2022 Music Midtown festival canceled; decision linked to state gun laws

This year’s Music Midtown festival, a showcase event slated to bring tens of thousands of people and big-name artists to Piedmont Park over two days in September, was canceled Monday in part due to the state’s laws surrounding guns in public parks.

Though festival organizers declined to comment on the reason they scrapped the event, multiple officials familiar with the cancellation said it stemmed from ongoing legal fallout of a permissive gun expansion that was signed into law in 2014.

The announcement sparked a bruising new clash in the November election, with Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams and her allies casting blame on Republicans for adopting pro-gun expansions that cost the city a premier event.

And it triggered backlash from disappointed music fans who eagerly anticipated a now-nixed lineup that included shows from Jack White, Future and Fall Out Boy.

Peter Conlon, who oversees the festival for Live Nation, declined to comment about the cancellation Monday. The festival’s social media account said the two-day event was canned due to “circumstances beyond our control.”

“We were looking forward to reuniting in September and hope we can all get back to enjoying the festival together again soon,” the festival’s statement said.

The decision centered on a 2014 state law passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by then-Gov. Nathan Deal that allowed Georgians to legally carry firearms in a range of new places, including public land such as city-owned Piedmont Park.

For years, there was no legal consensus on whether that law applied to private events held on public property. But a 2019 Georgia Supreme Court ruling — and an appellate court ruling earlier this year upholding that decision — made it more difficult for private groups to restrict guns from short-term events held on public land.

The event’s organizers were concerned about a threat of a lawsuit from gun owners if they decided to hold the festival with firearms restrictions in place, two officials with direct knowledge of the decision told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

There was also a worry that some of the artists would refuse to perform if weapons were permitted, one of the officials said.

The cancellation is a major blow to the city of Atlanta’s tourism trade and the city’s mystique as a music mecca. The festival, which began in 1994, has drawn big-name acts such as Pearl Jam, Foo Fighters, Coldplay, Eminem, Van Halen, Post Malone and Bruno Mars over the years.

About 50,000 people attended last year, when Miley Cyrus, Jonas Brothers and Maroon 5 performed.

It’s not immediately clear whether organizers of other upcoming concerts held on public land, including the rock-oriented Shaky Knees, will revisit their plans.

‘Chaos’

Within minutes of the decision, which was first reported by local independent journalist George Chidi, city leaders and top Democrats blasted Kemp and other Republican policy makers.

Calling it a “sad day” for the city, Atlanta City Council President Doug Shipman wrote on Twitter that: “Public policy has real impacts and, in this case, economic and social implications on a great tradition.”

And state Democrats chastised Republicans for adopting a raft of pro-gun legislation, including a 2022 law that allows Georgians to carry concealed handguns without first getting a license from the state.

“Brian Kemp’s dangerous and extreme gun agenda endangers the lives of Georgians, and the cancellation of Music Midtown is proof that his reckless policies endanger Georgia’s economy as well,” Abrams said in a statement.

The governor, who is seeking a second term, did not immediately comment on the festival’s decision. But state Rep. Rick Jasperse, a Jasper Republican who sponsored the 2014 law, said the measure is designed with public safety in mind.

He said those intent on “causing chaos and crime in Georgia” won’t care if the festival bans firearms and would try to bring them in regardless.

“Good Georgians who can qualify for a permit and carry a weapon do so to protect themselves from that element in our society,” he said.

Credit: Ryan Fleisher

Credit: Ryan Fleisher

Georgia law allows guns at public parks, and preempts local governments from passing local firearms rules that are stricter than state regulations.

Music Midtown has typically banned weapons “of any kind” from being brought into Piedmont Park. A court ruling earlier this year, however, could call into question their ability to legally enforce that rule.

Nearly a decade ago, Phillip Evans, a pro-gun activist and blogger, and the gun rights group GA2A sued the Atlanta Botanical Garden over its no-gun policy, arguing that while the garden is a private entity, it sits on public land and therefore should allow firearms.

In 2019, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that the botanical garden could legally ban guns in part because it has a long-term lease to use its land. An appeals court affirmed that ruling early this year. But the opinion set different conditions for events with shorter leases, such as the music festival.

ExploreLegal clash: Can the Atlanta Botanical Garden prohibit guns?

Evans told the AJC on Monday that he did not take legal action against Music Midtown, but that he made Live Nation and other festival organizers aware of his legal concerns.

He and other pro-gun advocates argued that the festival doesn’t have the right to prohibit guns because it only uses the public park for a few days and doesn’t have a long-term lease.

“The law is on our side. And we spent a lot of time to make sure it was on our side,” said Jerry Henry of GA2A. “So if Music Midtown tried to restrict licensed firearms owners from bringing guns to the festival, it would have been a violation of the law.”

Henry added that he isn’t celebrating the festival’s cancellation, but that he also wanted organizers to follow the state law.

“We don’t want anyone canceling anything. What we want is to defend ourselves and our families,” he said.

It’s not the first time an abrupt cancellation of an event in metro Atlanta had political aftershocks.

The decision by Major League Baseball to yank the All Star game from Truist Park last year in protest of a sweeping new election law led to a wave of criticism from Republicans who blamed Democrats for costing metro Atlanta a showcase event.

On Monday, top Democrats used the same argument against Kemp and his GOP allies, contending that their embrace of firearms expansions has hurt Georgia’s business climate.

“This shows you that public safety and the economy is intertwined,” said state Sen. Jen Jordan, the Democratic nominee for attorney general. “And it shows that Republican policies are dangerous – and they’re bad for business.”

— Staff reporter Maya T. Prabhu contributed to this report.


WHAT IS MUSIC MIDTOWN?

This two-day music festival, run by Live Nation, began in 1994 at a space now occupied by the Federal Reserve in Midtown and has moved to different locations over the years, including Central Park. After a six-year hiatus, it returned in 2011 to Piedmont Park and has featured Elton John, Hall & Oates, Journey, T.I. and the Zac Brown Band.

The festival has skewed its acts to attract younger audiences in recent years like Billie Eilish, Wiz Khalifa and Kendrick Lamar. This year’s headliners for Sept. 17 and 18 were supposed to be Future, Jack White, Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance.

Refunds for this year’s festival will be processed automatically within seven to 10 business days. Questions about refunds can be made at contact.frontgatetickets.com.