Music Midtown drums up large audience, musicians

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Music Midtown drums up large audience, musicians

The Southerner

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Mobs of people flooded the meadow at Piedmont Park. Mosh pits formed in front of the two stages, some people weaving through the crowds to get closer to the stage while others were rushing across the field to acquire prime positions for the next performance at the other stage. The ground shook as loud music poured out of giant speakers and flashing lights illuminated the different artists performing on stage.

The 18-hour festival, which spanned Friday, Sept. 21 and Saturday, Sept. 22, included performances by Neon Trees, Foo Fighters, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Florence + the Machine, Civil Twilight, LP, Girl Talk, Garbage, Adam Ant, the Avett Brothers and Pearl Jam. There were several Atlanta-based artists: T.I., Ludacris, Van Hunt and O’Brother.

“Florence was my favorite,” senior Claire Hasson said. “I’m kind of in love with her. I’m obsessed with her voice and sound, and the whole atmosphere was awesome.”

O’Brother, whose members are from Lawrenceville in Gwinnett County, grew up attending Music Midtown.   “The crowd was awesome,” drummer Michael Martens said. “It feels good to have support from our hometown. I think it was a little scary playing so early, opening the festival today, but I think there was a solid crowd.”



Seven days before the concert would open, several workers fanned out across the meadow, mapping out the open field and marking measurements with circles of orange spray paint around neon pink flags. In one week, this area would be completely transformed and flooded with an estimated 35,000 attendees Friday and 50,000 Saturday, which was sold out.

Site coordinator David Helberg hovered over two large scaled maps of Piedmont Park placed on the hood of his car and a four-inch binder filled with calculations and plans for the setup.

“I produce the festival,” Helberg said. “You can call me the production manager. I arrange buses, trucks, hiring, firing, setup, set design, and crew and move widgets around.”

Helberg pointed out the immense amount of work that goes on behind the scenes to make the festival a success.

“[The actual performances of the bands] should be the anticlimax of the whole show,” Helberg said. “I work 10 man hours in preparation per hour on stage, some insane amount of input for 18 hours of the festival.”

Helberg started working for Music Midtown because of his music experience. He has been in the industry his whole life and traveled with bands such as the Wallflowers, Counting Crows and Susan Vega.

“I tried to make it as a musician, but I couldn’t pay the rent … so I’m doing the next best thing, supporting musicians,” he said.

Helberg has a long history working for Music Midtown, but the 1997 festival is especially memorable.

“I proposed [to my wife] on stage at Music Midtown in 1997 before Cracker went on stage to perform,” he said. “Some people were chanting to say ‘yes’ and some people were chanting to say ‘no.’ It was a very interesting experience.”



The week leading up to the festival, Helberg said he arrived at the park at 7 a.m. everyday and worked into  the night. Saturday, Sept. 15 marked the first day of physical setup. After the stage was constructed, lights were set up on Wednesday, Sept. 19, sound systems were placed on Thursday, Sept. 20 and bands arrived Friday, Sept. 21.

Because performances alternate between two stages, Helberg said behind-the-scenes workers were crucial.

“We’ve got four sweaty tattooed guys moving everything around and setting up equipment and [microphones] to make it all happen,” he said.

The number of workers on site increased as the festival neared. There were 35 to 50 workers on day one, 150 workers on day four and 2,500 workers on day five.

Planning for Music Midtown began the day after last year’s festival.

“There are contingencies all over; we have to plan, plan, plan,” Helberg said. “Plan for weather, communication loss and power loss.”

To make his plans a reality, Helberg said he worked with an architect who dropped the plans into a drawing and figured out the capacity of the space.

“Engineers and designers all play a part here; you don’t have to be the rock star,” he said.

There were many factors considered in production, Helberg said.

“We have to balance the stage and worry about wind loads for the backdrop,” he said. “It’s like being an air-traffic controller. Traffic goes on on-stage and not only at the gates; it’s all about traffic control.”

