1 Festival Times Five

how the Valley got hooked on big-time summer music fests

by Tom Giffey / photos by Luong Huynh

Dozens of music legends, from Johnny Cash to Aerosmith, have performed on the massive stage in the festival grounds near Cadott.

“It's really a one-of-a-kind festival site. It's so much different than plopping it in a farm field”

Jim Bischel Country Jam president, on the Country Jam grounds outside Eau Claire

Of course Vernon isn’t the first person to strike upon the idea of using the Valley’s verdant season as the backdrop for a music festival. Large-scale fests – complete with big-name performers, massive crowds, not to mention camping, camaraderie, and plenty of beer – have been fixtures of the region’s summer schedule for nearly 30 years.

Back in 1987, four local businessmen founded Chippewa Valley Music Festivals and mounted the first Country Fest, which featured Lee Greenwood, Tanya Tucker, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and others playing to 3,000 fans in a farm field near Cadott. Seven years later, they launched Rock Fest (then called Shake, Rattle and Rock) on the same site with the likes of Guess Who, REO Speedwagon, and Cheap Trick.

Meanwhile, Country Jam popped up near Eau Claire in 1990 with performers such as Alan Jackson, Clint Black, and Tammy Wynette. Jam had its roots in Shake, Rattle and Roll, an oldies fest first held a few years earlier in the parking lot of Fannie Hill and later in a nearby field.

“It was close to town, and it was on the Chippewa River,” County Jam president Jim Bischel said of what is now the Country Jam grounds. “It’s really a one-of-a-kind festival site. It’s so much different than plopping it in a farm field. It pretty much had everything we needed in one location.” While Shake, Rattle and Roll retired, Country Jam is still going strong.

This summer, the Jam grounds are hosting two new festivals: the Vernon-curated Eaux Claires and Blue Ox, an early June gathering where 3,500 muddy but happy campers enjoyed top-notch bluegrass.

The presence of five major multi-day summer music festivals – plus the big Eau Claire Jazz Festival in the spring – makes the Chippewa Valley stand out among peer communities, says Linda John, executive director of Visit Eau Claire. “If you do have places with a major music festival, it’s usually one,” he says. For example, Rhinelander hosts the Hodag Country Music Fest, while Twin Lakes in Kenosha County is the site of Country Thunder. The closest comparison to Eau Claire – at least in Wisconsin – is Oshkosh, which is home to Rock USA, Country USA, and Lifest, a Christian music festival. (Milwaukee, meanwhile, is in a category unto itself: The 11-day Summerfest draws an estimated 900,000 fans.)

So what is it about the Chippewa Valley that makes it conducive to so many big festivals? That question is as hard to answer as the broader question of why this region is so music-rich. Perhaps, as Vernon and others suggest, it has to do with the explosive beauty of the Wisconsin summer stimulating creativity and drawing people outdoors after a long winter. There are more practical explanations as well: There’s our geographic centrality between the massive Twin Cities and Chicago metro areas, and the ease of traveling from these and other populous places on a trio of four-lane highways.

There’s also the long-term reward of early investment. The creation of the Country Fest and Country Jam grounds – within a few years and a few miles of each other – coincided with a rise in the popularity of country music, which helped festival organizers maintain and expand their facilities. Recreating such facilities – with their big stages, massive campgrounds, and other amenities – would be costly to do elsewhere, notes Bob McCoy, president of the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce. In that regard, it makes sense to use these festival grounds more than once a summer.

Another notable aspect of the Valley’s plethora of festivals is the number of genres represented. While the first two festivals to flourish both featured country acts, subsequent fests have added mainstream rock, bluegrass, and indie rock to the mix. Combine that with the Jazz Festival, the Tuesday Night Blues Series, Blues on the Chippewa (running eight years), a new Christian music fest (M.Y. Life Fest), and countless other performances, and music fans of nearly every stripe can find something to please their ears in the Valley.

Perhaps it’s a cliché, but in this case it’s true that success breeds more success. Country Jam’s Bischel points out that Midwest audiences are experienced with the festival experience – the camping, the camaraderie, the endless hours of music – and so don’t need to be sold on the idea. Furthermore, they’ve come to associate fests with the Chippewa Valley. “When people think music festivals, they think Eau Claire, Wisconsin,” he says. “In working with the Eaux Claires people, we hope this enhances what we do, rather than cannibalizes it.”

