Three Decades of Country Jam
Conversation with Jim bischel - President Country Jam
Did you ever thing Country Jam would be such an enormous success as it is today?
I’m not so sure that we really thought about where it was going to go back when we started it. But, we had gotten in at a time when country music had really taken off a few years after we had started the event. Looking back at it right now – Did I think that we’d be doing this for almost 30 years? Probably hadn’t thought about that.
You guys started out as Shake Rattle n’ Roll when you first started?
That is correct. We ran Shake Rattle n’ Roll for a couple years. Which was 50’s and 60’s type music. We ran that for a couple years before Country Jam started and then we ran both of them together for a few years. Until we finally phased out of Shake Rattle n’ Roll.
Were those two on the same grounds or were they two separate festivals at that time?
It was two separate entities. We actually shared the same grounds. Shake Rattle n’ Roll had run for couple years in a parking lot of a restaurant/bar that we owned. It kind of out grew those grounds. So, we moved both events when we started Country Jam to a little different location. We ran them on back to back weekends for several years.
Was there many other festivals or music events around at that time when you started?
In our area here, that was pretty much the start of all of them
In 1992 you progressed and began Country Jam Colorado. Can you tell me how that journey came about?
We were approached by a local gentleman and he had moved out to Colorado. He had approached us. He had owned a radio station there and had said that Grand Junction would be a perfect place for a country music festival. So, that is what we decided to do. We spent a lot of years out there until we sold that off about three years ago. We had spent, I think this would have been our twenty fifth year this year. That had gone through a lot of good times and bad times. Grand Junction Colorado is an energy community. So it kind of went up and down with oil and things like that. But it was a great, and still is a great music festival.
After you guys outgrew the site where Country Jam & Shake Rattle n’ Roll was held, how did you pick the location that is at now?
Well, they are in the same neighborhood. The original grounds that we started on is just a mile down the road. We had known of this piece of land, that was sitting there, we had known about that for quite a while. Knew the people that had owned it. We just approached them and worked out a long term lease. We still lease that property that the actual festival is held on but we own the campgrounds that we camp in.
How much space do you have for campgrounds out there?
We have got a 75 acre campground. We lease another 15 acres that is connected to that and the actual festival site is 110 acres. So we have just about 200 acres.
Is there anything that makes that location unique?
I think both of them are unique as far as the music industry goes. The actual site, where the venue is, is located right on the Chippewa River. It’s in a bowl area, bordered by woods on one side and the river on the other. Which is absolutely a gorgeous setting for a festival. The 75 acres that we own for the campgrounds, that is carved out of Pines and Oak trees. Hence the name “Whispering Pines Campgrounds”. Which really differentiates it from a lot of the music festivals around which basically take place in farm fields.
That offers your campers a little bit of shade from that Minnesota summer heat.
Yes, it does.
In doing a festival for almost 3 decades I’m sure you guys have faced some challenges. Can you tell me what some of the bigger challenges you’ve faced?
Well, I think starting off we were pretty unique to the industry. There wasn’t a lot of competition for entertainment. There really wasn’t event competition for fans. It was kind of the new concept. It was a new concept for country music in the US. There weren’t but a handful of country music festivals back in the 80’s. As times have gone on, and the number of event that have shot up, competing for the top acts has been a challenge for several years. Obviously pricing of the acts, because of the competition, and other things has presented a challenge also. Festivals have come and gone. We’ve been fortunate, and thankful, that..30 years and still moving on and things are going very, very well. I would say that the number of festivals around has been one of the biggest challenges we face.
With the growth, did you find it difficult to release some of your control over the festival and have someone else help you out?
We’ve always felt that we have had a pretty creative staff right here. We see how things have evolved. We see things that have out in California. We always have our eyes and ears open looking at things that work and things that don’t. We’ve always, pretty much, stuck with our roots. We’ll try to bring in the best entertainment that we can. We like to work with the landscape that we have. We tout our festival as being located on beautiful festival grounds. We’ve always tried, as far as food and beverage go, keep things top of the line. We are different than most festival out there.
You guys do have a unique set up, as you were talking about, with the river and the trees. It’s great out there.
Absolutely beautiful! Yep!
Some other things that I saw that were interesting. You have the Country Jam citizens award. With dozens of applications each year – how do you go through them and pick just one?
Well, that’s hard. (laughing) You’d like to pick 50 of them if you could. I think everyone that has put in an application, or wrote a recommendation, are all deserving. We’ve worked with the military for a long time. We’ve always had military discount tickets, military nights. We did that even when we were out in Colorado. Really, really difficult to pick one winner. It’s unfortunate that’s what it is. They are all deserving. I think even though there is only one winner, we are recognizing all active and past military personnel. I think just the fact that people get nominated is a pretty cool thing.
When you look back on your almost 30 years of Country Jam what are a few of your most treasured memories or experiences that you’ve had?
Wow…I think so much of it is just the friends. We have dealt with the same booking agency. I think the relationships are probably the coolest thing. The number of fans that we have that have been coming to all 27 events. I think that says a lot. There are literally thousands of people that MAYBE miss a year because of a wedding, or this or that, but we have thousands of them that have been to the majority of them. I think some of the other relationships that we have. You know, the booking company we have used all 27 years of our existence. The sounds, stage & light company we’ve used 26 of our 27years. So some of the major vendors, if you will, we have had relationships with from our very beginning and I think those are the things that are special. I think it all really comes down to the people and relationships, and the customers. Country music fans are definitely a loyal and hardy group of people.
