George on Georgia – Music MeltdownGeorge Chidi. Photo by Dean Hesse
Editor’s note: George Chidi now publishes a Substack newsletter called “The Atlanta Objective.” If you want to support him directly, sign up for a paying subscription to his newsletter by clicking here.
Few trades operate with less honest transparency than the music business. In an age where musical talent and skill are largely disconnected from financial success, the only thing that reliably sells is hype. And anything that gets in between a promotion and its hype – especially a journalist asking hard questions – is the enemy. The house of song is built with mortar made of industrial-grade bullshit.
Perhaps I’m cynical.
But I bet I’m less cynical than Live Nation, which was selling tickets to Music Midtown right up to the moment that they told people it would be cancelled this morning.
“Hey Midtown fans – due to circumstances beyond our control, Music Midtown will no longer be taking place this year,” Music Midtown posted in a curt note on Twitter. “We were looking forward to reuniting in September and hope we can all get back to enjoying the festival together again soon.”
They didn’t say why directly. But the assembled media of Atlanta, speaking to everyone except the actual promoters, sussed it out: Georgia’s new gun law closed the door on private festivals being able to bar people from carrying guns in a public park. How that interacts with festival profits is a guess. I think some artists were going to bail rather than play before an armed crowd. But the sheer insurance risk of it may have been too much in an age of mass shootings.
I broke that story three days ago, ahead of Billboard, Rolling Stone and the AJC, but that’s almost beside the point. It doesn’t matter when I knew. It matters when they knew, or should have known.
As I was following up on the tip last week, a recent conversation I had with a restaurant owner in Atlanta has been bouncing around my thoughts. My friend had been complaining because the cost of evening security has skyrocketed, along with everything else. Local police departments – including DeKalb’s – have started offering extra extra money for overtime, to entice police officers to stay on the clock instead of working lucrative club security jobs on their off time. DeKalb is paying police triple overtime.
So, some clubs have cut corners to conserve profits and abandoned using off-duty cops, my friend said. And those are the clubs that also have tended to be where people are getting shot. “They’re going to kill the nightclub scene,” he bemoaned.
The music industry has long been troubled. While music industry recording revenue is at an all-time high, artist revenue from Spotify and Soundcloud is a bit of a joke for everyone except the top tier. And for the first time ever, younger people are listening to fewer new releases than back catalog entries. You’re not imagining it: the new stuff isn’t as popular.
Musicians have increasingly relied on live performances to make a living. And in Atlanta, those live performance spaces are coming under fire, literally. A mass shooting at a festival is national news. But the drumbeat of late-night club and restaurant shootings are actually a more meaningful threat to Atlanta’s musical culture.
Some – many – club and restaurant owners are being proactive and responsible about fostering a safe environment. But the ones that aren’t threaten the whole ecosystem. It’s not clear to me that the industry itself, built on fake-it-‘til-you-make-it fly-by-night hustle, can sort itself out without enforcement.
It’s easy to put Music Midtown’s cancellation into a partisan political frame. Blame Republicans and Brian Kemp for guns everywhere! And … yeah. I’ll buy that, to a point. Georgia’s gun culture is part of the problem. So is the pervasive-concentrated poverty and inequality problem that we largely ignore, even though it drives violence. Police resources are overtaxed. Mental health access is a rumor. Gang violence has grown. So has juvenile delinquency.
Atlanta’s musical culture requires a baseline of safety for music patrons to persist. That’s under threat. Music Midtown’s cancellation is a wake-up call.
The killjoys from GA2A – formerly known as Georgia Carry – started sending love letters to Live Nation and Music Midtown in May about the effect of the 2014 “guns everywhere” law, the 2019 court case over the right to carry weapons at Atlanta’s Botanical Gardens and how all of that interacted with Georgia’s new “constitutional carry” law passed this year.
When I inquired over the phone about the gun rights activist Phillip Evans and his legal warnings, I could hear the mayor’s spokesman roll his eyes. “Legal knows who he is,” he said.
This isn’t over. Looking at you, One Musicfest and Shaky Knees. Both festivals are scheduled for Atlanta’s Central Park, and both are subject to the same law. (Neither has returned calls seeking comment.)
– George Chidi is a political columnist, public policy advocate and a veteran. He also writes for The Intercept.
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