Food & Drink

Virgin Mobile FreeFest not returning this year

Virgin Mobile FreeFest, arguably the area's most prominent music festival for the past eight years, will not take place this year, organizers said Tuesday.

Virgin Mobile did not explain what brought about the decision to cancel the concert at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Howard County. But they had hinted in previous years that the free shows would not go on indefinitely.


Merriweather officials said they would miss the concert.

Seth Hurwitz, who runs the venue, said via email that he already is working to bring it back.


"Unfortunately, the pieces are not all there right now with Virgin," he said. "Whether they are again, who knows."

He did not respond to requests seeking further information.

A spokeswoman for Virgin Mobile also did not provide further details about the decision.

Last September's FreeFest was bolstered by a lineup that included Robin Thicke, MGMT and Vampire Weekend and drew 50,00 people — a sell-out show — despite rain.

A regular FreeFest attendee, Joe Levy of Otterbein was disappointed to hear the event would not return. He said he would most miss the lineups of "diverse" and "up-and-coming" acts.

"I've gone to Coachella [Valley Music and Arts Festival in California] a couple of times, and we're not going to have that, but it was still nice to have something like that right here," Levy said.

In September 2006, the first Virgin Festival took place at Pimlico Race Course, where it would run for three years and feature artists such as Kanye West, the Foo Fighters and The Killers.

In 2009, the concert downsized and moved to Columbia's Merriweather Post Pavilion. As a result of the recession, Virgin changed the concert's name to Virgin Mobile FreeFest and made admission free.


"In a time of economic challenges and daily sacrifices, we wanted to throw a fantastic party so people could let loose and have a great time — on us," Virgin Group founder Richard Branson said in a 2009 statement.

For the past five years, FreeFest has been held at Merriweather. Each year, thousands of free tickets were released online and almost instantly claimed. ("Freemium" tickets were also sold for $49.50 and included a donation to the RE*Generation House homeless youth shelter in Washington, D.C.)

In 2012, Branson told The Sun the yearly cost to produce FreeFest was approximately $3 million. He said he hoped to keep it free but that the decision would be based on a variety of factors.

"We'd like to continue to do it for free because it fits the spirit of the brand," Branson said at the time. "But if the money men at Virgin say, 'Look, we did it for free while the public was struggling but now people are getting back on their feet, so maybe we should charge them,' we'd have to think about it."

David Nitkin, a spokesman for Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, said the county is disappointed that the festival won't happen this year, but he complimented Merriweather's management and said the venue is "headed in the right direction."

The Columbia venue was named the fourth-best amphitheater in the United States by Rolling Stone magazine last year.


Nitkin said the county's $9.5 million grant helping fund Merriweather's $19 million in renovations — set for this fall — will help to make the venue as attractive as possible to all acts.

He didn't give a dollar figure for the impact of Virgin Mobile FreeFest on the county.

"With the money for the renovations, [Merriweather] is going to get much better, and while it's sad this festival won't be there, there are plenty of other acts that want to be there," Nitkin said.

Virgin representative Jayne Wallace said in an email that the company would still make a "significant donation" to the RE*Generation House to "continue its tradition of helping make a difference and support the youth homelessness."

Virgin's RE*Generation initiative was founded in 2008 to support at-risk and homeless youth. In December 2012, Virgin Mobile used donations from the 2011 and 2012 FreeFests to open the RE*Generation House. It currently houses eight people between the ages of 18 and 22, according to Wallace.

Since FreeFest's inception in 2009, the public has donated — in exchange for free tickets, as another option for those who missed out on the initial online rush — more than 75,000 volunteer hours, over 30,000 in-kind donations and more than $1 million for RE*Generation nonprofit partners, Wallace said.


Andrea Cohen, a music fan who attended last year's event, said she was disappointed but not surprised FreeFest was not returning, because she had heard little discussed about it this year.

She said it was a shame that FreeFest would no longer draw national attention to Maryland and one of her favorite music venues.

"It's one of those signature events for Merriweather," Cohen of Ellicott City said. "It brought a lot of notoriety to Merriweather as a concert venue, so it was a good thing for the community, too."

Colin Campbell contributed to this article.