M.I.A., Virgin Mobile FreeFest mix business with pleasure

Artist and corporation are keen self-marketers

September 23, 2010|By Erik Maza, The Baltimore Sun

British rapper M.I.A. has staked a reputation on being a contrarian.

She bills herself as an anti-corporate iconoclast, but is represented by a major label. She wants to make statements, and also sell records.

Those clashing attitudes will be on display Saturday when M.I.A. headlines the Virgin Mobile FreeFest at Merriweather Post Pavilion.

FreeFest is unique on the East Coast for being a music festival with major headliners that, aside from a section of V.I.P. tickets, costs nothing to attend. It's both musical kumbaya and giant advertising opportunity for Virgin Mobile. Organizers see FreeFest and its performers — T.I., LCD Soundsystem, Pavement — as a platform to expand their audience; or "brand association" in corporate-speak.

The take is: Come for M.I.A., stay for our cell phones.

That she's performing here despite her reputation is a typical move, but it's also a sign that selling music these days is not unlike peddling cell phones.

It's an irony not lost on her. When asked how her deal materialized, she scoffed: "What do you want me to say? I was touring on my yacht with Richard Branson and he was like, 'You've got to play my show?' " Her new album, she said, is about the fine line musicians walk nowadays to reach audiences.

Since her first mixtape, M.I.A. (whose real name is Maya Arulpragasam) has proselytized world music and eschewed easy listening. She's a third-culture kid — London-born, raised in Sri Lanka, current Brentwood, Calif., resident — who doesn't just mix sounds from the places she's visited; she throws Baltimore house, Jamaican dancehall and electronica into a sonic caldron and makes it her own.

Outside of being a musical innovator, M.I.A. seems more interested in provoking than in hit singles. Her first album was inspired by her father's involvement with the Sri Lankan militant group the Tamil Tigers. But that reputation started to unravel when she married Ben Bronfman, the son of a record label mogul and heir to the Seagram liquor fortune. In addition to being represented by a major label, Interscope, she also has her own vanity shingle there, N.E.E.T.

With her new album, she finds herself at a crossroads: comfortable in her success, but still aiming for transgression. It's an attitude not unlike being a rebel in Dolce & Gabbana fatigues.

Virgin Mobile sees itself much the same way. The company was sold to Sprint-Nextel for nearly half a billion dollars last year, but senior executive Ron Faris still describes it as a "brand with soul." Such a pairing seems incongruous for a corporation, but it doesn't matter. With its festival, the company has found a way to make branding hip.

FreeFest is a branch of the V Festival, which started in England in 1996. The festival came to Pimlico Race Course in 2006 and moved to Merriweather last year. In the past two years, it has distinguished itself from other major festivals like Coachella and Lollapalooza by giving away about 30,000 tickets, including some donated to volunteers for community service. The festival has also raised thousands of dollars for homeless youths. By comparison, a one-day pass to Lollapalooza costs $90.

But it's also worth noting the commercial upside for the company.

"The return in investment is in brand awareness," Faris said." We do a lot of analysis on-site to see if they'd like to switch mobile carriers. It gets us six months of free promotion, leading up to, and after, the festival." On average, the company will get 100 million impressions from the festival, he said, referring to the number of people who'll encounter the Virgin brand by reading about it in social media or the press.

On the West Stage of the festival, M.I.A. will be promoting her new album, "Maya," which is even more confrontational than her last two. Its first video, "Born Free" was a violent nine-minute art film that was banned by YouTube. M.I.A. said "Maya" is a response to the "pressure to get bigger" after the success of "Paper Planes," and the difficulty of trying to reach listeners outside a corporate model. Performing for Virgin Mobile, she said, is as much of a compromise as her recording career.

"I don't want things to be market-researched. I don't want every single human turned into a Google ad opportunity. But that's the problem, isn't it?" she said. "You want venues to be of a decent size so people can see you and have access to your work, but there's also gotta be a way to pay all the workers. It's a difficult thing to do without the framework of a corporation."

The album, she adds, is "a representation of that whole dilemma."

Despite her best attempts to be un-commercial, the album cruises like a Baltimore warehouse party on an early Sunday morning, especially in songs produced by local DJ Blaqstarr. In one of his tracks, "Believer," she delivers her kiss-off: "I could be a genius. I could be a cheat/It's a thin line and I'm [playing] with it."

ermaza@baltsun.com

twitter.com/midnightsunblog

If you go: Virgin Mobile FreeFest is 11 a.m. Saturday at Merriweather Post Pavilion, 10475 Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia. $125 V.I.P. tickets are still available. Call 877-435-9849 or go to ticketfly.com.

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