As Camp Bisco’s founders, hosts and headliners, the Disco Biscuits — drummer Allen Aucoin, bassist Marc Brownstein, guitarist/midi keyboardist Jon Gutwillig and keyboardist Aron Magner — are the annual music festival’s biggest draw.
But the addition of electronic and hip-hop acts has helped expand the event beyond the band’s hardcore fans and exposed these other artists to the committed, camp-out community that defines the jam band scene. Snoop Dogg was booked in 2008, and Nas and Damian Marley shared the bill at this year’s festival in July.
Camp Bisco began in 1999 “out of necessity,” Brownstein says. “When the Biscuits started as a young Philadelphia band in the ’90s, we were in the festival circuit, and like any young band we started playing at noon. We knew within a year or two that we weren’t the noontime band anymore, that our fan base had outgrown that, but the promoters still didn’t necessarily believe it.”
Brownstein says the last straw came at the 1997 All Good Festival in Brandywine, Md., when the Biscuits played at noon to a field of 1,500 people, which promptly emptied when the next band arrived. “That was the first time we saw that there was a differential between the way we were being treated by the industry and the reality of what our band was,” he says. “When you can’t seem to crack through but you know that you have something special in terms of a community, the only thing you can really do is do things on your own.
“We were fans of the Grateful Dead and Phish, and they had control of everything-nothing mattered to them except them and their fans; no one was calling the shots except for [Phish frontman] Trey [Anastasio]. And we knew that model was going to be good for us because we played in that same style, we didn’t have pop songs, we weren’t the best singers back then, but that’s not what people were coming for. They were coming for the interaction and the improvisation.”
In 1998, the Disco Biscuits held a small festival in western Pennsylvania called Melstock, and from that the idea for a multiday camp-out was born. The band hired its own production and security teams for the first Camp Bisco in 1999, which drew about 800 people for “unknown and extremely affordable bands,” Brownstein says.
Although the Biscuits’ albums had only sold 21,000 copies by that point, according to Nielsen SoundScan, the group’s destination events became the foundation of its business. Even so, Camp Bisco was “a huge undertaking, a full-time job in itself,” Brownstein says, and the band put the festival on hold for the following two years.
Meatcamp Productions’ Jonathan Fordin and Brett Keber started with a $225,000 budget when they took over Camp Bisco in 2005, steadily increasing it every year to attract more people and bigger talent. So far it had been working, with revenue, profits and attendance growing by 20% or more every year. But as ticket sales remained slow in a down economy, Fordin and Keber thought attendance at this year’s festival might barely reach last year’s levels.
Then a thunderstorm on day one of the festival (July 16) forced a set cancellation, and 12 straight hours of torrential rain on Friday turned the clay of Indian Lookout Country Club in Mariaville, N.Y., into a 200-acre tar pit.
And yet still, somehow, the numbers were looking up. “The storm kept a lot of people from coming on Thursday this year — but then Friday they just didn’t stop coming, from 7 a.m. to 5 a.m, through the worst rain I’ve ever seen as a festival promoter,” Keber says.
Moreover, the fans weren’t huddling in their tents. “It was amazing — they stood at that stage and waited for Nas and Damian, who had wanted to cancel, for an hour-and-a-half in the pouring rain. Then they didn’t leave for the Biscuits’ set or anything,” Fordin says. “It really shows how dedicated our fan base is,” Keber adds. “They come for the music first and foremost.”
Fordin and Keber knew this about their audience before relaunching the festival in 2005, because they were Biscuits fans themselves. “When Meatcamp took over the fourth Camp Bisco, Jon and Brett were like 25, and they said, ‘Look, we can make this event better. We know what kind of music the fans like because we are the fans,’ ” Brownstein says. “So we said, ‘Fuck it, let’s let these guys do it. They seem really passionate about it.’