Helberg’s four-inch binder contained all the calculations, done by engineers, of the stage structure and necessary supplies, including 38,000 pounds of concrete and commodities such as portable toilets.



Not only was there intensive preparation regarding the setup of the festival, but there was also a large emphasis on safety and security. Two hours prior to the event, security banned all vehicles from the site and conducted a security sweep.

“We have K9 bomb sweeps, and we work with Homeland Security,” Helberg said.

Because of  security measures implemented after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, Helberg worked with an agent who checked the Internet looking for key words related to Music Midtown.

The music festival has a class B permit, allowing for a capacity of up to 49,999 people. Because of this large mass of people in one place, Helberg had to ensure the safety of the crowd.

“What if people trip in the park?” he said. “We have to know standard operating procedures for emergencies in the county.”

Helberg worked with the fire department and Emergency Medical Services on emergency evacuation plans. There were three first-aid stations, six walking crews consisting of two people per crew, three golf carts and three ambulances.

“Most of the incidents [this year] were minor like cuts, blisters; there were a couple [incidents resulting from] alcohol intoxications,” firefighter and EMT worker Justin Freeman said.

Firefighter and paramedic Flo Sheain, along with Freeman, was among the medical crew working at the 2012 Music Midtown.

“Today, [Saturday, Sept. 22,] we have to worry about heat and dehydration,” Sheain said.



A major focus of the festival was providing an enjoyable music experience while ensuring environmentally friendly procedures and giving back to the park.

“The conservancy took risks [with allowing the festival to take place at the park] and now we’re reaping the benefits,” Helberg said. “I’m not saying it should be a museum; I think it should be used. We just need to think about how we support the park.”

Festivals such as Music Midtown fund expansion of the park. Helberg said some of the festival’s proceeds will help restructure the park.

“It’s a public park; the festival is a public event and because of the sheer number of people, there is upkeep to that since nobody pays rent to the park,” Helberg said.

Therefore, maintenance increased during festival time, he said. Music Midtown was required to control traffic and clean up trash within a three-block radius of the park.

“[Music Midtown has the] largest MARTA ridership of any single weekend event in the history of Atlanta,” Helberg said. “[There are] pedestrians coming down 10th Street in clumps of people, so we must manage it.”

Music Midtown used eco-friendly and reusable materials.

“The intent is further sustainability,” Helberg said. “We roll out an aluminum tarp [under structures] to save the grass. Then we roll it back up and use it at other festivals. We also use biodiesels in the generators.”

One of the major sponsors, Coca-Cola, placed recycling bins throughout the park to keep the park clean, sharing Music Midtown’s eco-friendly vision.



Helberg explained the necessary balance of selling enough tickets, merchandise and sponsorships to make the event a success.

“There are no big secrets,” he said. “We have to pay for it somehow.”

Director of sales Anne McElroy was in charge of selling sponsorships not only for Music Midtown, but also for all Live Nation events in Atlanta. The sponsorships this year included AT&T, Coca-Cola, Toyota, Soul Headphones by Ludacris, United MillerCoors, SweetWater Brewing Company, UPS and Delta. AT&T and Slacker Radio even coordinated a meet-and-greet for fans at the concert featuring Neon Trees.

“[The hardest part of the job] is dealing with so many moving pieces,” McElroy said. “Each client has different objectives, and we have to make sure they fit in with the marketing plan and schedule and enhance the experience for the festival.”



After Pearl Jam played their final note, festival-goers rushed toward the exits, leaving piles of trash in their wake. By sun-up on Monday Sept. 23, however, the meadow would be clean.

Although Helberg acknowledged the importance of the engineering for the festival, he said the caliber of music was unsurpassed.

“I can put sheet music in front of people around the world, and we can share and convey emotion through it,” he said. “The engineering—all of that doesn’t encompass what music does for anyone in the world.”

MIDTOWN MOVES FOR THE MUSIC: Thousands of people flooded the meadow of Piedmont Park for the 18-hour music festival on Sept. 21 and 22.


TIMES LIKE THESE: Foo Fighters rattle the stage on Friday night.

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