2 The Chippewa Valley's Major Festivals


Location: Foster Farm, Eau Claire
Dates: July 23-25, 2015
Year founded: 1990
Average attendance: 24,000
Attendance from >60 miles: 19,680
Economic impact (total): $9.44 million
Economic impact (per day): $3.15 million
Major performers: Blake Shelton, Eric Church, Lady Antebellum


Location: Festival grounds, Cadott
Dates: June 25-28, 2015 (June 16-19, 2016)
Year founded: 1987
Average attendance: 20,000
Attendance from >60 miles: 14,000
Economic impact (total): $8.96 million
Economic impact (per day): $2.24 million
Major performers: Tim McGraw, Keith Urban, Toby Keith


Location: Festival grounds, Cadott
Dates: July 16-19, 2015
Year founded: 1994
Average attendance: 20,000
Attendance from >60 miles: 14,000
Economic impact (total): $8.96 million
Economic impact (per day): $2.24 million
Major performers: Shinedown, Judas Priest, Avenged Sevenfold


Location: Foster Farm, Eau Claire
Dates: July 17-18, 2015
Year founded: 2015
Average attendance: 25,000 (expected)
Attendance from >60 miles: 21,250
Economic impact (total): $6.8 million
Economic impact (per day): $3.4 million
Major performers: Bon Iver, The National, Spoon


Location: Whispering Pines, Eau Claire
Dates: June 11-13, 2015 (date TBA 2016)
Year founded: 2015
Average attendance: 3,500
Attendance from >60 miles: 3,045
Economic impact (total): $1.46 million
Economic impact (per day): $487,000
Major performers: Yonder Mountain String Band, Pert Near Sandstone, Del McCoury


Location: Various venues, Eau Claire
Dates: April 17-18, 2015 (April 22-23, 2016)
Year founded: 1967
Average attendance: N/A
Number of participating high school musicians: 2,000 in 122 ensembles
Venues taking part in “52nd Street” : 11
2015 Major performers: New York Voices, Terell Stafford, Nachito Herrera

3 The Sweet Sound of Cash

our music scene is becoming big business, attracting not only tourists, but also people to live and work here

by Tom Giffey / photo by Luong Huynh

The brand new Blue Ox music festival, held in june just outside Eau Claire, brought in top-tier bluegrass acts in its first year.

There’s a certain alliterative quality to listing the Chippewa Valley’s leading industries over time: Timber, tires, technology, tourism … and tunes. That last item may seem out of place on such a list, but hear us out: While it’s true that the production of indie rock albums and the sales of music festival tickets may never overshadow the dominant industries of the past in economic terms, they nonetheless have a major impact when it comes to real culture and real dollars.

Consider the region’s five major summer music festivals, which quite literally bring tens of millions of dollars and hundreds of jobs to the region. Add to that the active nonprofit arts sector, the sale of tickets and beer (lots and lots of beer!) at innumerable venues, the production and sale of albums and instruments, and the financial ripple effect of all of the above; and music becomes a major plank in the Chippewa Valley’s economy.

Expansive Effect

When Linda John became executive director of the tourism promotion agency now called Visit Eau Claire in 1993, two music festivals – Country Fest and Country Jam – had just begun to put the Chippewa Valley on the map. These festivals were important, John says, but they came and went quickly. Over the past two decades, however, the calendar has begun to fill in, not only with additional music festivals but also with more performances, open mic nights, and numerous concert series.

“It’s what Eau Claire is becoming known for,” John says of the burgeoning music scene. “It’s why you want to make a special trip and spend some time and spend some money.”

“[music] is what Eau Claire is becoming known for. it’s why you want to make a special trip and spend some time and money.”

Linda John executive director, Visit Eau Claire

Using figures from festival promoters and running them through a formula developed by the Destination Marketing Association International, a tourism industry trade group, Visit Eau Claire estimates that the five fests will have a whopping $35.6 million economic impact this year. That amounts to about 11 percent of all visitor spending in the Chippewa Valley for the year.

What goes into such numbers? There’s the cost of tickets, of course, as well as camping and lodging. (In fact, the Eaux Claires fest is attracting so many fans that some will be staying in UW-Eau Claire residence halls.) Visitors eat and drink, fill their gas tanks, visit other attractions, and patronize local retailers. (For instance, the inclement weather during Blue Ox drove a run on rain gear at local stores.) All this money feeds the local economy, spurring a multiplier effect as it passes among local businesses and their employees. It also generates state and local taxes, John points out. “Your tax burden is less because of the new money coming in from visitors,” she says.