I think it says a lot about Country Jam, and you personally when you talk about those relationships, in today’s fast paced ever changing world that you keep those partnerships. It says a lot about you and the partners that you have.
Yep, thank you.
Was there ever a time that you were just about to book an artist, but didn’t for one reason or another and now looking back you wish you would have gone that extra step to get them?
(laughing)…I’ve been doing this since almost the beginning, but not booking Garth I probably would regret that. Right now that opportunity may never come along, but I think there are a few other acts that we wish we would’ve had. I don’t think we ever had Johnny Cash at any of our events. There are a few of those acts that you never get the opportunity to have. I guess if there ever was a regret, it was with the acts that you never get to have because they have moved on or passed away. Or you have that once in a lifetime opportunity to have someone like Garth. There aren’t many country acts that we haven’t had. Garth is one of them that we have never booked. But someday we might get that opportunity and believe me if we do, we won’t pass on it.
When you start the whole booking process of the bands, how much of a role do you play in that? Do you have a favorite out there?
We defiantly have first and final say in who it is. We do some surveying. We have a good feel, a good pulse on acts. We do rely on our booking agency. They have a lot of inside knowledge and obviously they know the routing and things like that. But, obviously, the booking process starts in this office. Definitely is a partnership. We couldn’t do it without the people that we work with. Like I’ve said, we’ve enjoyed our partnership with them for a long, long time.
I just noticed too that, for next year’s lineup, you guys have added Viberoom. That is something else that makes you unique. It lets your fans have a voice.
Yep, out lineup definitely revolves around on what our fans want to see. Again, that is kind of a unique thing. We took that survey to a new level this year. I have to admit, we think we know our fans pretty good, but there were a couple surprises. There were a couple directions that we may not have went. Mostly with secondary acts, but sometimes with headliners also. We did learn a few things and it did impact the direction we are moving for 2017 and that planning has already started.
We’ve touched on changed a little bit over the almost 30 years. How about advertising or public relations? How has that changed?
Oh, that has changed. Public relations, at least for us, did not exist. It really didn’t exist until just a few short years ago. As far as advertising goes, yep that has made a full circle. When we look back every ticket we sold was over the phone or through the mail. We would physically open mail each day and fill tickets orders by hand. When we had a ticket price increase, we would have to bring in 20 people just to answer the phone. And now when you have a ticket price increase, you don’t even notice the difference. Back then it was all newspapers and radio and maybe a little bit of television. Now it’s all social media and internet marketing. We still do a little bit of radio, a little newspaper but so much of it is gone to the social side.
Do you think a lot of it is advertisement via word of mouth from people that have enjoyed what you do and what you offer?
Well it does. There is a heavy percent of repeat customers. The other thing that has changed for parents, for people in general, there are so many options to spend your weekend. It’s much different than what it used to. We are defiantly competing for people’s time with all the options they have right now. We face two challenges – we need to get the people that have previously bought tickets to come back but then we need to reach new people. Every year there are “x” amount of people that have something come up or going on. It’s a 12month of the year deal.
You must not really get time off. You are already planning for 2017, so you really don’t get a break.
That is true. There is nothing like the next two weeks. You can’t compare those to anything. From the week after the event we’re still doing re-newels for next year, marketing will start right away. It is a 12-month job for a full time office staff. If I had $1 for every time someone said “Oh, you mean you do that all year round?” (laugh) I’d have been retired a long time ago. There really isn’t a down time. Well, maybe from a stress standpoint the 5-6 months after the event are probably less.
Is there a certain point during the festival that you get over that hump, so to speak, that you can just take a breather and maybe enjoy a couple shows?
Well, Saturday is the best day. I try to see a part of the Saturday night closer. It’s always the dream, or the goal to see someone on stage, but it doesn’t happen very often. Thursday most of the bugs are worked out. Friday is defiantly better than Thursday and Saturday things are pretty much on auto pilot. Saturday is a good day.
You did touch a little bit on public relations. I did see that this year there is going to be an increased focus on the traffic and noise levels. Is it difficult to balance Country Jam with the community relations?
Yeah, it really is. We’ve been around a long time. Most of the people are used to the events. There have been a couple events added since last year. We do a second event called The Blue Ox Music Festival in the campground. Then there was another festival that was added to Eau Claire. The local residents are dealing with three events. Three weekends instead of two right now. It’s definitely a constant concern. We are always working on traffic, and noise. We are aware of it at all times. For the most part things go really, really well considering there are approximately 20,000 people coming in each day and most of them are from outside the area. We pride ourselves that we draw from virtually the entire United States. It exposes the Eau Claire region and the Chippewa Valley to a lot of people that never would have found their way to Eau Claire, Wisconsin. I think it’s a good thing cause the economic impact to the area is tremendous. Eau Claire has got a lot of stuff going, a lot of new hotels, a lot of things happening with the University that is accredited to the festivals going on. We have a lot of support from the business community, law enforcement and city officials. Definitely a positive relationship there.
Let’s fast forward 5…10 years, what does the future look like for Country jam and you Jim?
Well, as far as me, I’m getting older. I’m not ready to hang it up yet at some point and time I will certainly look that direction. We’re already working on 2017 lineup. We think that is going to be fantastic. We are always making changes. People will notice a lot of changes this year. We’re putting Wi-Fi in, we’re doing a lot of changes for the future. We are definitely looking forward to many, many more years.
Great! I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to us Jim.
I appreciate it, thanks for the call! We still have room for you. There are a few VIP tickets remaining, there are a few camp sites available. We’d love to have you!! We really believe that we have something special and we’d love to see somebody new out there.