Atlanta’s canceled Music Midtown festival puts lax gun laws under scrutiny

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As gun-control legislation stalls at the federal level, developments in the music festival circuit have underscored the impact of state laws: Atlanta’s Music Midtown festival, originally set for next month, was canceled Monday because of a Georgia court ruling that prevented organizers from banning guns on festival grounds.

“Due to circumstances beyond our control, Music Midtown will no longer be taking place this year,” the festival announced in a statement on its website and social media accounts. “We were looking forward to reuniting in September and hope we can all get back to enjoying the festival together again soon.”

Music Midtown, which was founded in 1994 and most recently held last September, was scheduled this year for Sept. 17-18 with Fall Out Boy, Future, Jack White and My Chemical Romance as headliners. The past decade of festivals took place at Piedmont Park, roughly 200 acres of land managed in part by the city.

According to Billboard and Rolling Stone, both of which cited industry sources, legal liabilities stemming from Georgia’s expansive pro-gun laws were to blame for the cancellation. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution cited officials who also attributed the decision to “ongoing legal fallout.” In 2014, Gov. Nathan Deal (R) signed a sweeping package of bills that expanded where people could carry concealed firearms to include spaces such as bars, parks, parts of airports and some churches. The Safe Carry Protection Act, also referred to as the “Guns Everywhere” bill, gave the state more power to preempt local gun restrictions.

That same year, pro-gun activist Phillip Evans sued the Atlanta Botanical Gardens after he was escorted off the premises for possessing a weapon. The Georgia Supreme Court considered the case in 2019 and ruled that businesses with long-term leases could prohibit firearms on public land; a subsequent appeals court ruling from this year reinforced that short-term events had little power to restrict guns.

While Music Midtown took place last year, guns rights advocates challenged the weapons ban this time around. Evans argued in May that his legal loss against the garden, which holds a 50-year lease from the city, set up a clearer path to victory against short-term public land occupants such as the festival. He told the Journal-Constitution on Monday that he alerted organizers to his “legal concerns.”

Neither Music Midtown nor its owner, promoter Live Nation, responded to a request from The Washington Post for additional comment on the decision to cancel the festival. Reached Monday, a member of Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens’s communications team wrote in an email, “We will look into this.”

Michael Julian Bond, a city council member, told The Post on Tuesday that although Live Nation hadn’t confirmed to him the reason behind the cancellation, he could see why organizers would hesitate to hold the event without gun restrictions: The lawn at Piedmont Park is “exposed on every side, practically,” he said.

Bond compared the openness of Piedmont Park to the Live Nation-produced Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas where, in 2017, a gunman opened fire and killed dozens of people. He said the proliferation of guns, eased by the state’s loosening restrictions on them, comes at economic and social costs.

“As a society, we’re trading one set of rights for another,” he continued. “You can carry whatever kind of crazy weapon you want, but you can’t peacefully assemble.”

As gun ownership rises, Georgia looks to loosen restrictions: It’s the ‘wild, wild West’

Festival safety measures have been under intense scrutiny since a crowd surge at rapper Travis Scott’s Astroworld Festival in November killed 10 concertgoers and injured hundreds; a Post investigation found that most of the victims at the Houston event were in one tightly packed area. Morgan Milardo, managing director of the Berklee Popular Music Institute, said she has witnessed an increase in safety procedures implemented throughout the festival circuit this summer. Some instruct artists and their crew members on what to do in the event of an emergency, such as if they spot an incident unfolding from the stage.

Festival security tends to be “pretty black and white,” according to Milardo. She said including specific security measures in a rider — or a contractual set of requirements for an artist to perform at a venue, which local journalist George Chidi pointed to on Friday as a potential reason for the looming cancellation of Music Midtown — is standard practice. What changed here were the laws surrounding the venue.

“It’s an open conversation in the music industry right now: How do we keep everyone safe?” Milardo said. “This stuff unfortunately happens, and it’s something we need to be mindful of. The promoters making every effort they can to keep their events safe, and artists making every effort … it goes a long way.”

The cancellation of Music Midtown isn’t the first time figures in the entertainment industry have drawn attention to controversial Georgia laws. In 2019, after Gov. Brian Kemp (R) signed a “heartbeat bill” into effect that effectively banned most abortions, Hollywood filmmakers announced their intention to boycott Georgia. Studios didn’t follow through on the threats, likely because of the state’s generous tax credit. Most studios again kept quiet last year after Kemp signed into law voting restrictions that, as CNBC noted at the time, drew criticism from major corporations such as Coca-Cola and Delta. As backlash continued to build, Major League Baseball moved its All-Star Game from Atlanta in protest.

Stacey Abrams, the Democratic candidate up against Kemp for the Georgia governor seat, tweeted a lengthy statement Monday evening condemning his “dangerous and extreme gun agenda.” The nixed festival “is proof that his reckless policies endanger Georgia’s economy as well,” the statement reads, later noting that the incident would “cost Georgia’s economy a proven $50 million.” Phoebe Bridgers, a Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter who was scheduled to perform at Music Midtown, retweeted Abrams’s post.

Kemp’s office did not respond to The Post’s request for comment.

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