Camp Bisco IV: The Trance-Formation was held at Skyetop Festival Ground in Van Etten, N.Y., and included such jam band favorites as Umphrey’s McGee and John Brown’s Body, plus DJs and other acts that incorporated dance and electronic influences. MCP took heavy losses — which they say they expected in the first year of rebranding the festival — but attendance grew to 4,400.
What makes Camp Bisco unique among festivals is how the daytime jam fest merges with the late-night rave communities that had overlap in their fan bases — and in the Biscuits’ music itself.
“[Fordin and Keber] did such a fantastic job of realizing our vision,” Brownstein says, adding that the band handpicks at least the first few tiers of acts.
In 2007 Meatcamp Productions found what it believes is Camp Bisco’s long-term home, 30 miles northwest of Albany, N.Y.: the Indian Lookout Country Club, built and maintained by the bikers who run the Harley Rendezvous Classic, one of the largest annual gatherings of motorcycle enthusiasts in the country. This move from nearby Hunter Mountain Ski Resort was an unpopular decision, Fordin and Keber say, as stories of the infamous clash between hippies and Hell’s Angels at the Altamont (Calif.) Speedway festival in 1969 floated among Biscuits fans. But the fear was unfounded, and the bikers have proved to be invaluable partners.
“I like the security with all the bikers, it’s a different feel — very safe but democratic, very chill,” says Will Stroud, a Philadelphia Biscuits fan. “This one lady over there cleaned the bathroom every time someone used it.”
“Everyone thinks it’s a strange thing to see a bunch of bikers taking care of a bunch of hippies,” says Frank Potter, Indian Lookout’s president. “But we all want the same things they want. Bikers want to have fun and keep their families safe, and sometimes there’s arguments over turf, but it’s no different than in the music industry.”
By Saturday afternoon of Camp Bisco, the sun is holding and the Disco Biscuits are playing their 3 p.m. set, and the field in front of the stage is full enough that Keber estimates there are 10,000 people. This would meet the growth goals from 2008’s attendance of 8,000.
In total, 8,000 three-day passes were sold for this year’s Camp Bisco, up 20% from 2008, while sales of Saturday one-day tickets increased 50% to 1,500.
“We’ve always believed in keeping our prices as low as possible and try to be one of the cheapest festivals in the country every year,” Fordin says.
This is particularly important because the Disco Biscuits and the electronic/hip-hop lineup draw an overall younger crowd, many student-aged with less disposable income, than some of the other jam band festivals, such as Gathering of the Vibes.
In addition to pricing, a big factor in MCP’s risk/reward equation for Camp Bisco is the booking. “It took a while, but I think we hit the nail on the head last year when we booked Snoop Dogg — all these people were like, ‘This is an awesome festival, and I don’t even like the Disco Biscuits,’ ” Fordin says. “If we go too big with the band, Biscuits fans aren’t going to come because it won’t fit. One of their agents wanted us to book the Black Crowes, and we said, ‘We might gain 200 locals who want to see the Black Crowes, but we’re going to lose 200 Biscuits fans, and we won’t get the 10,000 Crowes fans that we should.’ ”
Electronic acts also get huge exposure at Bisco when featured at the late-night tent, where campers retreat after the headliners. This year, LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy played a set at the main stage on Saturday night, and then curated a late-night Disco Tent for his label DFA Records.
When the weekend was over and the tractors were pulling the last cars out of the still-sopping clay, MCP estimated revenue for the 2009 Camp Bisco festival at $1.6 million, a 30% growth over 2008 and $200,000 more than expenses.
“We’ve learned that we can almost make a better living by not touring and concentrating on the big events, although our fans hate that, so we go out and pound the pavement when we need to,” Brownstein says.
“This is our life together; us and our fans are intrinsically connected, and if we can find a way to maintain that, then it doesn’t really matter what happens anywhere outside of our little bubble,” he says. “If 10,000 kids come here, or 7,000 kids come to an event we play at Red Rocks [in Colorado], that’s all that matters to us. And if we can grow this festival to 20,000, it’s game over.”