If we assume a proportionate share of tourism-related jobs can be attributed to these music festivals, that means more than 650 people owe their livelihood to the five musical extravaganzas.

And while they attract big-name performers and tens of thousands of visitors from around the nation – and world – the musical festivals only amount to a fraction of the economic impact of the overall music scene. Determining what sort of a fraction is a difficult proposition. For her part, John estimates that one-third of total visitor spending in the region is related to music and the cultural arts.

Nonprofit Impact

The major music festivals are for-profit entities, but it’s important to note that much of the musical and cultural activity that occurs in the Chippewa Valley is fostered by nonprofit entities. Don’t let the term “nonprofit” deceive you: Nonprofits raise and spend plenty of money, hire employees, and generate indirect economic activity. According to an exhaustive study by Americans for the Arts, the seven largest nonprofit arts organizations in Eau Claire County and their audiences generated $5.6 million in spending in 2010 alone. That’s equal to 224 full-time equivalent jobs.

Furthermore, estimated attendance at these seven group’s arts events was 193,000, 79,000 of them from out of the area; by contrast, the five major music festivals have collective attendance of 92,500, about 72,000 are from 60 miles away or more.

Quality of Life

And then there’s the less quantifiable impact of the music scene, which may be even more important economically. The presence of so much music – most of it live, most of it at low or no cost – is an undeniable boost to the region’s quality of life.

“Music, and the arts in general, have a huge impact on economic development,” says Zach Halmstad, founder of JAMF Software, which last year opened a new office building next to downtown Eau Claire’s Phoenix Park that houses nearly 200 employees (with more on the way). “People want to live in places that they can have great experiences. We now see people choosing where they are going to live first, and then deciding where they are going to work.

“Music, and the arts in general, have a huge impact on economic development. People want to live in places they can have great experiences…”

Zach Halmstad co-founder, JAMF Software

“People who are drawn to music are generally people who want to find a connection with others. These types of individuals are the kind that companies like ours look for,” says Halmstad, who himself studied music at UW-Eau Claire and has been a major boost of the Confluence Project, a performing arts-focused downtown development.

The proliferation of music and other cultural arts in the region play a significant role is recruiting and retaining businesses and workers, agrees Bob McCoy, president of the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce. As with good schools, a strong cultural scene contributes to the region’s quality of life, he said.

Traditionally, the Valley lacked a singular iconic attraction for outsiders, McCoy says. However, that’s beginning to change, with the music culture beginning to play that magnetic role. “I think that’s the kind of iconic thing,” he says. “What are you known for, besides horseradish and Leinie’s?”

It’s also impossible to ignore the impact of Grammy winner Justin Vernon’s frequently expressed love of his hometown. “And then when Justin Vernon stands on stage and thanks the city of Eau Claire,” McCoy marvels, “Who else does that? They thank their mother and grandmother. You can’t buy that kind of publicity.”

4 Fortunes Rising

Confluence Project will stimulate economy, attract new performers, supporters say

by Tom Giffey / photo by Mariah Hamm

The mixed-use commercial half of the Confluence Project is going up quickly in downtown Eau Claire.

Every $1 spent on the performing arts center will generate a minimum of $3 in nearby private investment.

Why? Because the developers – who include Commonweal Development, Market & Johnson, and Blugold Real Estate, an arm of the UW-Eau Claire Foundation – know that building next to a landmark new arts center is good for business. Brady Foust, a professor emeritus of geography at UW-Eau Claire, recently estimated that every $1 spent on the performing arts center will generate a minimum of $3 in nearby private investment in shops, eateries, bars, and the like. By that math, the Confluence Project’s $40 million performing arts component will be responsible for an investment of roughly $120 million into downtown Eau Claire.

UWEC Chancellor James Schmidt has emphasized the collaborative nature of the project as well as its potential economic impact. “The Confluence Project community arts center will be a catalyst for continued economic development in the region and will provide the university and regional businesses a competitive advantage in terms of their ability to recruit and retain top talent – especially younger talent,” he said in January.

