What a difference a year makes.
Last summer, the two-day Virgin Mobile Festival boasted top-tier names like Kanye West, Jack Johnson, Bob Dylan and the Foo Fighters at Pimlico Race Course. Tickets for both days ranged from $175 for general admission to $450 for VIP passes.
This year, the festival cuts back to one day, moves to the smaller Merriweather Post Pavilion and books slightly less glamorous headliners Blink-182, Weezer and Public Enemy.
But - and this is a big "but" - this year's festival is free. As in, complimentary. There will be no charge for concert-goers - not even for parking. Even the festival's name now has the word "free" in it: Virgin Mobile FreeFest.
"All I can say is, what we chose to do this year was meant to be unusually different and meant to help people out," said Ron Faris, Virgin Mobile's senior director for brand marketing and innovation.
The festival's lineup and pricing, unveiled yesterday, came after months of speculation among music fans and music bloggers. All of the other major music festivals, including Bonnaroo and All Points West, had long since announced their rosters.
If the Virgin Festival cost as much as previous years, it probably would have suffered poor ticket sales, said Gary Bongiovanni, editor of the industry trade magazine Pollstar. But now, he thinks, the festival will sell out quickly and give Virgin Mobile plenty of good publicity.
"What they came up with is a concept that is definitely going to work," he said. "It's great for the fans, it's a pretty nice lineup of talent, and you can't argue with the pricing."
Several months ago, Faris and his co-workers at Virgin Mobile were looking for ways to put a fresh spin on the four-year-old festival. Faris looked at the poor shape the economy was in and decided to make this year's festival free.
"It was recession, it was layoffs, it was swine flu - it was bad news," Faris said. "We figured we really had to put some good news out there."
Tickets will be available through Ticketmaster in two waves. Today and Friday, Virgin Mobile customers and concertgoers who attended one or more of the past three Virgin Mobile festivals will get the chance to earmark one of the 35,000 available spots at the Aug. 30 festival.
Ticketmaster will send out e-mails to past Virgin Mobile festival customers offering them the chance to reserve no more than two tickets each.
The remaining tickets will be up for grabs at 10 a.m. Saturday through Ticketmaster.com. In a rare gesture, Ticketmaster is waiving its notorious "convenience fees" if customers opt to pick up their tickets at the 9:30 Club in Washington or Merriweather. Otherwise, there will be a $5 fee for ticket delivery.
Faris and festival producer Seth Hurwitz said they thought about bringing the festival back to Pimlico, where it had been since the festival began in 2006. But the cost of setting up stages, lighting rigs and vendor tents was too high to keep the festival free.
"Pimlico is a hugely expensive venue," Hurwitz said. "When you do a show on a field like that, you have to bring in everything. Merriweather has all this stuff built in. If you're trying to do a free show, it's a much cheaper place to do it."
When Faris first toured Merriweather, he fell in love with the wooded amphitheater. For the festival, they plan to add a second stage, a dance tent and increase the amphitheater's capacity.
"It's like sleepaway camp down there," he said. "It' so amazing and beautiful. Seth's got a great venue down there."
But the move wasn't without its critics. When Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon heard rumors about the festival leaving Pimlico for Merriweather, she called Hurwitz, concerned about what it meant for Baltimore.
"I assured her that whatever we do this year doesn't mean we're necessarily leaving [permanently]," Hurwitz said. "It's not a statement about anything except we wanted to put a free show on, and this was the best place to do it."