How an artisan festival is turning Appleton into a musical mecca

Turn on the radio in the car. Plug in your earbuds on the way to class. Go to a show on a weekend night. These small acts of consuming music are part of the everyday rhythm of life. Music consumers are on the rise, leaving music creators to get lost in the shuffle of playlists and digital downloads. Yet the art of making music is inherent to every human society in the world and, according to the Mile of Music philosophy, it is a birthright.

That’s the tone the Mile of Music co-founders struck when creating a festival of more than 65 venues, 200 artists and 800 live performances within one mile of College Avenue in mid-sized Appleton. Signs downtown declare Appleton, located in the northeast region of Wisconsin known as the Fox Cities, “one great place.” The nearest big city requires a two-hour drive, and its modest population caps out at just under 73,000 residents.

Appleton is relatively unknown as a budding creative mecca. It will never attract the rowdy crowds of Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo. However, its up-and-coming music scene has a solid base of passionate fans who are propelling the local festival forward at breakneck tempo that, in its frenzy, is turning the city into an indie music destination within Wisconsin’s heartland.

“There’s a real pride that Mile of Music is happening here, and there’s a real pride that we’re a place that embraces the arts, and artists from around the country are coming in and thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, this is an amazing place. I had no idea this existed,’” Brian Pertl, the dean of Appleton’s Lawrence Conservatory of Music, says.

Fox Valley favorite, Kyle Megna and the Monsoons, perform to a full venue at the unique OuterEdge Stage during Mile 3. (August 7, 2015 – Graham Images and Photography)

The festival’s co-founders, marketing master Dave Willems and Appleton musician Cory Chisel, both felt their hometown lacked a creative and economic element and a handcrafted artisan music festival filled that gap. From the start, they were confident it was not only a vision they wanted to execute, but also an event the community needed.

“We knew the community was ready for something like this. The only question was, how ready were they?” Willems says.

Chisel, frontman of Cory Chisel and the Wandering Sons, has the natural musical talent and unrelenting passion for the arts. Willems, CEO of Appleton-based Willems Marketing, brings the business savvy and marketing expertise. Together, the duo dreams of making Appleton a regular stop on nationwide tours and bringing the phenomenon to other small towns.

Getting off the ground

Chisel and Willems were merely acquaintances after working together on a charity concert event earlier that year, so Chisel was slightly surprised when he received a phone call from Willems on Thanksgiving weekend three years ago. Willems chatted with Chisel about other business ventures before diving into what was really on his mind: creating Appleton’s own music festival.

Willems hadn’t even completed his thought before Chisel cut him off to say, “It’s a great idea. When can we do it?” It became obvious they would be talking for a while. Willems, who was driving at the time, quickly pulled into a nearby restaurant parking lot upon hearing Chisel’s enthusiastic reaction. What began as a short conversation turned into an hour and a half on the phone that, by the end, had both Appletonians eager to put the idea into play.

Willems is excited about the opportunity to create a cultural event for the Appleton community and boost his city’s creative economy for local businesses, while Chisel wants to give back to the hometown that nurtured his passion. As a child, he received an anonymous grant to join the boys’ choir. To this day, Chisel still doesn’t know who sponsored him, but strives to spark the start of other beginners’ musical journeys in the same way.

It wasn’t until January 2013, a month after their first talk, that Chisel and Willems reconnected and again expressed desire to make the festival happen. It took another two months to officially decide it was plausible to turn the festival into a reality. From that point on, they fully dedicated themselves to their brainchild. By May 2013, Mile of Music’s debut for August of that year had been announced to the public. Overall, it took just six months for a knowledgeable team of musicians, marketing experts and sponsors to successfully plan and launch the festival.

Business philosophy

Mile of Music is not only groundbreaking for its rapid success its smaller location, but also for its philosophy. The co-founders established a “cover-free zone” no cover charges and absolutely no cover songs. This means that generous community sponsors keep the festival free and that bands must play purely original music. The festival also incorporates a unique music education aspect that offers free lessons and workshops in events ranging from garage band jams to Brazilian samba to group sing-a-longs and more.

But like with any innovation, there comes the doubters. There were times, though seldom, that Chisel and Willems even doubted themselves. It wasn’t until after the whirlwind planning stages and the unexpected success that Chisel jokingly said to Willems, “I didn’t think we could pull that off.”

College Avenue is a safe, walkable strip in downtown Appleton, unique in its perfectly straight layout and unusual proximity of venues, with one bar right after another. However, prior to Mile of Music’s first year (also known as Mile 1), small business owners and restaurateurs voiced concern that the festival would affect their sales.

Lily & Madeleine, an Indianapolis-based group, packed the Mile’s central hub and main stage, Houdini Plaza. (August 8, 2015 – Graham Images and Photography)

Instead, Mile 1 became a smash hit of the summer. Not only were business owners thrilled with the turnout and extra income, but the community as a whole embraced it.

By its third year, or Mile 3, the festival drew in 50,000 attendees. Mile 4, coming up this August, is climbing the charts is expected to see a 25 to 50 percent increase in attendees. The attendees tend to be from the Fox Valley region, with an increasing number of out-of-state visitors, and are largely parents on date nights, middle-aged empty-nesters and elderly folks.

“I use the mantra, ‘I can still go out, damn it!’ You get that attitude from them when they come to one of our shows,” Willems says of the elderly attendees’ boundless youthful enthusiasm. “It’s like, ‘I’m here, and I’m gonna have fun, and I can still go out, damn it! But you know, I do wanna be home and in bed by 11 o’clock.’”

