At Virgin Mobile FreeFest, it's a marketplace of music

At Virgin Mobile FreeFest, the dust doesn't even have time to settle before it's time to move on.

Just as Texan band Neon Indian finished their set in the dance tent, Joan Jett was getting on stage at the main pavilion. At night, rapper M.I.A. went head-to-head with dance gods LCD Soundsystem.

With 21 artists playing at this one-day event, there was more shuttling here than in Middle East diplomacy if you wanted to catch them all.

At least 30,000 music fans came to Columbia Saturday to watch them play at three different stages built around the 40-acre grounds of Merriweather Post Pavilion.

Some came for Ludacris, others for indie behemoths Pavement. Most came because it was free.

The cell phone company has thrown a music festival in the Baltimore area since 2006, but since last year it's given away the tickets to fans online. It makes FreeFest unique from most prominent festivals, where tickets can start as high as $90.

For Virgin it's a marketing opportunity, where the company gets to survey attendees about their appetite for a new cell phone carrier, but for fans it's a chance to see their favorite bands under one roof at no cost.

"Everybody — all the big bands always go to Washington DC," says Towson resident Megan Brosh, 29. "It's nice to see them here in Baltimore in one day."

Performers Saturday covered the spectrum of current music: indie, electronic, trombone-playing (Trombone Shorty). The day was kicked off by electronic duo Brite Lite Brite at noon and ended at 11 p.m., with LCD Soundsystem on the main stage and Sharam in the dance tent.

The Atlanta rapper T.I., who had been scheduled to play for two months, did not perform. He was busted for ecstasy possession in early September and canceled several shows as he prepared for a parole hearing.

A sedate festival

FreeFest had the staples of more prominent festivals like Coachella and Lollapalooza, and then some features none of them have.

Yes, there were oodles of shirtless scrawny twentysomethings walking around in Ray Bans and jean shorts. Food and drinks were expensive — $13 for pizza and a Gatorade — and the air was both sweaty and dusty.

But there were free tickets, families watching electronic DJs, and volunteers taking surveys about cell phone carrier preferences. For Inga Schunn, a 21-year-old waifish art student from West Virginia, it was more sedate and older than other festivals she's been to.

"I've heard people complaining about dust and sweat, but at other festivals you wouldn't hear that," she said. "At [New York festival] Electric Zoo, everyone was so dirty by the end of the day, it was like a badge of honor."

FreeFest is something of a hybrid: it appeals to young and old, Baltimoreans and Washingtonians, and it's attended by free ticket holders and paid ones.

Most tickets for the event were given away online in July, and disappeared instantly. Those who didn't get them were left to shell out $125 for all-access VIP tickets, or volunteer for the festival's charity partners in exchange for tickets.

Schunn paid $50 for hers, and drove three hours from West Virginia to see Pavement.

Enoch Arthur-Asmah, a 22-year-old who works in a public relations firm, took two trains and two buses at 8 a.m. from his home in Rockville to get here. And he donated $30 to the festival for his tickets.

"Public transportation makes it a big challenge for me to get here for just one show," he said, lying back on the grass in front of the main pavilion waiting for Australian alternative rock band Temper Trap to take the stage. "But it's worth it for a festival."

FreeFest is a spinoff of V Fest, a music festival the Virgin Group started in the United Kingdom a decade ago, and then expanded to America in 2006. It's been held at Merriweather since last year.

Lisa Tilly has been bringing her two kids, 14-year-old Michael and 10-year-old Elizabeth, since the beginning.

The Fallston interior designer says she's not intimidated by the crowds here as she would elsewhere. "It's a great venue for families," she said, speaking from the dance tent where Neon Indian were finishing their show; the smell of marijuana in the air unmistakable. "It's very kid friendly. I leave my blankets on the grass and no one takes them."

For Virgin Mobile, the festival is a way to reach a variety of consumers. "When we first launched the festival it was a way of getting our brand out there, almost like a Trojan horse," said Ron Faris, a senior executive at the company.

An average festival can make 100 million "impressions" on consumers, Faris said, referring to number of people who encounter the brand through advertising. Last year's registered 500 million, according to the company.

Faris added it also allowed the company to communicate to consumers that it's about more than just cell phones. With the festival, the company also raises money for youth homelessness- $80,000 last year, according to organizers.

All fans have to do is fill out the occasional survey on their cell phone carrier preferences. In other words, they come for the music, and stay for the sales pitch.

Brosh, who came with her husband, and her brother, and was sun-tanning in front of the main pavilion waiting for Matt & Kim to play, said she doesn't mind the questionnaires asking if she'll think of Virgin when she's shopping for a plan."They're not pushy," she said. "It doesn't feel like they're selling."

But, she said she's not likely to switch carriers any time soon. She's been a regular at the festival since 2006, and she likes it the way it is now. "I didn't want to say not interested because I want it to stay free."