Ben Richgruber, executive director of the Eau Claire Regional Arts Council, says the new arts center won’t merely replace existing venues, such as the State Theatre, which ECRAC now operates. With 1,100 seats, the State is too large for some performers and too small for others, Richgruber says. The three theaters planned as part of the Confluence will expand the region’s inventory of venues, he says, therefore allowing the Chippewa Valley to attract performances by more and different musicians. For example, the largest theater will seat 1,200 people – 1,500 with removable seating – allowing the Confluence to bring in artists whose crowds would overwhelm other venues.

Likewise, the mid-sized 400-seat theater will accommodate bands whose followings have outgrown small clubs, while the proposed 250-seat “black box” theater would be well-suited to serve as an all-ages music venue.

“It may not be a fit for every local band,” Richgruber says of the largest venue, “but there’s a big opportunity, (and) not just for the Justins that can sell it out every other year.”


5 You Have to Listen to See

music can set a unique tone in the heart of development

by Max Garland

As you read this, somewhere in town a woman is tuning a guitar, hoping to coax another gig from a set of strings. A couple are practicing harmonies they hope to hit later tonight for an audience they hope will exist. High school kids are hammering chords in a basement, wrangling a little order from chaos, rehearsing a song they’ll later pretend not to have practiced at all.

Tonight hundreds will gather to hear the endlessly reinvented riffs of American blues. Two days from now thousands will arrive in Phoenix Park to hear original local music for free. But not really free. In addition to the obvious investment in instruments, stage, tents, sound systems, and infrastructure, are countless hours of lessons, scales, scribbling, strumming, the frustrations and occasional breakthroughs that precede every measure of song.

All musicians know you play for love, or not at all. A few get rich, a few more make a living; most play because it’s the only way to cut through the silence, static, small talk, and relentless sales pitch inundating our waking lives. Because sometimes music is the only means for saying who we are and what we feel. The story it tells is the oldest one, and yet the one we have to keep telling.

Sure, you don’t have to be a marketing wizard to know that when tens of thousands gather for concerts on summer nights that’s positive economic news, and makes a powerful argument for this as a good place to live. The monetary impact of art in our state and region is well documented.

As solid as the economic case for local music is, however, that’s not why you can’t turn around in Eau Claire without bumping into a band. The other members of the group I’m in have played with – or belonged to – 21 other bands within the past year. Try this experiment: Ask some local musicians how many groups they performed with last year, or even how many bands they’re in at the moment. Don’t expect a quick answer.

We talk about stimulating economic growth, celebrate “risk takers,” those investors who help spin the wheels of commerce. But if you want to understand “investment” and “risk,” try playing a song in front of strangers, with words and melody newly excavated from the ruins of heartbreak. Try singing something no one has ever sung. Conjuring a truth from rhythm and melody that’s as nearly impossible as it is absolutely necessary. That’s an investment, a risk I’m grateful so many are willing to take.

Let’s remember the deeper reason thousands of us here are playing or listening to live music every week. Let’s give a nod to growth not registered in GDPs or demographics. Let’s honor the growth of human spirit that the arts make possible.

So as we make the case for the creative economy, let’s remember the deeper reason thousands of us here are playing or listening to live music every week. Let’s give a nod to growth not registered in GDPs or demographics. Let’s honor the growth of human spirit that the arts make possible.

There’s a old spiritual, “Working on a Building,” recorded by the Carter Family, Bill Monroe, Elvis, and countless others. It comes to mind as I watch the new construction in downtown Eau Claire, anticipate the building of a world-class performing arts center here. My favorite version of the song is by the late B.B. King:

“When you hear me singing
I’m working on the building…”

You can give people directions to this valley, hand them a map, tell them to type “Eau Claire” into a Garmin. But if you really want to help someone find this place, tell them to look for the building B.B. King was singing into existence.

The sustainable growth of a place is measured not only in economic terms, but in our ability to travel those most profound regions of human experience. Economic growth is good, but the growth of empathy, imagination, the capacity for wonder – that’s the growth music encourages.

Somewhere in town tonight a woman will step up to a microphone and navigate by a map unknown to cartographers, its contours shaded with blues, jazz, classical, gospel, metal, indie, folk, and rock, to name a few. Want directions to the heart of the Chippewa Valley? Follow the map redrawn from the fingertips and breath of a musician playing the first notes of a song no one has ever heard. She’s working on a building you have to listen to see.

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