Audiences poured into local businesses during the most recent four-day event and sales skyrocketed. Many businesses have reported record-breaking sales over the past three years, even comparing the success of one weekend day to that of two Oktoberfests.

Willems describes the concertgoers’ decision-making process, which ultimately floods venues: “This has been put in front of us, this opportunity to come downtown and do this. If you give them options and you do it right, they’re going to respond.”

A second home

Erik Kjelland, lead singer of the self-defined folk rock/Americana band, The Mascot Theory, showed up to his first Mile of Music gig unsure of what to expect. Set to play midday in a hotel courtyard, it wasn’t his usual venue. After scanning that day’s lineup, he thought concertgoers would skip his band to see bigger names scheduled at the same time.

Time after time, the Mile of Music attendees proved him wrong. Once The Mascot Theory started playing its first set, people began to fill in. The same happened the next year there was a packed crowd, no matter the venue or time slot.

Cue the epiphany. It didn’t take long for the festival creators to identify their niche: finding emerging, undiscovered artists who want to get their name out there in Appleton while still treating them like big-name bands.

“The focus has to be on making the artists feel welcome and making the artists feel special. Every artist that comes to our festival needs to feel like a rock star. And if we do, they will tell everybody else, they will come back the next year, they will come back in subsequent years,” Willems says.

Adriel Denae and festival co-founder Cory Chisel serenade the “First Songs” audience (and each other) at the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center (PAC). (August 5, 2015- Photo by Graham Images and Photography)

Their efforts don’t go unnoticed. The artists get paid and have a free stay at nearby hotels with complimentary food, drinks and a lounge to kick back with other artists. In contrast to transactional treatment at other venues, Appleton’s warm welcome easily makes the town a second home for underground artists.

“It’s a real classy deal. They treated all the bands really, really well, and I’ve never seen that before. Sometimes these festivals, you show up for your time slot, play and then that’s it, see ya later,” Kjelland says. “The kind of people that are putting this festival on, they’re not just in it to make a buck.”

The festival coordinators provide the bands with amenities and the audiences give them their full attention. It is evident to the bands that these crowds are different they are truly there to watch the bands play.

“I’m used to playing in a lot of different places, but you play a bar gig and people are there to drink or conversate. The music’s kind of background,” Kjelland says. “It didn’t feel like that at all at any of these places. They were attentive, they were listening, they were having a great time, but were respecting the bands that were playing.”

CDs sold well, concertgoers purchased merchandise and captivated audiences evolved into fans. The Madison-based Mascot Theory, now a returning performer in the Fox Valley, has played more shows in that area than the nearer Milwaukee.

Awakening the inner musician

Mile of Music not only bolsters appreciation for underground music, but also places value on teaching audiences how to make their own. Free lessons are offered during the festival’s four-day run this year’s events ranged anywhere from songwriting to Irish dance to guitar workshops all in hopes of inspiring concertgoers to awaken their inner musicians and start developing their latent musical abilities.

The Mile of Music creators believe deeply that “music is a birthright”; we all have the ability to create it and have ownership of it. According to the festival’s music education team, it’s shown time and time again that, when adopted as a hobby and developed into a passion, music making helps an individual excel and a group bond. This results in a boost of individual confidence and a community of self-assured people.

Alanna Royale, a five-piece group out of Nashville, rocks out to a full house at Mill Creek. (August 9, 2015 – Graham Images and Photography)

“I’m not saying that hanging out for 45 minutes with a samba drum or a gamelan is going to change your self-perception or self-confidence, but actually diving into music, in a choir or band or elementary school or private lessons, definitely builds confidence in individuals,” says Pertl, of Lawrence Conservatory of Music. “As you perform, it teaches you how to be confident in front of other people and how to express your viewpoints and also yourself. This piece you wrote, you’re expressing your soul through music.”

In addition to increasing confidence, music making also equips an individual with life skills, according to Pertl. As you focus and practice, it teaches you how to fail and overcome failure. As you learn a new piece or how to hit the right notes, it teaches you how to solve problems and overcome challenges. As you start playing with other people, it teaches you how to listen, collaborate and work well with others. Music making teaches you how to communicate.

As a direct outcome of the festival’s lessons and workshops, the music education team has witnessed young participants start lessons alongside middle-aged to elderly parents dusting off their old instruments to strum their favorite old tunes. Mile of Music, in its success, has emboldened individuals to uncover their dormant musical capabilities. The Appleton community, fueled by individual inspiration and passion, is reaching a crescendo of appreciation for music and the arts.

Music thrives here, there & elsewhere

Small towns in neighboring states such as St. Cloud, Minnesota and Dubuque, Iowa have caught wind of Appleton’s success with a handcrafted, artisan festival and want to start their own versions, and the musical fervor that seems to follow it.

“This festival has allowed Appleton and this area to see itself in a new way, as a place that embraces music, and then all of a sudden, music and music making has become a part of our cultural identity,” Pertl says.

It’s a movement. The co-founders recognize the great potential to expand the concept to other cities through a consulting service. With that comes an even greater potential to bring free music to more people, money into local businesses, recognition to underground bands and musical inspiration to any interested protégés.

Music lovers in smaller towns wouldn’t have to travel far to see it. Any town could be a destination with the right attitude and good music. Unplug your headphones and keep an ear out for your own nearby festival coming soon to a Midwestern town near you.

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