When it began 15 years ago, Atlanta’s A3C Festival and Conference existed as a showcase for local hip-hop.
In recent years, as the music names escalated to include marquee artists such as Lil Wayne, 2 Chainz, Wiz Khalifa and Rick Ross, the scope of the festival expanded as well.
A3C – which stands for “All Three Coasts” – has already established itself as a top entertainment and culture event, drawing not only music fans to panels and live performances, but entrepreneurs and tech heads as well. During a long weekend in October, tens of thousands of attendees spread across numerous Atlanta venues to listen and learn from pros including Dallas Austin, Jermaine Dupri, Teddy Riley, Killer Mike and Kevin “Coach K” Lee.
The evolution continues.
A new partnership teams A3C with The Gathering Spot – the buzzy members-only business and social club near Georgia Tech – and Paul Judge Media Group.
Ryan Wilson, the co-founder of CEO of The Gathering Spot and Paul Judge, a founding member of Atlanta’s Tech Square Labs, have invested in A3C, giving both controlling stakes in the festival alongside Mike Walbert, the managing director and a founder of the event.
“I had accomplished a lot of what I wanted to do,” Walbert said recently when the trio spoke exclusively with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “The feedback was awesome and I personally felt like I had taken (the festival) to where I could take it. So it became, how do I build from here? How do I continue to grow this? I wanted to bring new energy and new passion and people to the ownership team that brought new perspectives from different industries.”
Walbert credits Wilson – who has spoken on A3C panels and was a judge on the “action summit” at last year’s festival – for merging the threesome.
“When I became aware of the interest of Ryan and Paul together, I was laser-focused on getting a deal with them both. We had a very similar mission,” Walbert said.
While specifics of the partnership weren’t disclosed, Wilson noted that the three partners are invested long term.
“We’ll be together for the foreseeable future,” he said.
Wilson is an Atlanta native who is already expanding the three-year-old Gathering Spot to Los Angeles and Nashville. His unflagging drive is to create a community environment, a place where connecting and networking becomes organic.
The addition of The Gathering Spot to the A3C portfolio doesn’t mean that the festival – which takes place Oct. 8-13 – will be staged there, specifically (the usual model of various locations will remain). Rather, said Wilson, the partnership is strategic, not physical.
“You look at A3C and it’s the same language at The Gathering Spot in terms of creating frameworks, in terms of people meeting one another and driving home a memorable experience. It’s important for people to connect,” he said.
Added Judge, “The role that The Gathering Spot will play in A3C isn’t about the building, but about building community. The business of The Gathering Spot is about connecting people…With A3C, we need to do even more of that, more community building.”
The model of blending music with technology and - as the newly formed trifecta plans to integrate this year - film, TV and gaming is similar to a certain beast of a festival in Texas, which Walbert readily acknowledges as “a model and a framework.”
A trip to SXSW in Austin in 2008 – followed by eight subsequent years of attendance - provided him with a clearer vision for A3C, but also stirred some frustration.
“I’m in Atlanta driving a 15-passenger van of hip-hop artists to South by Southwest, and they’re our culture,” he said. “The dream (for A3C) was to build a platform for hip-hop artists and producers. I’ve always thought that A3C could be on the same scale and size at South by Southwest.”
“Our collective ambition is for A3C to continue to make sure it’s a destination for people who live here, but also people around the country,” he said. “Atlanta deserves a marquee event. We look a South by Southwest as an example that scaled over time. But the DNA of that city (Austin) is very different than Atlanta.”
Judge, a regular speaker at A3C, hopes that the future of A3C includes more overlap of music and tech. Witnessing a panel at last year’s event about music tech startups solidified his belief that while Atlanta is renowned for both music and technology, “those worlds weren’t coming together enough.”
“I think there are many people who are interested in Atlanta and want to spend more time here, and there isn’t an event where we’re welcoming the world to come talk to us,” Judge said. “A3C is connected to the culture. The up and coming artists want to be on the stage and the legends want to come back.”
The primary goal of the new collective this year is go retain the authenticity of A3C while increasing the quality and range of the experience.
“Over the next seven to 10 years of what A3C becomes…I think the world knows about it and we have half a million people looking at the event,” Judge said. “The music side is the heart of it, but there’s a lot of work to do.”