In the past decade, we’ve seen Atlanta rise from a trendy epicenter of hip-hop’s biggest stars to a bonafide hub for music entrepreneurship and industry innovation. Powerhouses such as Quality Control have laid the blueprint for indie labels eyeing mainstream success while entities such as LVRN and K Camp’s RARE Sounds have erected studios and co-working spaces designed for creators throughout the city. Quietly humming in the background of all this growth has been the A3C Festival & Conference.

For a decade and a half, A3C has evolved into hip-hop’s premier networking event, returning each year with a stronger presence designed to help aspiring artists and executives succeed. Entering its 15th year, A3C has undergone something of a facelift. Since being acquired in a partnership with the Paul Judge Media Group and Atlanta’s Gathering Spot coworking space, the festival also finds a new partial owner in 2 Chainz, echoing the mogul mindset that characterizes the southern city.

This year marks the first time the festival is veering from the traditional two-day show that usually caps off the weekend. Instead, they’ve focused on staging more intimate shows across the week, including a Yasiin Bey Black On Both Sides 20th-anniversary concert while bringing the Fader Fort to Atlanta. Increased focus on the conference side has led to a relocation to a venue 5 times as big as its previous location, as well as an extra day of panels, workshops, and mentorship sessions. 

Ahead of this year’s kickoff, we spoke with A3C’s executive director Mike Walbert about its 15-year growth, the new direction, and the secret sauce that sets A3C apart.

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HNHH: Let’s talk about the format changes this year. What exactly sparked that change?

Mike Walbert: It wasn’t exactly one thing. It was a culmination of things. I think every year we take a look in the mirror and talk about what we want to be and what we want to do. We’re in our 15th year and if you just rest on what you’ve been, people are gonna get tired and bored. The conference is something that has been growing really fast. It’s something our team is passionate about. We’ve seen the impact it’s making on people’s lives and we felt like we could do a much bigger conference.

We look at just the experience in general—what we want to give people. What upsets me every year is when people ask who’s headliningA3C. A3C is really not about headliners. Its really not about who the number one artist is. It’s disrespectful to the 500 artists that are here performing. So, we thought, ‘Yo we could really go into A3C’s top venues and do really cool concerts throughout the week.’

It allows us to shift our focus our financing and everything like that. We realized that anyone can put on a festival. We see that in Atlanta. Afropunk is our weekend, we just got off Music Midtown, One Music Fest, and we don’t want to compete in that space. We don’t want to be the biggest hip-hop festival—Rolling Loud obviously is a monster and they’re the same weekend we are, too, In New York. We’re gonna let other people own big outdoor festivals. We want to own this as a gathering space where people connect and learn and grow, and they see some dope hip-hop and dope music.

I think the days of big festivals—it seems oversaturated. Consumers seem bored by it.  Is it the best way to see your favorite artist? Do I want to see Yasiin Bey performing Black On Both Sides at a festival or a 1,400 cap intimate space?

In the past couple of years as A3C has gotten bigger and bigger, it’s been accused of neglecting the up-and-coming artists--

I can say I’ve heard some of that.  We still always have 500 artists performing. I do think people thought we over promoted headliners, but that’s where the money is. No one’s actually buying a ticket to see the upcoming artist. We hope that they’re gonna use their wristband and want to discover some people and that they’re gonna want to see some shows, but no one’s buying a $200 ticket to see and up and coming artist. This is built for up-and-coming artists. All the resources that we build and provide onsite are for them. The Creative Complex, the feedback sessions, the mentorship sessions, the panels. Who do you think goes to that? That’s for the up and coming artist.

Just as you said, the festival side is oversaturated, but it’s starting to look like the panels and events like this are starting to become the thing to do. This season alone, Atlanta had the Ride Conference, Revolt Summit and Red Bull is coming with a similar set up next month. What do you have to say about A3C’s role in pioneering that?

Can you oversaturate resources for up and coming artists? I’m not gonna talk shit about my peers or people that produce festivals. No one does it better—what we do. I don’t know the background of those folks. Our team has insight that they don’t have. Just the scope and scale of what we do. Yeah, we have big conversations with Just Blaze and Mike Will and that’s cool. To me that’s entertainment and you might get some gems, but for me, the secret of A3C is in all the little things we do. The Creator Complex for example--that provides hundreds of thousands of dollars in free resources every year for artists. That’s something we invest our time and energy in creating and building. There are things that we’ve done in the past that didn’t have an impact and we decided not to do it. We also have 15 years of testing and tweaking under our belt as opposed to just putting together really cool conversations and hoping people get something out of it.

What I enjoy is when we take to partners and we find mutual ground to help artists. Patreon was like, “We want to help the Atlanta community, we want to help the hip-hop community. What should we do?” We’re like, “There are artists and producers who are coming in from all over the world that just need a place to record. You guys should offer that space.”

So, this year they’re taking over Bravo Ocean Studios on Saturday and Sunday and you can sign up for free studio time. That times 10 is what makes us completely unique and different and why people leave every year like, “I met someone that changed my life, I built something. I met a producer. I met my manager. I met a lawyer.” Those real connections are happening.

