When concert promoter Michael Lang presented the infamous Woodstock Music & Arts Festival back in 1979 he was planning on 50,000 people attending and ended up throwing a free festival when 350,000 showed up.
And while local promoter Ben Cohen and his wife Heater of Phoenix Productions have yet to hit those legendary numbers with their annual FreeMusic Fest, their own attendance records have grown ten-fold since the pair presented their inaugural festival five years ago.
Held this year at Tittabawassee Park in Freeland on Saturday, June 9th from 10 AM - Dusk, this annual summer celebration featuring regional & statewide musicians, artists, and family activities has grown exponentially over the past four years, drawing 300 people for their first festival in 2008 and bringing over 3000 last year.
Formed with the objective of pulling together a musical showcase of Michigan's best original artists and musicians, the FreeMusic Fest has drawn both popular & critical acclaim since its inception, securing honors for two-years running as 'Best Festival' at the 2011 and 2012 Review Music Awards.
Sponsored by Tim Boychuck State Farm Insurance, indeed this year is packed with a powerhouse line-up consisting of Sprout, Dave Kellan & Gutbucket, Brett Mitchell & the Giant Ghost, Frokus, The Banana Convention, Elliot Street Lunatic, Killer Kong, The Sarah Swanson Band, Bryan Rombalski & Three Worlds, Jeff Yantz, Dan Vaillancourt, Amelia Jo, Greg Gerace and Kimberly & Company.
Moreover, this year's 2012 FreeMusic Fest is also taking giant strides into the visual arts, with an expansive Art Fair that to date has drawn 50 original artists from all over the state, thanks to sponsorship from Burt Watson of Freeland.
“Our first festival was a test that we learned a lot from,” reflects Cohen. “And the first thing we did to increase attendance was work at making it more accessible to everybody. The first year we mainly booked bands we wanted to see, but when Heather and I had our first child we realized how kids often determine adult schedules. Parents can't stay all day if the kids aren't having fun, so we make the next festival more family oriented by pulling together a Kids Korner and expanding the scope of the music into different forms, such as Jazz. Now we mix everything up a lot more.”
In addition to featuring a day of music and art, this will be the third year for the FreeMusic Fest Disc Golf Tournament, which will feature bigger prizes, such as poolside rooms from The Midland Resort. It's only $25.00 to register and each participant gets a free T-shirt and lunch from Jet's Pizza, with all proceeds going to the Great Start Collaborative.
“The Disc Golf Tournament added a whole new dimension to the festival,” explains Ben. “It's two rounds of 18-holes and the prize packages are amazing. Tittabawassee Park has one of the best courses in the area and you can hear the bands throughout the entire park, so you don't miss a minute of the music.”
For this year's Art Festival Ben says all participating artists will be showcasing hand-made Michigan art. “We have all mediums represented,” explains Ben, “with paintings, pottery, handmade soaps, and stained glass. We're very excited to have Burt Watson jump on-board as our Art Fair sponsor. They do Freeland art & craft shows in their showroom, so for them to become involved is a natural fit.”
“Pat's Food Center is working the Kids Korner again this year,” he continues, “and I'm pleased we're doing all of this to benefit the Great Start Collaborative, which is involved in a host of organizations like the Imagination Library and family oriented non-profit groups. It's one of the best organizations out there.”
When asked what his biggest challenge consists of in pulling FreeMusic Fest off each year, Ben notes the importance of “Keeping it fresh and keeping momentum going. You've got to keep it new and it can't be the same old thing every year. I honestly feel this is the best musical line-up we've ever had, but then I say that every year,” he laughs. “I do ask myself how I'm going to top this line-up next year.”
Did Ben and Heather have any idea their Festival would expand and grow to the levels it has today? “I had no clue,” he smiles. “I just wanted to have fun in the park, but as I said earlier, every year we learn what to do better. We never imagined that it would turn into this large of a community celebration.”
“This year the Freeland Chamber of Commerce invited me to a meeting and they're going to get involved and all of a sudden we've proved ourselves and that we matter,” Ben reflects. “We're not going away.”
One interesting indicator of exactly how substantially FreeMusic Fest has grown came when the Township told Ben that FreeMusic Fest is so successful it produces more trash & garbage than any other event brought into the park all year. “Now we have the Midland Recyclers come out and keep the place clean,” smiles Ben.
Other Festival sponsors consist of Family First Credit Union, D.Street Entertainment Foundation, 97.3 The JOE FM and Review Magazine.
“It's been a long haul, but I honestly feel like we're part of the community now,” concludes Ben. “I hope to see everybody out at the Park on Saturday, June 9th for an incredible day of music, art, fun, and friendship.”
What follows is the performance schedule for FreeMusic Fest 2012. For more information and to register for Disc Golf or partake in the Art Fair go to FreeMusicFest.com
5th Annual FreeMusic Fest * 2012 PERFORMANCE SCHEDULE
11:00 AM * Dan Vaillancourt
12:00 PM * Bryan Rombalski & Three Worlds
1:00 PM * Sarah Swanson Band
2:00 PM * Killer Kong
3:00 PM * Elliot Street Lunatic
4:00 PM * The Banana Convention
5:00 PM * Frokus
6:00 PM * Brett Mitchell & the Giant Ghost
7:00 PM * Dave Kellan & Gutbucket
8:00 PM * Sprout