For the Virgin Festival, Pimlico Race Course today might be more than half-full or half-empty - depending on one's point of view.
The one-day festival is not expected to sell out. Organizers said that as of last night, about 35,000 general admission tickets had been sold. That number could climb with walk-up sales, but capacity for the festival is 60,000.
"Attendance will be decent. It's not horrible. With this lineup, I would have expected to do better," said Seth Hurwitz, chairman of festival promoter IMP. "A show of this size would sell out in most metro areas."
A show of this size is expensive - with more than $4 million in talent fees having driven up the cost of admission. The $97.50 tickets went on sale in July after Britain's popular Virgin Festival announced it would be making one stop in the United States this year. The selection of Baltimore was considered a feat for the city, which has never been particularly known as a rock festival town.
But there's a festival beginning at noon today at Pimlico - with 14 bands and six DJs working both sides of the track for 10 hours. Besides the baby boomer-recognizable The Who and Red Hot Chili Peppers, concertgoers will also see bands such as the Flaming Lips, Scissor Sisters, Gnarls Barkley, Wolfmother and the Killers. Advertised along the East Coast, the event is expected to draw people from Washington, Philadelphia and New York.
"We didn't draw from Washington as well as we could have," Hurwitz said. To people outside the Baltimore area, perhaps Pimlico is an unknown and unfamiliar concert destination, he said. Concerts and similar events are not common at Pimlico, better known as the home of the Preakness Stakes leg of horse racing's Triple Crown, although the Harley-Davidson 100th Anniversary Open Road Tour was held there in 2002.
This is the second North American stop this year for the Virgin Music Festival. It is based on the V Festival, which began in England in 1996. Featuring such acts through the years as Coldplay and N.E.R.D., V Festival sold out in three hours this year. Branching out from Europe, the Virgin tour kicked off its first Canada stop Sept. 9. Organizers said about 20,000 out of 50,000 tickets were sold for the two-day event in Toronto.
"We long ago exceeded the Toronto sales," said Dave Geller, a vice president with IMP.
Attendance for the one-day Pimlico event, however, didn't come out of the gate strong when tickets went on sale July 22. "I could tell the festival wasn't going to sell out in the first hour," said Hurwitz, who also runs Merriweather Post Pavilion. But music festivals have a "breaking-in period the first year." Hurwitz also says 35,000 in attendance is considered impressive for any festival's first year.
"Perhaps I'm the only one disappointed," he said. "I just shoot for the moon."
The concert's timing and ticket price might be factors. With service charges, a ticket could cost more than $110. "As great as it sounds, it's a rip-off," said one person's posting on Live Music Blog. Others were trying to unload tickets this week. Craigslist, the online classified service, had more than 75 postings for multiple ticket sales - with the going price hovering around $90, but some tickets were offered for as low as $60.
"A cheaper ticket would have sold more tickets," Geller said.
Also, the festival falls on the first day of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. For the Jewish communities near Pimlico in Northwest Baltimore, the event's timing could have been better.
"We're still disappointed a full rock concert will be held on a Jewish holiday," said Mac Nachlas, president of the Mount Washington Improvement Association, which represents 1,650 households. Concert organizers met with association members this month and allayed their traffic and trash concerns, Nachlas said. He expects less impact on the neighborhood than during Preakness Week.
He's not attending the festival, however.
"I'll be in synagogue," Nachlas said. "But if it was the week after, I would be there."
Whether the Virgin Music Festival would return to Pimlico, time - or just today - will tell.
"I just need to see how it goes," Hurwitz said. "The attendance will be the final verdict."