TV on the Radio, Cee Lo Green, the Black Keys and Patti Smith are among the headliners at this year's Virgin Mobile FreeFest, which returns to Merriweather Post Pavilion Sept. 10, organizers will announce today.
The announcement follows months of speculation about who would play the festival, Maryland's largest, which last year attracted 40,000 people with acts like LCD Soundsystem and M.I.A.
"I tried to catch a snapshot of what's going on in music in 2011," said Seth Hurwitz, chairman of concert promoter I.M.P., which books the festival. "People should look back on it and say, 'That's the perfect snapshot of what's happening in music right now.'"
The line-up and date of this year's festival was expected to be formally revealed Monday, in a video broadcast on Facebook by Virgin Group founder Richard Branson. Facebook will be a big part of promotional efforts this year, said Ron Faris, Virgin Mobile USA's director of brand marketing.
Tickets will again be free, but fans first have to like "Virgin Mobile Live" on the social networking site to claim them their tickets, which will be available to the public starting at 10 a.m. Friday.
Also on this year's bill: rock duo the Black Keys; Australian dance band Cut Copy; the flamboyant Empire of the Sun, another Australian dance act; roots rock band Grace Potter and the Nocturnals; legendary singer-songwriter Patti Smith; DJ Deadmau5, and, performing as a solo artist, James Murphy, frontman of last year's headliner, LCD Soundsystem. They will alll perform over three stages, including one dedicated exclusively to dance music. (The full line-up is below)
Austin, Texas band Okkervil River almost spoiled Virgin's big announcement when last week they accidentally published a tour itinerary that included the festival; publicists for the band and the event immediately dismissed the tour schedule as innacurate.
Hurwitz said booking this year's talent began as soon as the last festival ended, and is a drawn-out process that involves weeks of negotiations, weighing his wishes against Virgin's, measuring logistics against budget constraints, and a complicated balancing act to strike the right tone of relevance and crowd pleasers with the performers.
Though FreeFest, which will celebrate its sixth year in September, is virtually alone among big-tent festivals for giving away its tickets, it also sets itself apart with its musical sensibility, which skews towards independent or alternative music.
"Musically, I think when you the line-ups for big, multi-day festivals, frankly, you see a lot of the same artists," said Debbie Speer, an associate news editor at trade magazine Pollstar who has covered FreeFest in the past. "Virgin sticks to a more indie line-up than you see at a lot of other festivals. They won't be pulling in Coldplay, for instance."
Where at other festivals like Coachella in California, organizers might book both U2, the Arcade Fire and Beastie Boys, FreeFest traditionally goes for less star power. "What I try to do is present the biggest stories in music," Hurwitz said. "I don't mean who's going to sell the most magazines, but who do people want to see and who haven't they seen yet."
This year's lineup is no different: the most commercially successful performer on the bill is R&B singer Cee Lo Green, best known for the recent hit "Forget You." Green is beloved by critics, but is not an arena headliner on his own yet; earlier this year, he opened for pop star Rihanna on her "Loud" tour.
TV on the Radio are another critically-acclaimed band, but they're also also not big sellers. When they performed in Baltimore in April, they played Rams Head Live instead of the larger arena, 1st Mariner.
Hurwitz said that when the festival was a ticketed event at Pimlico Race Track, the process for booking talent was geared towards who would sell the most tickets. In 2007, the headliners were The Police, Beastie Boys, and the Smashing Pumpkins.
Now, "We have the luxury that the only criteria we have is who are the most exciting artists out there," Hurwitz said.
FreeFest tends to book more eclectically than other festivals for several other reasons. Speer notes that in recent years, organizers have been to draw younger crowds than those who might attend, say, a show by the Police.
This is Virgin Mobile's doing, which counts courting a young demographic as one of its goals for the event. "[The festival] became less about booking the important bands than booking those that would resonate with the customer we really wanted to attract," Faris said.
These edgier artists are also in keeping with Virgin Mobile's company ethos: hip, independent, innovative.Because the festival is underwritten largely through sponsorships with several companies - Kyocera is one of the most prominent this year - the line-up also has to fit a budget.
"It's just like a salary cap on a sports team," Hurwitz said. "If I went and blew all the money on one exciting act, the rest of the bill would be disappointing."
The heavy sponsorship is another feature that makes FreeFest unusual, Speer said. Last year, there were between 10 and 12 sponsors, Faris said. There were also groups of Virgin volunteers polling attendees how likely they were to switch cell phone carriers. On the day of the festival, fans can again count on being bombarded with ads from all corners at Merriweather grounds.
Fans have complained before, but Speer said organizers handle it appropriately. "Sponsorship could have been really in your face and obnoxious, but most people I talked to were not bothered by it. They thought of it as a trade off."
To FreeFest's disadvantage, it comes at the very end of music festival season. Coachella took place in April and Lollapalooza is scheduled for August in Chicago. Still, Hurwitz said one of his goals is for FreeFest to become a musical arbiter in the manner of those festivals.
"I would like for people to look at us as an endorser, as in and out list," he said. "We're looking to turn people onto new music."
Virgin Mobile FreeFest 2011 line-up:
The Black Keys
Cee Lo Green
TV on the Radio
Empire of the Sun
Grace Potter & The Nocturnals
Two Door Cinema Club
Bombay Bicycle Club.
An earlier version of this article misstated the date tickets will be given away. It is Friday, July 15. The Sun regrets the error.