Virgin Mobile FreeFest reveals value of free live music

Published on USA TODAY College Oct. 10, 2012.

By Marissa Cetin

How does that adage go? “The best things in life are free.”

Virgin Mobile FreeFest celebrated its fourth year at the venue-in-a-forest Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Md. on Oct. 6. Tickets to the one-day festival are available completely free or by donation to help homeless youth via Virgin Unite, The RE*Generation and Sasha Bruce Youthwork.

The packed lineup spanned diverse genres and decades: rock ‘n’ roll’s Edward Scissorhands Jack White; EDM’s wub-wubbin’ golden child Skrillex; recently reunited The Dismemberment Plan and Ben Folds Five; futuristic stylings brought to you by dance queen Santigold and sax solo-loving, dream-pop M83; Americana blues rock from the past and present with ZZ Top and Alabama Shakes; more electro-dance DJs than your fists could pump; controversial comeback rapper Nas; and, if you can believe it, more.

The variety lends to the best part of going to a festival; exploring acts outside of your go-to Spotify playlist is all but a requirement, especially if it’s all available for free. With a lineup that puts Jack White’s smoldering set to end 30 minutes before Skrillex drops his final beat, it is impossible not to be curious and check out literally what all the raving is about. When else will you get the chance to get a taste of the loud, bass-filled mind of Skrillex and join in that flailing-of-limbs ritual known as dancing for free? Take advantage of the opportunity to experience acts that you’d never consider spending money on for a standard gig.

Although the day was about the music, the hipster-carnival vibe left much room for activities if, for some reason, enjoying free live music wasn’t your thing. Festivals, of course, showcase the talent, but all of the other happenings can make or break the event.

Freebies galore, tents were set up all around Merriweather for local venues, organizations and brands to reach out to the young crowd. The ground-level proved too suffocating for some, who sought space on the festival’s ferris wheel decorated with the Virgin Mobile logo, overlooking the 40-acre venue and in earshot of the West Stage. During The Dismemberment Plan’s set, frontman Travis Morrison shouted out to Merriweather’s tallest attendees. And taking a nap in the grass is always an option.

The main takeaway from FreeFest: Jump on any opportunity you have to see free live music. Universities often bring in acts, big and small, to put on shows for students. Last year at American University, its student government brought the soulful John Legend to perform in the fall, and its student-run online radio station WVAU hosted a gig with Baltimore experimental electronica extraordinaire Dan Deacon, all for free.

If contemporary soul or layered electro-indie aren’t in your top Last.fm scrobbles, does it matter? You’re not shelling out cash for the ticket. Worst case scenario: You leave 10 minutes in and you don’t lose any money. The best: You stumble upon your new favorite artist to soundtrack your study sessions for the next month. The middle: You have a good night, for free.

Did I mention free?

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