Mile of Music: Appleton Wisconsin’s Fabulous Festival

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Cory Chisel, co-founder of Mile of Music

I am strolling down the street on a warm mid-summer’s night, my steps falling into the shuffling rhythm of a blues band for a moment, then slowing to some cool jazz a few storefronts down, until I finally stop at a lone folk singer in a colorfully lit tavern. Across the street must be something good as the line spills out the door. Mile of Music, they call it, a stretch of College Avenue – Appleton, Wisconsin’s main drag – that becomes a corridor of song as over 200 artists play 800 live performances in nearly 70 venues over four days. No standards or cover songs allowed, only originals. A city bus with the festival logo emblazoned on it rolls by with windows wide open, and riders surround a singer and his guitar in back. At the end of the night, I have stopped at nearly a dozen shows for a song or six, eaten a serenaded dinner, had a few drinks, and walked back to my hotel, never having left College Avenue.

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Now entering its third year, Mile of Music was co-founded by local marketing guy Dave Willems, whose impressions of Austin’s South by Southwest had stuck with him over two decades, and singer/songwriter Cory Chisel. In the middle of the afternoon I’ve come to City Center Plaza, one of the festival’s venues, to interview Chisel. I’m early and so I sit down in front of Green Gecko, a deli with tables that spill into the tiny mall’s atrium. A mesmerized group has gathered around a lanky bearded fellow in a black fedora singing and playing a Hamm-tone resonator guitar at the foot of the escalators. For the moment I forget the demanding weight of an appointment to be met, and as his potent voice fills the space above the intimate crowd, I almost want to close my eyes like he has. Then I realize it’s Chisel himself. Of course, he is part of his own festival.

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His heart-felt performance gave some hint this festival wouldn’t be the typical corporatized event. He tells me the nutshell story of his life: Moving to Appleton when he was 8, having his first traveling-performer experience as part of a boy choir. He had sung in St. Peter’s Basilica before he was 18. After high school, he went all in. A major record label picked him up 10 years ago, and in 2012, he and his folk rock/Americana band The Wandering Sons toured with Norah Jones. The idea of bringing something musical back to his childhood home appealed to him.

“Appleton was a paper mill kind of town on the Fox River,” he says, and one might expect Madison or Milwaukee to have a strong artistic community. But Chisel wants Appleton to become a notable music center. Just down the street, Lawrence University already has such a reputation with its Conservatory of Music. “Our greatest exports are Willem Defoe and Harry Houdini. We got a little weird in us. And I mean that in the most loving term possible. Like Austin says, ‘Keep Austin Weird.’ I’d like ‘Make Appleton Weirder.'”

What some may find weird is such a large festival without tickets; nearly all of the events require no advance sales or cover charge. An important part of the Mile of Music concept is to “help foster creativity, create an opportunity for those who maybe couldn’t go see something new.Who has $20 to see brand new things? It’s hard enough to pay for a movie like that and at least then you get to see a trailer,” says Chisel. Funding from local and regional businesses is at the heart of this but it’s not simply a charitable cause; there is a return.

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Mile 1, as they call it now, took place in 2013 and cost about $300,000, including cash and payment in kind. 2014’s Mile 2 went up to $450,000 but doubled the artists and tripled the performances. “Those that love the arts support this idea of economic development and creative growth, yet make it affordable and make sure the bands get paid and are respected. There is a way to do it, I think, where everybody wins.” The proof is in the dollars they generated, estimated at $750,000 of economic impact that first year, and nearly $2 million in 2014.

Jim Oblon, a phenomenal guitar player who has worked with Paul Simon (on guitar and drums)

Jim Oblon, a phenomenal guitar player who has worked with Paul Simon (on guitar and drums)

Norah Jones came and played for free for Mile 1, but that was an exception. “Everyone gets paid, and that’s a big part of what I believe as an artist. No matter how big or little you are.” That means paid performances, lodging, food and drinks, and the opportunity to sell CDs and build a new fan base.

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Part of the success for the businesses is that other than two main stages at Houdini Plaza and Jones Park, which are outdoors, the festival is primarily an indoors event and no streets are closed off. “Get people into the businesses, not into the street,” he says. The third main stage is Lawrence University’s beautiful Memorial Chapel. But the rest of the venues range in size from cozy coffee shops and modest bars to the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center.

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Many of the venues line up side by side along College Avenue, while others are a block or two off the main drag. A few others are elsewhere in the city, such as Stone Cellar Brewpub which brews an Americana Pale Ale just for the festival and has come to feature Mile of Music artists, as other establishments have, throughout the rest of the year.

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The demographic Chisel says is the 35-80 crowd. Bars exclude the under 21 crowd, he and Willems realized, so each year they’ve tried to add more coffee shops and other non-alcoholic establishments, and the main stages are for all ages. What has impressed Chisel most are the upper levels of that target audience. He’s seen octogenarians stopping in for some louder stuff. “I left about sixteen 80-year-olds in a bar the other night, and I was like ‘I gotta go’ and they’re drinking vodka gimlets like it was nothin’.”

Live music at Appleton Beer Factory
Live music at Appleton Beer Factory

Roughly half the acts are regional, primarily from Wisconsin, while the other musicians are coming from far and wide. Local music fans get to enjoy hearing something different from far away, but the local artists also benefit: “They want to meet people from outside to get hooked up for tours and friendships. This is a way to sort of get them out of here and send them on the road,” says Chisel.

Mile of Music has an educational component as well. Chisel sees music instruction “being cut and pushed into a corner.” Mile of Music’s four-day calendar includes educational sessions, ranging from songwriting and brass band jamming to lessons for the didgeridoo or bucket drumming.

Chisel’s heart is in this and the abundant crowds at the various venues suggest that he’s not the only one. But our conversation is cut short; the co-founder of Mile of Music has another gig to play at another venue.

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If You Go:

Mile of Music (Mile 3) takes place in 2015 August 6-9. There are no tickets to buy but you can still purchase a pass and become a Music-Maker. Your $95 helps support the festival and its mission and in return you can skip some lines, see some exclusive shows, get a t-shirt, and receive discounts and early-bird opportunities for related events that weekend and year round. The homes of 2015’s nearly 100 out-of-state performers range from Brooklyn and Boston to San Francisco, Winnipeg and Saskatoon to Nashville and Austin, Chicago to Chapel Hill and many others in between.

Four downtown public parking ramps charge a flat fee of $2 per day.

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A Mile of Music bus offers free rides up and down the Mile and a free Downtown Trolley also runs the course connecting out to restaurants, bars and venues off the Mile.

Be aware that those under 21 need a legal guardian to enter the bar venues, but venues also include coffee shops, performance halls, parks, and restaurants.

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