The two-day Virgin Mobile Festival kicks off on Saturday for its third year, showcasing Bob Dylan, Jack Johnson, Wilco, Stone Temple Pilots, and Kanye West among the more than 40 groups lined up to perform at the Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore. The site will offer two large stages and a 3,000-person dance tent featuring DJ sets from Moby and Steve Lawler. As the company's U.S. answer to the U.K.'s Virgin Fest, the festival is co-produced by Bethesda-based I.M.P., which also owns the 9:30 Club. I.M.P. chairman Seth Hurwitz spoke to us this week about the new eco-friendly changes, why the festival is like an iPod, and Sir Richard Branson's history of rocking out.
What are you working on now, with the Virgin Mobile Festival coming up in only a few days?
Right now the focus is on transforming the venue into a music and entertainment escape. It’s like creating two Madison Square Gardens, with a monster dance tent and a ton of other crazy sideshow shockers [such as the dance group Flights of Fire and the acrobatic burlesque duo Trixie Little and the Evil Hate Monkey], so people will be entertained and amused at every turn.
How did you choose the Pimlico Race Track as your venue?
Pilmico’s easy access to the Mid-Atlantic is a huge plus. While we drew 74,000 people from 48 states and D.C. last year, the majority came from New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Washington, and Virginia. We were also intrigued by the racetrack’s infield because it brings a European festival feel to the event, while giving people really easy access to all the stages and dance tent.
How has the festival grown or changed since its inception?
The first year it was a one-day event. Last year we expanded it to two days and now have more than 40 acts. We’ve added something each year, such as art exhibits and Baltimore-inspired stuff, like steamed crabs [from the festival's caterer, Charm City Hospitality] and a station to get your hair turned into a beehive.
We're also pushing a green effort that’s thought to be the most comprehensive of the U.S. festivals. We have a special promotion that encourages people to carpool [for free parking] and we're investing heavily in the recycling and composting effort. In fact, the Virgin Mobile Festival is thought to be the greenest music event in the U.S. We recycle the stages, send composting to local farms, use biodiesel fuels, and invite festivalgoers to bring in two factory-sealed water bottles, which we allow them to refill for free. That’s just a start.
How else is Virgin's festival different or better than the competition out there?
Virgin Mobile Festival can best be described as putting your iPod on shuffle. Where else would you see Bob Dylan lead into Kanye West? And we program the event for bands to play full sets so people can enjoy all their favorites.
Is Virgin Group founder Richard Branson involved in the overall execution of the festival?
Sir Richard created the Virgin Fest in the U.K. about a dozen years ago, and picked Baltimore and I.M.P. to introduce the festival to the U.S. He’s attended each year, loves the music, the crowd, and is a huge driver of the event’s emphasis on the green effort. When he walks through the crowd, he’s like a rock star. People love him. Last year he was rocking hard at Wu Tang Clan and Velvet Revolver.