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Saving Deer Lake

Can music help save a camp from development?

The short answer is yes, but only to a degree. To be clear, the camp was saved by a dedicated bunch of volunteers and a whole host of extremely generous donors, but the concerts came play a small part later in the story. A short history: Deer Lake, in Killingworth, Ct., was a boy scout camp that needed to be sold by the scouts in order to pay off their share of the settlements for behavior of some of their leaders towards some of the kids. It needed to be sold fairly quickly, and for a lot of money, like just shy of 5 million. Pathfinders, the non-profit that ran a day camp there and also helped maintain the camp for the scouts, needed to come up with the dough or else a developer was going to buy it. There was a signed contract with a developer who was also a board member of the scouts, so there was probably a little hanky-panky going on with that offer, but no matter. Bluff or no bluff, the developer's offer had to be met quickly. Through a blitz of an effort, the Pathfinders organization came up with enough donations and loans to put the deal together.

Near the end of the fundraising campaign, one of the long-time workers at the camp had asked if we might want to do a concert there to help raise a few dollars, or at least bring some notoriety to the cause. The timing was perfect, as the camp had a beautiful setting, a huge hall, we were coming off the pandemic, and folks were still reluctant to sit indoors in tight quarters. It must be said that just having a concert doesn't raise enough money on it's own to make any sort of dent; it's the publicity and community engagement that make a difference, but more on that later.

At Fire In The Kitchen concerts, I had willing artists of impeccable reputation, many of them Grammy-winners, and as they were all a little broke due to the shut-downs, it was a perfect solution. I also had a mailing list full of people who were itching to get back into seeing and hearing live music. I could offer the artists almost pre-pandemic levels of ticket sales, and they could re-connect with fans and start to get back into life as it once was.

I could offer the audiences the chance to see globe-trotting artists like Hawktail, Väsen, Jeremy Kittel, Jayme Stone, Stillhouse Junkies, Brittany Haas and Kongero; artists who rarely played anywhere near the area even in non-pandemic times. The artists were hungry, the audience was hungry, and Deer Lake needed to be shown to the community as surprisingly few people knew it even existed. It was a Boy Scout camp, and as such, wasn't really open to the general public. In no time it all, it not only had to be known to the general public, but also embraced and coveted for it's beauty, it's trails, and it's opportunity as an outdoor education and recreation center that didn't exist close to the shoreline area.

While the push to save the camp clearly involved raising lots of money quickly, the concerts had only a minor impact in that. There were most assuredly a few very generous donors from my concert regulars, but nowhere near the amount needed for a complete purchase. But we knew from past experience doing this with other land trusts, that it wasn't the money that was the main goal. The main goal was to showcase the property to all the locals, who could then use it (rental fees!) for things like weddings or other events. The Nutmeg Nor'easter, covered in an earlier post, was a perfect example, as the organizer was introduced to the possibility of renting Deer Lake through the concerts.

While each concert did provide some income to Deer Lake in the form of rental fees (helpful, but not earth-shattering by any means), the main goal was to directly enhance community involvement. For that, they were a total success. To get an idea of how the shows went, I'll share a short and very cell-phone-amateurish video compilation of some of the shows, and afterwards and in another post give some advice on how anyone can actually pull this off for their own land trust or open space preservation efforts.

To make the effort of putting on a concert series worth it, the goals have to be realistic and achievable. Making lots of money on a concert like these is neither realistic nor achievable (in any normal world, anyway.) The economics of music are sort of a go-big-or-go-home thing. Rent a large space, put a reasonably popular band in there, promote the heck out of it, and you could make a few bucks. However, most small-to-mid sized performing arts centers are lucky to make just a few dollars on the music end of a concert, it's the alcohol sales that make the money. In fact, it's no secret that the successful arts centers have become bars with really nice seating. On a good night, a center's take on a crowd of around 200 might net the center $1000. On an off-night, well, I know that many a band has been paid out of bar receipts, not ticket sales.

At one of the more established outdoor land trust shows we put on each year, we net about 3k for the trust off ticket sales. That's being very discerning on the selection of the band, a ton of built-up promotion, and a loyal following of land trust members, my concert mailing list regulars, and word-of-mouth. That could easily fall if the promotion falls flat, or if we didn't;t have a track record of really sweet shows behind us. For a first-time event, coming away with half that would be a big win. There are expenses and risks, so those have to be covered as well.

The music, the concert is simply a vehicle and an attraction. It sets the vibe and is the main driver of attendance. But it's not the main money-maker. The idea is to create a bond between the community and the place you're trying to protect. The ideal result is that people come away from the event thinking that the space is vital to the community. You can see live music anywhere, so it's not the music that's the effective element. When people who have never seen a place now experience a sense of belonging and value, then you've won. The music was just an excuse to get them there, the vibe the event gives off is the lasting impression. If you can create lasting impressions, you create commitment either in volunteer hours, or sometimes enhanced donations. But without a sense of place, and a desire to belong in that place, even a financially successful show doesn't have the desired effect. People who came to our Deer Lake concerts may have enjoyed the music, but they came away in love with the place. Many come back and hike there regularly now. That's when we know what we did was worth every minute spent and every dollar risked.

To give a full list of how to pull these sorts of events off yourself will require a lot of time, but here are some short pointers:

  1. The type of music sets the tone and brings in the audience profile you're shooting for. Bluegrass brings in a certain sort of crowd, cover bands another, classical obviously quite another. Know the audience and the vibe you're shooting for.

  2. Try to avoid local bands. They're already known locally, and they won't give off the feel of the event being special.

  3. Add extra elements to spice things up. We have a gourmet pizza truck come. At Deer Lake, we invited people to come and hike before the show. At other land trusts, we've had outdoor yoga, nature walks, etc.

  4. Keep the price reasonable. Trying to make an extra few hundred bucks isn't worth it. Trying to make a few hundred new friends is.

In the end, the seven concerts we've held at Deer Lake so far netted about $4000 in direct income, which clearly isn't much. They did bring in a significantly higher total of extra donation but the regular concert attendees from the Fire In The Kitchen series. Even then, it was just a percentage of the total needed. However, the connections that people made in seeing the long-term potential were huge, and going forward, the income that Deer Lake can derive from those connections will keep it alive and thriving for years to come.


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