Yeah Yeahs was announced. Ironically, the Peppers and QOTSA were listed among Rolling Stone’s current Top 50 best touring acts, and Lamar was featured as hip-hop’s most exciting live performer in a recent edition of the publication.

Still, Conlon’s not one to sweat such apparent slights by national media outlets. Midtown did, after all, sell out on Saturday last year, the second full year of what has been a triumphant return after a three-year absence.

“Yeah, things went really well last year,” Conlon said. “The turnout was good — we had great crowds — and the artists really seemed to enjoy themselves. Now there’s pressure to make this year’s Music Midtown even better. Once you get into about the sixth or seventh year of something like this, it becomes really difficult to top the things that you’ve already done. After taking a couple of years off, I think the excitement and energy around our event are still pretty high.

“We have a couple of things that I think make our event unique. First, we have such an eclectic lineup. We don’t want to be a rock festival, a country festival, an R&B festival or a hip-hop festival. We keep our ear to the ground, try to find the artists people really are interested in seeing. But maybe the biggest driving hook is Music Midtown’s affordability. Many of the artists in our lineup would charge $100 or more for tickets to their individual shows, but you get to see all of them for $110.”

The eclectic lineup is mostly what sets Music Midtown apart, and Conlon and his Live Nation staff have developed a knack for bringing the hottest new acts as well as established superstars to the festival.

“There are going to be hits and misses in this business,” he said. “Sometimes the acts that everyone jumps on early in their career thinking they’re going to be huge, it just doesn’t happen. Remember Men at Work? Gotye? We don’t have any big strategy that we use. We just talk about the acts we’d like to see and go after them.

“There are a couple on my wish list (which Conlon refuses to identify) that I haven’t been able to get, but that’s usually about timing. I think I’m going to be able to get one of them here next year.”

Conlon’s former Music Midtown partner, music legend Alex Cooley, admitted in a previous interview that city of Atlanta officials made putting the event on as difficult as possible, holding up permits and forcing festival staff to walk through massive hoops each year. That for an event that brought millions and millions of dollars into the city.

Conlon said Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s administration has made the process much simpler.

“The new administration has gotten behind us more than what we saw in the past,” Conlon said. “He was at our first press conference (announcing the return of Midtown), and they’re working more with us. I think they’re aware of the economic impact the festival has on the city. All the restaurants and hotels are full, and Music Midtown is always the biggest day for MARTA riders.

“I think our city officials have also realized what a huge cultural event this is.”

Conlon said the energy that surrounds Music Midtown (Sept. 20-21 at Piedmont Park) is a lot of what keeps him excited about the event.

“It’s still a lot of fun,” he said. “There are always going to be some not-so-fun aspects of something like this because it can be consuming, and it is a business. But when you see the folks in attendance and the artists having such a good time and everything comes off like it did last year, well, that’s when it’s really fun.”