Last year’s inaugural Mile of Music festival brewed up like a perfect, lovely storm.
For a while, organizers felt a quiet kind of creative humidity that began to pressurize – events like Octoberfest proved people here wanted more things like it. Eventually, gradually, all the right conditions swirled together like heat and a very cool musical front, sparking some serious thunder.
Mile of Music, Appleton’s self-titled handcrafted artisan music festival, brought in more than 15,000 concert-goers and about 100 music artists during its first event last August. Visitors spent between $500,000 and $700,000, festival organizers say. This year, or Mile 2, founders Dave Willems and Cory Chisel are harnessing the momentum, bringing in twice as many bands and tripling the number of performances.
It’s going to be epic.
But Willems and Chisel are not aiming to create a monster-huge music festival – they’ve got bigger plans. They’d like to see Mile of Music become more than a few dates on the calendars of music lovers. They want it to become a destination.
Willems, a longtime PR guy even before he opened Willems Marketing, had attended the famous South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, in the late ’80s when the festival was just getting off the ground.
“That’s where that little germ of an idea was in the back of my head, since that time,” Willems says. “But life got in the way, other things got in the way. Fast forward 20 years later, I just started thinking about how we have a spot here that is pretty unique and special, with this one-mile stretch of downtown.”
The goal was to create a walkable festival, he says. Willems worked for years with leaders in downtown Appleton who also were interested in “some sort of a major – what I’d call ‘difference maker’ – event for downtown,” Willems says.
Separately, Willems had been managing local benefit concerts for which Chisel performed.
“I learned that he was really in the music business for the right reasons,” Willems says. “He was in it for the artistry, for giving back to people for people’s happiness. When we realized we had that sort of stuff in common, that’s when we started talking about some sort of major event.”
“I think we were both kind of feeling each other out,” recalls Chisel, event curator and co-founder. “We’re both interested in community events, so both of us kind of felt like this town needed a festival that was similar (to South by Southwest), because Octoberfest is so great and people just come in droves.”
A 10-minute conversation turned into an hour and a half, and when Chisel finished an international music tour with Norah Jones, he started reaching out to musicians he knew. Jones made an unannounced appearance during last year’s event. Meanwhile, Willems approached downtown Appleton leaders with his plan.
“Dave came and said, ‘I have this idea. You don’t have to run it, but we need you to be a partner, what do you think?’” says Jennifer Stephany, executive director of Appleton Downtown Inc. “All of our jaws kind of dropped and we said, ‘You know, Dave, this is like, months away.’ He said, ‘Yeah, I know – we’ve got some of this in the works already, and it’ll come together, and the first year is gonna be what it’s gonna be.’ And the first year just blew everybody out of the water.”
“It was exactly what I hoped year five would be,” Chisel says. “There’s the type of excitement and respect for the artists I thought would take a long time to build, possibly, but people just kind of were like that from the get-go.”
Chisel also didn’t expect the festival to attract music lovers of all ages. “I didn’t necessarily know we were going to get the 65-to-85 crowd out to see a punk rock band in the middle of the daytime, but that was awesome,” Chisel says.
Stone Cellar Brew Pub, which can’t sell beer at Appleton’s Octoberfest because of Budweiser’s sponsorship agreement, saw a prime opportunity to get its name and product out to the public during the Mile of Music festival, says owner Tom Lonsway.
“We’re hoping that it’ll put our beer in front of everybody as the local beer and develop our reputation as such,” Lonsway says. “That’s our goal.”
During Mile of Music last year, Stone Cellar Brew Pub held live music in its beer garden and hosted a hospitality room for the bands. This year, the restaurant also is setting up beer and food tents at both Houdini Plaza and Jones Park and is now one of the festival’s key sponsors.
“It’s just a great relationship,” says Lonsway, who has worked with Willems Marketing for about a decade. “We see those guys in here all the time and they’re good guys. They think like we do, and they support the same things we do. It’s just a great fit.”
In fact, Willems says the festival has turned down potential sponsors that did not match with the qualities the event is trying to foster – the local, organic and handcrafted-ness of it. The festival has been approached by fast food and similar vendors from outside the state.
“It’s about economic development for the Fox Cities and for Appleton, so we’ve been basically letting folks know that we’re not that kind of festival,” Willems says.
The day before the 2013 festival started, tornadoes caused $34 million of damage in Outagamie County and knocked out power – a contingency that Willems had considered early on. But the storm didn’t seem to impact the event much, other than Stone Cellar couldn’t get its screen-printed commemorative glasses until after the event already started. The power was out at Spats, but went back on in time for a noon show, Willems says.
That’s not to say everything went perfectly.
Stone Cellar brewed a special Mile of Music Pale Ale just for the event – but unless you got there early, you didn’t get to try it.
