Now in it's sixth year the annual Free Music Festival held at Tittabawassee Park in Freeland on Saturday, June 8th from noon to dusk has certainly made a significant impact in the Great Lakes Bay Region and is definitely on a roll, having been selected as the Best Festival or Live Concert Event at the Review Music Awards for three years in a row now. And none other than Billboard Magazine has listed this event as one of the Top Five free music events in Michigan.
Spearheaded by founder Ben Cohen and his wife Heather of Phoenix Productions, Free Music Fest has gone from drawing 300 people its first year to pulling over 3000 eager bodies into Freeland for top-notch 'Michigan Made' music, interactive art experiences, and a fun-filled day in the sun.
Formed with the objective of pulling together a musical showcase of Michigan's best original artists and musicians, this year's musical line-up consists of Sins In Stereo opening the festival at noon, followed by The Scott Hozzle Band, Timothy Hyde Project, Life Size Ghost, Bryan Rombalski & Three Worlds, Big Brother Smokes, The Holy Gun, Thick as Thieves, and The Macpodz. Additional performances from Hooker & Levi, Amelia Jo, Kimberly & Co., Rope, Bob Hausler and Evelyn's Rising Band are also on the docket.
One of the biggest new additions at this year's festival will be the introduction of Michigan Craft Beer Tasting, with all proceeds donated to Big Brothers & Sisters. “We are going to keep it local and will have the folks from Frankenmuth Brewery, Tri City Brewing Co., Bells, and Mt. Pleasant Brewing pulled together in a fenced off area of the pavilion. People can buy sample tickets and taste the great brew that Michigan has to offer.”
And in keeping with his vision of offering something for everyone, this year will also feature interactive art experiences, coupled with the return of the 'Kids Corner' and a revamped Disc Golf Tournament. “We're moving the Kids Corner closer to the art and instead of staging an art fair, like we have in the past, we've fine tuned it more to things that click with people, and will be offering more interactive hands-on experiences, with a lot of the artists creating live art right on the spot, explains Ben.
For the Disc Golf tournament, not in its 4th year at the festival, a $25.00 registration fee will get one a Free Music Fest t-shirt, a free lunch, and everybody will be guaranteed a prize. “This year we're doing custom Free Music Fest discs, which is new; and have different levels for different levels of player skill. 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.”
Perhaps the most amazing thing about Free Music Fest is that it's actually a free event, with revenues derived from sponsorships and fundraising. Each year different charities receive proceeds and over the expanse of the festival, Ben says they have raised thousands of dollars. “The first year we raised $1500 for Shelter House we've probably raised over $10,000 for charity over the years, which is a substantial figure.”
This year's Food Drive is also a new element. “We've hooked up with Hidden Harvest which donates food to 200 different organizations and soup kitchens and they will be bringing their truck, so people should bring non-perishable food to donate,” adds Ben. “I think we should do really well with that this year.”
As for major sponsors, in addition to Tim Boychuck's State Farm Insurance, Family First Credit Union, and Burt Watson, this year Covenant Health Care has also jumped on-board. “They thought this would be a good event to get behind, so have joined our Free Music Family,” states Ben. “They've quickly turned in a big part of this year's festival and will have a tent with games for the entire family.”
And in a year of many changes & improvements, the final new feature at this year's Free Music Festival will be an After Party that will be held at Winston's Pub in Midland after the final band closes the park at dusk. “This seems to be the year of the After Party,” smiles Ben, “and there will be a charge of $5.00 to get in or $10.00 at the door. Everybody will get discounted drinks and free appetizers and Brett Mitchell & the Giant Ghost will be performing until 2 AM. Winston's will also be offering discounted rib specials and special $69.00 rates on rooms, which is fantastic, so people don't have to worry about driving home.”
With such am ambitious line-up of 15 bands featured this year, does selecting the entertainment each year become more difficult for Ben? “Yes, I get emails from all over the place - even from out of state now - and they come in all year long,” he explains. “It makes it harder to develop a line-up, but I try to keep it all Michigan music. We've talked about making this a 2-day festival or setting up a second stage, but maybe next year, we'll see.”
As for new bands that Ben is excited about featuring this year, he references the Macpodz, Life Size Ghost, and The Timothy Hyde Project. “The Macpodz are out of Ann Arbor and are a funk jam outfit with no guitars in the band, but they do feature a bass guitar, keys, and horns. I'm excited about them performing. It's funky and fun dance music with a little jazz element to it. They just did a Miles Davis Tribute up in Traverse City that was very good. And we've been trying to get Life Size Ghost for a long time. As for The Timothy Hyde Project, they have all new songs they will be showcasing, so it should be a very exciting day.”
So how much time have Ben and his wife invested in Free Music Fest over the years?
“I don't like to keep track of the time I put it, but it's getting easier for me. I've learned from past mistakes and this year has a Committee assembled for the first time, which has really taken a lot of weight off my shoulders. There are ten of us and this year Bob Hausler is going to be the stage manager. The Committee was important because doing it yourself you can get into a bubble, doing the same thing over and over year after year. Other perspectives keep it fresh, which is a big difference.”
Does Ben foresee a day when the festival may grow bigger than what Tittabawassee Township Park can accommodate? “I see this staying here in Freeland,” he responds. “Eventually we may outgrow where we're at because you can fill more people in the park than you can cars, which is why I encourage more people to car pool. But I think this is the perfect place. It's centrally located and people are familiar with it.”