Richard Branson, photographed here at FreeFest 2009, made a return visit to Merriweather Post Pavilion on Saturday. (Bob Riha, Jr./Virgin Mobile USA/Getty Images)

Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson flew in for Saturday’s Virgin Mobile FreeFest at Merriweather Post Pavilion to make sure the venue hadn’t been washed away. Heavy rains did a number on the Merriweather grounds over the course of the week, but Branson said he was pleased that organizers hustled to ensure the show went on.

Click Track spoke with the record label honcho/adventurer/charitable do-gooder/global business magnate/Grace Potter superfan backstage on Saturday where he mused about the future of FreeFest and how he may have never launched an airline if he hadn’t taken a risk on German rock band Faust.


Virgin hosts music festivals around the world. What brings you out to this one?

Well, I’ve been to a few of them and I thought this one deserved supporting. A day or so ago, there was a river running through here. So the staff have been working day and night to get it working. Three years ago we decided to turn the festival in a free festival because of the recession and it’s worked really well and it’s been very, very popular. But the recession continues, I’m afraid. It raises a lot of money for good causes, in particular, kids on the streets. So I spend quite a lot of my time working on projects like that.

How big is music in the greater puzzle of your life right now? It’s obviously how you got your start.

Music used to be everything. Music is sort of dying as an industry, but on the live side, it’s very much alive and well. We’ve gone from a record company to doing more live concerts. In Europe, we have the largest live festival, the V Festival… We’re building festivals like this around the world and we always like to try and mix things — get the brand out and do some good at the same time. And it seems to work well. 

Is it profitable for the company to have a free festival like this?

No, you lose a bit more money than if you were charging for it, but we don’t have to spend money on advertising and the feel-good factor is great. And there’s the money we raise for good causes… We were only going to [make the festival free] for one year. We’ve done it for three. I would love to see if we could do it indefinitely… I think it’s really well appreciated by everyone that comes, but you need to go out and ask them. Festivals are bloody expensive, generally. But it’s not like they’ve compromised on the bands. Grace [Potter and the Nocturnals] are playing right now and she’s actually brilliant. There are lots of great bands playing and the bands have been willing to charge a little less because it’s free. I think it’s a win-win for everybody.

Musically, who are you excited about here today?

Well, I wish I was watching Grace! I managed to see a few songs but then I was dragged off to talk to [reporters]. I did have the privilege of spending a few minutes with her before and I thought she was one of the nicest [people]. There aren’t many people in rock-n-roll who I think, “Wow, they’re very nice!” Peter Gabriel is one of our artists and he’s remained a true friend. It’s very nice to have Grace as a friend.

I wonder if you’ll let me rewind back to the beginning of Virgin as a record label. I’m a huge fan of Faust and Gong and Tangerine Dream and all of those bands you signed to Virgin early on. What made you decide to get behind these groups?

Faust. It’s funny. They were our very, very first signing. Them and Mike Oldfield were the first albums that we put out. The Faust album we put out for the price of a single and it really got them established. We sold two or three-hundred thousand copies, which was unheard of for a brand new band. We quite liked that German [sound] — Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk...

One amusing story is that [Faust] were going to a gig once, and they saw somebody digging up the road with one of these machines and they pulled over the van and threw him into the van with the machine... Then on the stage, he was drilling up the stage and pieces of the stage were flying everywhere.

Wait, during the concert?

Yeah, during the concert. It was dangerous times! Our early bands were quite esoteric – XTC, Human League. Some became less so — Simple Minds… But it was very interesting music. Quite experimental, some of it. A lot of it! [Oldfield’s] “Tubular Bells” was just one long track of music and no vocals… We built, I suppose, a credibility at Virgin on being slightly braver than other record companies who only wanted hit singles. And if we hadn’t done that, we wouldn’t have an airline, we wouldn’t have a spaceship company, we wouldn’t be exploring the depths of the sea. It’s been a great ride.

What do you see when you look at the music industry today?

It’s sad. Apple has done lots of great things for the world, but obviously they and the internet, have to an extent destroyed quite a large part of the industry. But music will live on. Obviously, live music will live on. The bands are never going to be as wealthy as they were and it’s going to be much tougher for newer bands, I think, in the future. But from the public’s point of view, they’ll still get their music, they’ll pay less, and I’m sure they’re grateful.