“No one knew how this was going to go, and most of the bars and restaurants ran out of our product early on,” Lonsway says. “That part of it was disappointing. Now we know better, so we anticipate it being five times what it was last time.”
Underage music lovers complained there weren’t enough places they could get in, but this year the festival will include more performances in public spaces and coffee houses, about 25 all-ages venues in total. Local cover bands weren’t happy to be shut out of the event, but Willems says they’re welcome if they showcase original music under a different name.
Additionally, Willems says this year organizers have more lead time to help the venues work through some of the production and staffing issues they ran into the first year and can guide them through the process better.
“That part was probably the most unfortunate – the first year it would have been awesome to be able to tell them to double or triple staff,” Willems says. “We’re pretty confident that we’re going to have a lot of people downtown again.”
“The thing that people are most looking forward to is just the vibe – just the way it felt,” Willems says. “Because of the nature of the event, it’s a pretty unique thing, so it’s hard to capture that same feel with other stuff. That’ll be the pressure for year two – can we somehow figure out a way to catch that vibe again? Because that was a pretty special thing.”
The first year attracted crowds that filled concert venues and a handful of big names like Norah Jones, Rodney Crowell and Charlie Parr.
“Cory had some really good friends who wanted to give him a little bit of a ‘thank you’ for having played on their albums and different things,” Willems says. “We’ll probably have some good-sized names here in year three. Year two, we’re really focusing on some of these emerging artists. That’s really what makes the festival.”
Still, Mile 2 is bringing in members of R.E.M., Foo Fighters and Wilco, who will feature their project bands (The Baseball Project, Dead Peasants and The Autumn Defense, respectively.) Richie Ramone, one of Chisel’s childhood idols, heard about the festival secondhand and agreed to come as a special guest. An all-star jam will put local musicians on the stage with national talent like Ramone, Chisel says.
Kurt Kempen, who is booking and scheduling the bands for Mile of Music, says the first year he had to explain to music agents what the festival was about, but that’s changed this year.
“This year we had a lot more agents reaching out for those same bands to come back,” Kempen says. “And also any other bands they’ve got on their roster that are emerging artists, and a couple of higher-level artists, too. They’ve been a lot more receptive.”
Musicians are paid by the Mile of Music and receive a club price, which is less than a festival price, for their appearances. But they play several gigs and also have the opportunity to sell their merchandise such as CDs and T-shirts. “They’ll end up getting paid pretty well by the time the weekend’s over,” Kempen says.
Without these acts coming to Appleton, Kempen says music enthusiasts have had to drive to Madison or Milwaukee – and that’s part of why the festival was so popular. But he didn’t expect the attendance to be what it was.
“I was optimistic, but I didn’t think it would happen how it did last year,” Kempen says. “I couldn’t believe the response. It was an emotional weekend, as far as that goes.”
The festival has grown from a first-year budget of less than $250,000 to $435,000 for year two, with about 600 performances from about 225 musicians planned. Willems expects visitors will spend between $1.5 million and $2 million, including those from outside the region. Willems says Mile 3 may see the festival size doubling again, though he expects the budget to remain about the same.
Mile 3 and beyond
Chisel, who graduated from Appleton North High School and now lives in Nashville, says the musicians he’s asked to come to Appleton often picture the city in a quaint kind of way.
“I think because the name is Appleton, they just think of like, apple pie, and this perfect little town,” Chisel says. “It’s really fun to not prove them wrong. The attitude of people that live here is really what makes it special. It’s nice that we have the river, nice that we have the (Lawrence University) chapel, but it’s an unusual thing to be a stranger and roll out of a van and get to a community that feels like it really wants you there. But with a name like Appleton – a couple of my friends have likened it to Brigadoon, or something like that.”
Sort of like a magical disappearing city, Mile of Music has been just a once-a-year occurrence – but both Willems and Chisel would like to see Appleton become a year-round music destination. They’re already working on it. For example, Mile of Music has booked musicians each Saturday at the Stone Cellar Brew Pub throughout the summer, Lonsway says.
The intent is for the Mile of Music to become a year-round entity in the Fox Valley. Since the staging infrastructure at some of the venues has evolved, those venues could easily support more shows throughout the year, Willems says. Other events are in the works for the winter.
“We’re looking to find 50 or 60 partners that are willing to help build that brand to really make it work, so it becomes an area of destination for young musicians and young music fans, so that whole vibe can just kind of foster,” Willems says.
Willems and Chisel want to continue to build Mile of Music’s reputation as a brand so people automatically associate it with top-quality curated music. People might not always recognize the artists’ names, “but they’ll know there was a lot of care put into the decision to bring this person into the community,” Chisel says.
