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Dave Willems and Cory Chisel were instrumental in Mile of Music’s first year success.
Few music festivals have the dramatic impact that Mile of Music had on downtown Appleton in August.
The inaugural hand-crafted artisan festival showcased over 100 local and national bands in more than 40 venues in downtown Appleton and according to event co-founder Dave Willems, approximately 10,000 to 15,000 people showed over the course of the four-day festival. Willems, owner of Willems Marketing in downtown Appleton, organized the event with Fox Valley native singer-songwriter Cory Chisel.
The two first talked about the event in winter 2012. Willems had pulled into the parking lot of Good Company in downtown Appleton for what he thought would be a 10-minute chat with Chisel, calling from Nashville, about a few benefit concerts he had offered to perform at for charities that Willems supports.
“It was the last thing on my list of five or six things to chat with him about,” Willems said. “I listed it as ‘Mid by Midwest’ as a tongue-in-cheek reference to ‘South by Southwest.’ We ended up talking about the festival idea for an hour.”
That conversation proved to be the groundwork for the inaugural Mile of Music, but a few things still had to fall in place for the festival to become a reality such as seeking out venues, Chisel’s tour schedule and the availability of local and touring acts who would become the festival’s main attraction.
However, by March 2013, Chisel and Willems decided to move forward with Mile of Music and announced it on May 9, once they had secured verbal agreements from approximately 40 touring and well-known Wisconsin artists. From a venue perspective, Willems noted he was thinking 20-25 venues would be willing to participate, but businesses were so receptive, it quickly grew to 40-plus. The organization process for the festival was taxing as Willems, Chisel and the team they assembled, had less than eight months to put Mile of Music together.
Lawrence Memorial Chapel was one of many local hotbeds for Mile of Music acts.
“It was all happening at breakneck speed,” Chisel said. “I think both Dave and I are the kind of people who just like to jump in and learn fast. We also had exceptional volunteers that came along side us and were ready to work as many hours as we did. I knew we could get the talent to make a stop in our town, but the preparation and support that we got from our community on every level was humbling to say the least. People in our town were ready to say yes to this kind of idea and be there to support it with their dollars and with their applause.”
Said Willems: “We were both 100 percent certain the timing was right based on what I was seeing locally and what (Chisel) was seeing nationally and internationally about original music and authentic artistry. There was no hesitation about whether the community was ready or would support it, or if the merchants would give us a chance.”
The 100 acts Willems and Chisel were able to secure included local acts to Americana singer/songwriter Justin Townes Earle, songwriting legend Rodney Crowell, and even a surprise onstage appearance by Grammy-winning artist Norah Jones. Crowell, who met Chisel at a dinner party years ago, was one of the first major artists to jump on board for the new Appleton festival.
“Cory Chisel is an artist that I admire,” Crowell said in an August 1 Post-Crescent Media story. “For my money, Cory has the potential to really step into the ownership of one of the poets. I admire him so much and word came down that Cory was curating a songwriting thing and I said, if it’s Cory’s, I’m in.”
It was that friendly philanthropist attitude from musicians and the community that would eventually make Mile of Music a smashing success. A roaring response from musicians and fans led to arguably the most successful new festival in Appleton in the last three decades.
“The attitude of the artists with the inaugural event meant everything to its success,” Willems said. “They all were gracious, appreciative and enthusiastic. They were asking, ‘what else can we do’ and eagerly signing up to play the bus or do an impromptu on the piano in the hotel lobby. It was pretty magical, to be honest with you. It also gives me great hope and excitement for the future of this event because that is, in a nutshell, the heart and soul of what we are: honest, straight-forward artistry.”
Justin Townes Earle was one of Mile of Music’s 100 acts.
When asked if Mile of Music was the most innovative idea Willems Marketing has ever had, Willems joked that “some aspects of Mile of Music were innovative and others were not.” However, the way Willems and his team were able to rally the community in such a short time frame is rather remarkable.
“Perhaps the most innovative (idea) was developing a concept that truly proved that our venues and merchants, together, are stronger as one than separate,” Willems said. “We formed many venues into one very large, unique venue and there’s a long way we can still go with that message, which is what we’re working on now. When people come to future Mile of Music events from outside the area, they’ll want to know more about not just the artists but about the venues and the shops and Lawrence and the public spaces where the bigger names played or did something special. There’s great potential around that.”
Another innovative piece of Mile of Music was the economic development component.
“It was very satisfying to know that the objective of bringing more business to small businesses that had been through a tough summer was met and exceeded,” Willems said. “The fact that most of our performances are held inside also helps to keep us somewhat weather-proof. That’s a pretty big factor around here, as we’ve seen this winter.”
Mile of Music packed downtown bars, coffee shops, restaurants and other venues with local and national artists performing original music, which was the main focus of the festival.
Tony Van Elzen, manager at Mill Creek in downtown Appleton, said Mile of Music surpassed his expectations. Van Elzen booked bands who performed at Mile of Music numerous times since the festival and believes it is still impacting his business.
“Mile of Music was an unexpected surprise for businesses and live music,” Van Elzen said. “We had a chance to hear some outstanding bands we otherwise might not have and we’ve been able to keep the Mile of Music buzz going since the festival with bands like The Delta Routine, The Haunted Heads and The Traveling Suitcase among many others.”
Nicole Rae & the Traveling Suitcase have been riding the Mile of Music wave since August.
Jennifer Stephany, executive director of Appleton Downtown Inc., also mentioned that businesses were pleased with the festival and are looking forward to this year’s event.
“The business owners responded to the first Mile of Music with great enthusiasm, optimism and hope,” Stephany said. “The event was designed to drive traffic into the businesses and it did so with resounding success. … We continue to reference Mile of Music as an important game changer in our community’s efforts to cultivate a strong creative economy. We look forward to the opportunities that Mile of Music has presented and hope all businesses look for ways to participate and embrace the movement.”
Consistent crowds flooded downtown Appleton over the four days and Chisel received a standing ovation at the festival’s capstone performance at Lawrence Memorial Chapel on August 11, even before he sang his first song.
“I felt at that moment an overwhelming sense of relief that the festival had brought something to the lives of the people in our town,” Chisel said. “It was incredibly beautiful to see the faces of people in our community standing together in support. I understand that it was an ovation for everyone who worked to build this festival. I became even more aware that there is a common language and there is a people’s song. I am extremely grateful to have been fostered and grown by our community. It’s a privilege for all of us to build into this already beautiful and vibrant city by the river.”
Mile of Music 2014, dubbed Mile 2, is set for August 7-10 and will once again feature at least 100 local and national acts. Planning for the event started the Wednesday after Mile of Music 2013 ended.
“The extra time we’ve had has been a real plus because we’ve been able to get more sponsors to share our story and ensure the event’s future,” Willems said. “We’ve been able to spend time working on expanding the venues and artists to accommodate a larger attendance expectation. … We’re still pulling together the details for this August. How much grander we can get partially depends on the level of sponsorship we receive through the end of April and into May, as well as how creative we can get with the production side of things. The numbers will be larger across the board. We just don’t know how much larger.”
— Mike Thiel: Follow me on Twitter: @thielwrites