For sure. Every year, especially in Atlanta, a lot of people say that their circle was built at A3C. It’s beyond networking--

Energy.

Yeah, what would you say helps maintain that energy?

I don’t even know what the secret is to this, but A3C doesn’t feel like a very velvet rope type of place. There aren’t a lot of hidden rooms. There aren’t a lot of secret spaces. What we hear all the time is that you can really connect with people and they’re actually interested and excited. You can find Coach K walking around. You can find A&Rs and labels and what we hear from those folks is that they really like the energy at A3C and how people meet.

When you hear it from both sides, something’s happening--when you hear it from Steve Stoute when he left saying that this is something different and on the flip side you hear from an up and coming artist telling you the same thing. If I could bottle it up and sell it, I would. I think having built that community and that energy over 15 years might be what it is.

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Hip-Hop is synonymous with Black Culture.

Absolutely.

It’s often a shock to people when they find that the person behind A3C is not black. Do you feel some heightened responsibility because of that?

It’s funny. If you aren’t up, no one questions you. I’ve essentially been running a nonprofit for 15 years. I come from managing artists and producers. I did A3C for the first three to four years part-time cause it was fun. When I realized it was something special I almost took it on my shoulder to do this because I felt like this could be something special. I had great pride in the city of Atlanta --what Atlanta represents. I grew up on hip-hop. All my friends were budding artists and producers. I don’t know if I feel it because I’m not black or because it’s just a responsibility as an Atlantan, as someone who cares about the culture. I think because I’ve always been really supportive, no one has ever come up to me and I’ve never had an experience where I’m questioned why we do this.

A3C had a role in breaking a lot of hip-hop’s biggest stars today. Do you think the influence is still there for live shows?

No. A3C didn’t break anybody. It was the grind that they had, the amount of shit that they did to get to where they were. They caught us at the right time. We were part of the ascension, part of the plan, and they used us right. We’re a platform. If you jump off in the right direction, we can help your career. We can be a building block. We can be a foundation. It really is about connecting with people digitally now. I’ve seen people watch artists perform. Then find them and manage them or sign them. That still happens. There’s a personal connection that happens in a performance that doesn’t happen on the internet. In that sense, it can be really important.

Performance is the key to a hip-hop artist. Performance is secondary to a lot of rappers. Some artists are like I’m a performer and you can tell, and I’ve seen that from JID. I’ve seen that from Kenny Mason, EarthGang, a lot of other artists. We did a show with Kap G and I think a couple of A&Rs were in the room and there was a connection like “Who is that dude?” It’s cool to see that. But, are live performances the foundation of blowing up? Probably not. It’s probably music videos, it’s what you do. A lot of it is what you can't control and some of it is what you can control.

What is the best advice for artists attending A3C to make the most of the experience?

A lot of people overemphasize their performance. Wake up early and go to bed late. Shake as many hands as you can and be authentic. Don’t start with who you are. There’s a little bit of that but really try to connect with folks while you’re here because that will change your life.

After the panels and workshops, what is the next frontier?

It’s a combination of continuing to build and bring in different industries and coalitions. We traditionally have been a music festival. Yeah, there were conversations about tech, but what if the film and gaming industry were there as well? Artists and music are the foundation of culture itself. You need the artist. You need the music, It’s the vibe and feel. If we can bring the film community, the gaming community the fashion community, the sports community under this umbrella then not only are those communities going to benefit by connecting with folks that probably don’t connect with, we think that everyone is gonna win.

Lead with opportunity. It’s not about the keynote panel, it’s about what happens when they’re there. I think it should be about opportunity, providing opportunity when folks are on the site. This is the chance to record, get feedback, attend dedicated mixers and meetups.

Even with the competition, we’re doing with BandLab and ChooseATl. Atlanta is where people are recording now. What sparked it for me was the Dreamville project. They have studios in North Carolina. J. Cole did Dreamville in Atlanta. This is the biggest artist on the planet—one of. That was an Atlanta project. We need to highlight Atlanta producers, Atlanta studios, Atlanta engineers. So, we launched the Track Atlanta campaign with ChooseATL and BandLab. We picked five local producers that live in Atlanta, five studios and we said, “Listen if you want to record with one of the producers at one of these studios, submit your song.”  5,000 people submitted in three weeks. Three people are being selected.

How are you going through those?

We have A&Rs going through all of them. We pick the top ten. We send it to the producers, and they pick the top three.

A3C is Atlanta and Atlanta is A3C. Are there any ambitions to take what’s happening here to other cities?

On a really micro level, but it takes a year to plan this. It’s really hard to do what we do in Atlanta anywhere else. Small logistical things like the airport. It’s harder to get to LA from London or Toronto. I get that question all the time. I’m so focused on building in Atlanta. There’s so much we still want to do here. So much untapped. Part of the pride is when people say they’re in Atlanta for the first time ever or they only come for A3C. A lot of cool shit I get is that people move to Atlanta because they’d been to A3C. What a great sense of pride that is to be able to introduce people to your city in a good light. I wouldn’t have that sense of pride or understanding in other cities.

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