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Where Do Georgia Music Festivals Go From Here?

Music Midtown in Atlanta was reportedly scrapped over a ruling that allowed guns during events on public property. Photo: Scott Legato/Getty Images for Live Nation

The cancellation of Atlanta’s long-standing Music Midtown festival has prompted a lot of speculation and few concrete answers. Early reports suggest the event, which was set to feature My Chemical Romance, Future, Jack White, Fall Out Boy and others, was scrapped because of a 2019 legal ruling that prevented Live Nation from banning guns inside Piedmont Park, where the event is held. But Live Nation has yet to confirm its reason for canceling, and additional festivals that take place on public property in Georgia, including One Musicfest, Shaky Knees, and AthFest, did not respond or declined to comment on how the Georgia law might impact future shows.

Attorney Matthew Wilson of Arnall Golden Gregory LLP is among those who say the issue of whether promoters can continue to use public property to host live events after the 2019 gun ruling is real and could lead to a significant economic hit for the state. Wilson works with a number of promoters in Georgia and across the country to book artists and secure staff, production teams, and vendors. Vulture asked him to explain the legal ruling that reportedly led to Music Midtown’s cancellation and what this might mean for the future of music festivals in the state and nationally.

What sparked this cancellation?
In 2014, Phillip Evans of Gwinnett County challenged the Atlanta Botanical Garden’s gun policy when he entered the property with a handgun attached to his waistband in plain sight. He was soon escorted off the premises and subsequently filed a lawsuit alongside GA2A, formerly According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the case challenged the interpretation of a 2014 law that said “gun owners with valid permits can carry their weapons in every location of the state, with some exceptions. One exception states that ‘persons in legal control of private property through a lease … shall have the right to exclude or eject a person who is in possession of a weapon or long gun on their private property.’”

Notably, the Atlanta Botanical Garden operates on land it secured in a 50-year lease from the City of Atlanta. Evans’s suit challenged whether the land is public or private.

In 2019, the Supreme Court ruled in v. Atlanta Botanical Garden that only long-term lease holders (such as the Atlanta Botanical Garden) can ban guns on public land. Wilson says Second Amendment–advocacy groups soon began sending letters to organizers of events that use public property and ban weapons to inform them their policy was illegal. Around this time, several promoters reached out to him to figure out how they should proceed. “Most of the events were in the process of coming up with a new policy, and then COVID happened,” Wilson tells Vulture. “All of those events that were on the schedule for 2020 went away.” Live-music events did not begin to return until mid to late 2021. Evans appears to have been challenging Music Midtown’s right to ban guns since earlier this year.

What would happen if these events that are scheduled on public land carry on as planned with gun bans?
Wilson’s response to this was pretty blunt. “You can’t. It’s not going to be possible,” he says, noting the number of popular festivals that currently take place on public property in and around Atlanta. Festivals that are hosted on public property now face a series of potential risks. If promoters ban guns, they could face a lawsuit. If they don’t ban guns, they risk losing artists and staff or having a tragic event occur at the event. “I suppose there are going to be some promoters that are willing to take the risk, but I don’t think they’re going to have a very easy time booking artists, hiring staff, or getting insurance,” Wilson predicts.

In addition to safety concerns, the situation could become a PR nightmare. “Artists don’t even want to be involved in the event where something tragic might happen,” Wilson notes. “Those kinds of things follow an artist around forever.”

There have been reports that artists’ riders specifically stated that they would not perform at a festival where guns are allowed. Have you ever seen this before?
Despite reports that artist riders specifically stated they would not perform at Music Midtown if guns were allowed in the park during the festival, Wilson says he’s looked at “hundreds if not thousands of riders” and never seen this. Artists who are represented by major agencies such as CAA, WME, or UTA usually create their riders based on a “basic template.”

“I’ve never, ever seen that,” he says. “It doesn’t mean that artists won’t begin to add it; it’s never been an issue in the past. I wouldn’t be surprised if it started showing up for Georgia.”

Some people (including the rapper Killer Mike) have suggested Music Midtown and Live Nation made this decision because of low ticket sales, not the gun ban. 
While Music Midtown and Live Nation did not respond to Vulture’s request for comment about why the festival was canceled, Wilson says the current silence from festivals in the state that haven’t canceled doesn’t mean they aren’t scrambling behind the scenes. “I can tell you that I have talked to a half-dozen promoters in the last week. All of them are trying to figure out what to do, and everything’s on the table, from cancellation to downsizing to moving elsewhere to taking a year off to see what happens with the law,” he says.

The attorney adds that, as long as the law states that a festival would need a long-term lease of public property in order to ban guns, the only “airtight” suggestion he can provide to clients who don’t want to outright cancel is to move to private property.

Which festivals have operated on private property, and what is the deterrent from doing this again?
Wilson says there are currently a few options available to festivals that are hoping to prevent cancellation by moving to private property. The indie festival Shaky Knees, which has recently been held in Central Park in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward, had previously been held at Atlantic Station, a mixed-use development that includes retail, restaurants, and a green space. The attorney says Pullman Yard, the former industrial complex located in Kirkwood, as well as some of the big film studios located throughout metro Atlanta could hold a festival and skirt the gun ruling since they’re on private property.

Notably, the Cellairis Amphitheater at Lakewood is owned by the city, but Live Nation has a long-term lease of the property. One Musicfest held its festival there before moving to Centennial Olympic Park in recent years. (Evans previously stated his intention to challenge music venues with long-term leases of public land.) Wilson adds that renting private property is “certainly more expensive” than hosting a festival at a city park, and festivals have to consider whether those spaces can meet their capacity needs.

This is currently happening in Georgia, but could it happen in other states too?
Wilson says Georgia appears to be an “outlier,” at least for now, when it comes to this issue. “I’m not aware of any state law or court ruling that would have the same effect” elsewhere, he said.

Where Do Georgia Music Festivals Go From Here?