Virgin Fest Lets Free Ring

Kim Rosenthal’s going through a rough patch. She and her husband were both laid off their jobs recently. Their Maryland home burned down.

Their wedding anniversary is coming up and, with few resources to really celebrate, they scored two tickets to the Virgin FreeFest at nearby Merriweather Post Pavilion Aug. 30.

That was apparently just the stimulus package the Rosenthals needed to begin to get a leg up on the Great Recession of 2009.

One of the between-stage attractions – the Kyocera-sponsored “Lucky Layoff Lounge” – caught her eye and she entered the “Pink Slip Piñata” contest for a chance to maybe pick up a free cell phone or some other swag.

She wound up with much more than just some free trinket. She won an interview coaching session with Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, who heard her story and upped the ante with a round-trip Virgin America flight to San Francisco so the couple could have a happy anniversary. And the next day, she submitted an online job application and immediately won an interview for a scarce employment position.

Sure, it’s a great feel-good story. But it’s also one that was made possible because of a collaboration between a concert promoter, artists and their reps, and savvy corporate sponsors who put together a free festival that didn’t make music fans feel like they were having sales pitches shoved down their collective throats.

After three years of staging the Virgin Mobile Festival at Pimlico Race Course near Baltimore, factors including the tanking economy caused organizers to consider a different model, including the move to Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Md.

“It was an experiment that we wanted to do,” Virgin Mobile USA’s Ron Faris, senior director of brand marketing and innovation, told Pollstar. “We were all fed up with the bad news. Every time you turn on the TV there’s nothing but bad news. It was the recession, layoffs, swine flu, all this crap that was just sucking the energy out of everybody.

“We had this hunch that a lot of people just really needed a break out there. We definitely were right. There were so many people at the festival saying, ‘We really needed this.’ It’s been a really awful year and our first and foremost mission was to put a smile on people’s faces.”

Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have your brand out there aimed directly at your target demographic. But it doesn’t help if that key group thinks your promotion is antithetical to the rock ’n’ roll ethos.

The Virgin Mobile FreeFest was, of course, free for some 35,000 fans thanks to the support of more than a dozen major sponsors. But it was a success because of the integration of those sponsorships in a way that not only didn’t feel oppressive to concertgoers but gave them a chance to interact.

“It was a challenge,” Faris said. “We had a person dedicated on our team whose sole responsibility was to make sure that all our partnerships were organic, so nothing really stuck out like a sore logo. We made sure we helped those sponsors integrate their experiences seamlessly with the vibe. A lot of press has reported that there were a lot of sponsors but there weren’t a lot of complaints of those sponsors there.

“Some types of experiences can become like these branded-logo festivals and it’s really not endemic of the venue or what we’re trying to do. When you get to the reality of how to do this event, it’s easy for people to think “Oh, Richard (Branson) cut a check.’ But he didn’t cut a check. This is a Virgin Mobile initiative. He’s always been a bit of a spiritual leader for us, for lack of a better word, but at the end of the day it’s always been Virgin Mobile and their sponsors that really brought this experience.”

Sponsorship is getting to be a hot topic in the concert industry, as promoters try to find new revenue streams to fatten a notoriously thin profit margin, and artist reps look to the live business to make up for lower income from the recorded-music side.

I.M.P.’s Seth Hurwitz, who operates Merriweather Post Pavilion, told Pollstar that he wasn’t intimately involved with how the sponsors presented the show, but after working with Virgin Mobile on the previous three festivals it was clear he has built a relationship of trust.

Hurwitz, with the help of Eric Baker of New Breed Marketing and Production, booked and negotiated deals with artists who appeal to younger audiences as well as the usual accoutrements of concert productions and sponsors took care of the rest of the day’s non-musical activities. Among the 14 performers were Blink-182, Weezer, Franz Ferdinand and Public Enemy.

In addition to the Lucky Layoff Lounge, Converse hosted a “Punk Your Chucks” contest, in which fans could design a new Chuck Taylor shoe. Kyocera installed cell phone charging stations and a karaoke tent. Sony PlayStation gave away game players and other goodies.

The splashiest promotion was Virgin America’s “Free I.P.” program. It included a VIP lounge and backstage access for youth homeless volunteers and other civic-minded fans, including some who were flown round-trip from Los Angeles and bused from Philadelphia, New York City and Boston with VIP service and goodie bags from the airline.

In that case, sponsors didn’t simply throw some freebies at a few hundred fans and ask them to buy their products. Those fans had to earn it by donating time and other services to selected programs in Howard County, Md., or youth homeless projects in their hometowns.

“We had a block that we wanted to reserve for the Free I.P. program,” Faris explained. “This program was not designed for the people we knew always do community service, but for those who are first-timers to community service. What incentive would get them off the couch and go do it?”

Faris believes the concept of fan “sweat equity” for free tickets is something the concert industry could apply more broadly. A fan who may find a $150 festival ticket out of reach would likely still feed the ancillary revenue stream by buying the merch, beer and popcorn if she is able to get in the gate. But Faris believes it’s also important to put a non-musical value on such a transaction.

“I’d rather have them give blood or do something that had nothing to do with music, for someone who is never going to get a chance to go to that show whether it’s homeless youth living on the street or there’s some other need out there. I think that’s where we cross the line of using the music experience to help social causes that have nothing to do with music. I think that’s probably more the model we’d be taking,” Faris explained.

“I definitely believe that there is a tremendous opportunity here to allow for other currencies than cash to earn a ticket to a show. And there are ways to subsidize that ticket so that the fan can get there. But I wouldn’t do it without having them earn the right to get that ticket in the form of some kind of social service.

“Whether it’s in the form of corporate sponsorship or subsidized with premium level of free hospitality that more well-to-do folks can subsidize for folks that can’t afford it, this whole concept of dynamic pricing and dynamic ticketing is something that should be embraced. I think that there’s a tremendous opportunity there.

“I think this experiment really bodes well for not just how we react next year, but potentially for festivals in other areas to evolve the model so that people that can’t typically afford a $100 ticket still have a way in the door,” Faris said.

As for next year, Faris said it is too early to answer “the $50,000 question” if the Virgin Mobile Festival will go free again in 2010, but he is interested in incorporating some free elements not only next year but in other non-music projects.

The Virgin Mobile FreeFest program resulted in more than 30,000 hours of donated time to homelessness and other social service programs, and a chance for volunteers to start their concert day with a meet-and-greet with Branson, who was clearly the real star of the show.

From tending bar for donations to youth shelters to greeting skydivers on the pavilion’s roof, to giving an unemployed couple a chance to forget their troubles and celebrate their anniversary in a huge way, Branson, Hurwitz and their partners “let free ring” for at least one day.