“We’ve also been investigating the idea of a four-walled music space to foster the up-and-coming artists in our community and more regularly have Appleton be a stop,” Chisel says. “We’d like it to be somewhere that people think of when they’re on a national tour. We want them to think Appleton is a place they have to go.”
Chisel and Williams hope to build on the festival in other ways, too, possibly adding other art elements, much like South by Southwest, which includes film and interactive technology components.
“We were shooting for a difference-maker,” Willems says. “We didn’t know it would be a game-changer.”
The creative economy
Mile of Music and other art-related efforts such as the Fox Cities Book Festival are a part of “placemaking,” a buzzword that’s been getting play lately as Appleton develops its downtown core and looks to the future.
“People want a sense of place – that’s really what we’re doing – creating a place that’s vibrant, walkable and ultimately more livable,” Stephany says. “An event like Mile of Music does add to the vibrancy.”
While a creative economy stems from arts and culture, there’s an economic dynamic that grows from it, Stephany says, like rings in a pool of water. The next ring might be a creative technology business, or a design firm. Music is a connecting thread, she says.
And music draws people into places, which is part of having a vibrant downtown. Revitalization expert Fred Kent, who led the redesign of Rockefeller Center and Times Square in New York, said at the InDevelopment Conference in February (hosted by Insight Publications in Appleton) that a vibrant place needs 10 things for people to do. Live music can be one of those things.
“My greatest experiences with music tend to be those cozy, intimate settings, whether it be an intimate little bar, like Fox River House here in Appleton, or somebody’s living room doing a house show,” says Jean Detjen, who is a member of Mile of Music’s artist recruitment team. “These are the kinds of experiences where you feel like you get to know the person. When people show their vulnerability through music, it connects you with other people that are sharing that experience alongside you. And I think that’s why festivals can be especially unique in that you have that energy that a group can provide.”
Cities like Appleton and others of a similar size that hold music festivals generate a solid economic impact, particularly when they draw visitors from out of town, says Lisa Marshall, communications director for the Wisconsin Department of Tourism, which provided Mile of Music with a JEM (joint effort marketing) grant for $37,000. The grant will help Mile of Music pay for promotional advertising outside of the Fox Cities, mainly in Madison and Milwaukee. Willems says he expects between 3,000 and 5,000 of the concert-goers to come from those cities this year.
In June, Sturgeon Bay held its annual Steel Bridge Songfest, which included more than 175 performers. Chisel has played at that festival, which he calls an “awesome regional treasure.” It’s held in the hometown of Jeff Mirkes, executive director of Downtown Green Bay, Inc.
“In looking at the big-picture impact that special events can have on a region, it really helps shape the character of an area,” Mirkes says. “It builds character for our community, but it also sends a positive message to people of all ages that things are happening, that people care, and there’s a unique event.”
Both large events and smaller series-type events can change the face of a community, he says.
“I have noticed over the past two years a very significant impact on events and business development,” Mirkes says. “Large festivals or series events – they are all just as important to us. It creates activity, and it does shine the light on nearby business activity.”
Willems says Mile of Music was always intended to be something big for downtown Appleton – an event that puts people into stores, restaurants and taverns – and adds to the other cool events that the community has each year. But it’s also meant to lay a foundation on which a creative economy can flourish.
“Are we looking for the creative vibe to take over the Fox Cities or take over Appleton? No,” Willems says. “Are we looking for the creative vibe to become a special part of what we are? Absolutely. That’s our evil, insidious plan.”
At a glance: Mile of Music 2014
For a complete list of the bands coming to Mile of Music, visit mileofmusic.com/mile-of-music-artists.
» Dates: Aug. 7 to Aug. 10
» Artists/bands: 225+ including members of Foo Fighters, Wilco and R.E.M. featuring their project bands
» Performances: 600+
» Venues: 60+, about 25 open to all ages
» Budget: $435,000
» Recent recognition: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel named Mile of Music one of the top five concert events worth a day trip from Milwaukee.
» Major sponsors: Stone Cellar Brew Pub, Appleton Post-Crescent
» Tickets: Mile of Music is free, but VIP passes allow priority access to events and other events special to VIPs. Cost is $150. Purchase at mileofmusic.com/tickets.
» Funds: Profits from the Mile of Music Festival support both the Mile of Music Education Fund, which provides more music opportunities within Appleton public schools through the Appleton Education Foundation, and the Creative Downtown Fund, providing seed money for projects to help build Appleton’s creative economy.
Cory Chisel Discography
» Old Believers, 2012
» Little Bird, 2010
» Death Won’t Send a Letter, 2009
» Cabin Ghosts, 2008
For more about Cory Chisel, click here.
Click here to view more photos from Mile of Music 2013.
Click here to listen to Mile of Music founders Cory Chisel and Dave Willems discuss the genesis of the festival and their vision for its future in downtown Appleton.