Exclusive: Q&A with Virgin Mobile FreeFest’s Ron Faris

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Free has a bit of a buzz about it these days — free drinks, free downloads, free lunch. In fact, the concept is so hot that Wired Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson wrote a book about it (

), and then digitally gave it away. But of all the “freemiums” and “freepstakes” out there, here at Flavorpill we’ve yet to come across something that’s more buzzworthy than Virgin Mobile FreeFest.

Going down on August 30 on the grounds of Baltimore’s Merriweather Post Pavilion, the free festival features an onslaught of new, old and unexpected acts, including Franz Ferdinand, Weezer, Public Enemy and Blink 182. Better yet: It’s for a damn good cause — a $5 suggested donation goes toward preventing youth homelessness, a rampant and too often ignored problem that more and more kids in America face each day. And if you act fast and do some volunteer work, you can earn “Free I.P.” tickets to the show.

Flavorpill got with Virgin Mobile’s Ron Faris to see what the hot fuss was about; here’s what he told us.

Flavorpill: First, I’ve got to ask: Have you heard the Animal Collective LP Merriweather Post Pavilion?

Ron Faris: Yeah! That’s a pretty awesome title for a record. The concert promoter who runs the venue was rather flattered.

FP: I bet. Have you been down there?

RF: Oh yeah, for sure. When I went down there I absolutely fell in love with it.

FP: Whose big idea was the Virgin Mobile Fest to begin with?

RF: Before the FreeFest? That began, I think, like 15 years ago or so. They used to hold what were called V Fests all over the UK. They were really great live music experiences. Then there was a founding team who figured out how we could bring it over to the US. We launched it three years ago with Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Who and The Killers headlining. We did a one day festival at Pimlico — the race course in Baltimore — and every year it’s gotten bigger and bigger. It has been great. I think last year it won “Best Festival” from Pollstar.

FP: How did it transform into the FreeFest?

RF: Well, after we got nominated we thought we wanted to do something a little different this year. This was about four to six months ago, and there was so much bad news. It seemed like everywhere you turned someone was talking about layoffs or the evil recession or swine flu, and there was such bad karma going around, we were like: “We think people need a break. People need some good news for a change.” So we got with the concert promoter, pitched him the idea, and said, “What if we did this thing for free? And made it all about people who just had gone through a tough time?”

The first reason was to give back to the fans that have been so good to us. The second reason is that charity giving is at an all-time low right now. I think it’s at a 50-year low actually. We realized that when people are more concerned with their own economic problems, they’re much less likely to give to someone less fortunate than they are.

FP: Right. They don’t have the time or the resources.

RF: Exactly. So the pitch to the fan was simple: We’ll wave the $100 fee that it usually costs to go to the show, if you’ll make say a $5 donation to youth homelessness. It’s been really successful so far.

We’re really just amping-up ways to get people engaged. Once the show “sold out,” we launched the Free I.P. Program, where fans can donate their time to earn a ticket. If they do 13 hours volunteering in a homeless shelter, they get a Free I.P. ticket.

FP: Yeah, I was gonna ask what the criteria was for tickets, but I figured they were all snapped up by now…

RF: It’s still going; it ends August 2nd. So there’s still time to work your way to a ticket!

There a couple different ways you can go about it. If you’re in the DC area and you want to get a Free I.P. ticket, there are volunteer projects at the Sasha Bruce homeless shelter. It could be 13 hours from helping plant a garden to helping paint. Or you can create 13 survival packs, which contain the things kids need most when they’re homeless on the street: underwear, socks and those kinds of things.

Then we decided we wanted to take it a little more national, so we expanded it to LA, New York, Philly, Boston and other key music towns. We said, look, the people who did the most volunteer work would win a ticket on one of our FreeFest Expresses. We’ve got a plane flying in from LA, as well as a fleet of WiFi megabuses coming from Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.

FP: How did you narrow it down to one cause? Has Virgin Mobile always been involved with addressing youth homelessness?

RF: Yeah, Virgin Mobile had a charitable initiative called the Re*Generation and we’ve been involved with it for about three years. So far we’ve donated a few hundred thousand pieces of clothing through our partnership with American Eagle. And we’ve donated a few hundred thousand dollars to the cause itself.

Youth homelessness resonated with us 1) because a lot of our customer base is made up of youth and we wanted that generation to help its own, and 2) a homeless youth hasn’t even had a chance to live out their life. Homelessness starts at 13 for some of these kids, and roughly two million kids will experience some kind of homelessness this year.

FP: And kids have a whole different set of problems than the traditional homeless person.

RF: Exactly. Homelessness for a kid is more about “my dad doesn’t like my sexual orientation and now I’m out on the street.” It’s a totally different scenario than what might afflict a typical homeless person. These kids never have had control over their own lives, and they’ve been made homeless by circumstances that are no fault of theirs, and we want to find a way to bring attention to the issue.

FP: You’ve got Bridge Over Troubled Waters in Boston, Green Chimneys in New York, HELP USA in Philadelphia, Sasha Bruce in Washington, D.C., and StandUp For Kids in Baltimore — how’d you choose which charities to be involved with?

RF: There are a few different criteria for us. What probably hit us most were the charities whose existing funding or projects were threatened by the recession. For example: Sasha Bruce wanted to add more beds for homeless kids and a lot of that budget was threatened, so we figured okay, that’s a project that we want to be able to help out with directly. Other homeless shelters have similar problems. And that’s pretty much our strongest criteria.

FP: Was Sasha Bruce the first charity Virgin Mobile Fest got involved with?

RF: They were first because they were local to the area. And we started to attach other agencies as we went along.

FP: Virgin Mobile is based in New York, so how did you come to throw the Fest in the Baltimore/DC area?

RF: One, a lot of people are aware of the Virgin Mobile brand in the DC area, it’s a really strong market for us. And two, the concert promoter. They’re called I.M.P., but it’s really Seth Hurwitz, he owns the 9:30 Club down there, and runs the Merriweather Post Pavilion. We wanted to go with someone who had a distinct style and had more of a mom-and-pop feel than a conglomerate concert promoter. He’s just very Virgin in how he thinks. He’s very irreverent and very provocative, and that’s something that hangs true and bodes well for us.

FP: Do you plan on documenting the Fest?

RF: We do. Our handset partner, Kyocera Communications, is going to be documenting the whole festival. And they’ve just launched something really cool; it’s a call for entries for kids I think between 16 and 22 who’ve never made a movie to join one of roughly twenty slots for the festival film crew. So the documentary film crew will include twenty kids who never made a film before apprenticing with professional directors and producers.

FP: Of all the many dynamite bands slated to play Virgin Mobile Free Fest, is there one you’re most looking forward to seeing?

RF: Aw, I love all my children equally [laughs]. I think our fans are going to be really stoked to see Blink, Weezer, Public Enemy and Franz Ferdinand, you know the headliners. But myself I’m stoked to see all the fans bum-rush the stage and join Girl Talk for his set.