On tour as independent artist, with little or no financial support from a record label or sponsor, can be a dream experience. But the singers, songwriters and bands who play the Mile of Music Festival in Appleton, Wisconsin each year remember exactly why they hunt the muse.
“You go there and you’re famous for a weekend,” says Jamie Kent, a Nashville-based indie artist who’s performed at the Mile of Music seven times. “It’s a festival for ‘road dogs’, those up-and-coming musicians and bands striving to take it to the next level. Mile of Music reaffirms that you’re not crazy – that all the blood, sweat and sacrifice of being an artist is worth it.
For four days each August, hundreds of musical acts swarm the eastern Wisconsin town of Appleton (population 75,644) to entertain the more than 80,000 spectators that Mile of Music attracts. That’s a number that’s grown exponentially through word of mouth since the festival’s inception in 2013.
“We let it evolve in a somewhat organic way, where the musicians themselves tell other musicians about what we’re doing here,” says Dave Willems, co-founder of Mile of Music and owner of Gibson Music Hall in downtown. town of Appleton. “Our goal from the start was to try to find a way to manage the growth and expectations by letting the event find its own identity and purpose.”
With a focus on booking only emerging talent – those mostly unknown nationally – Mile of Music aims to help artists advance their career trajectory. In doing so, the festival catches the stars before they explode: Sturgill Simpson, Nikki Lane, Milk Carton Kids, Lilly Hiatt, Aaron Lee Tasjan and Langhorne Slim have all played the event from the start.
At the 2022 Mile of Music, performers ranged from psychedelic juggernaut DeeOhGee and American singer-songwriter Joy Clark to Prohibition swingers from the Gentlemen’s Anti-Temperance League and indie-rockers Willis. These are artists you may not have heard of, but soon will be. And that’s the goal of Mile of Music, whose website advertises “700 live music sets, 40 venues, 1 great mile of music.”
Developing a list “is fun and challenging. Sometimes an agent will want to send their whole roster, but we can’t take everyone,” says Ian Thomson, talent scout for Mile of Music. “We also want to make sure that we include women, black and LGBTQ+ artists – it’s very important to us to put these musicians on our stages.”
In an age of exorbitant ticket prices and VIP packages, the Mile of Music’s business model is curious: the festival is completely free.
“We never want live music to be seen as a commodity. Live music should feel like an experience,” says Willems.
But that doesn’t mean the artists who perform at Appleton don’t make money. Mile of Music pays performers with money from community sponsors: local businesses, foundations, couples and individuals who come together to cover the costs. Artists receive free accommodation, as well as food and beverages, and benefit from the Mile of Music “Artist Care Program”. Launched in 2015, the campaign spotlights businesses in Appleton, which provide musicians with free on-site services like dental care, hearing screenings, publicity photo shoots, massage, physical therapy and chiropractic care.
“The community is really stepping up and supporting these artists,” says Thomson. “It’s about making a difference and being a complete game changer in how artists are treated and how they develop.”
Willems and his team are carefully researching ways to include Appleton residents and businesses in the festival. “Businesses here were asking, ‘How can we get people to our doorsteps and not just out on the street for a festival?’ he says. “With the artists, we wanted to make sure that hospitality was a top priority. The driving force behind all of this is to create this environment and platform of soul-enriching experiences for these artists – not overwhelming.
On the ground, the festival itself is a whirlwind of unconventional fans, artists and venues. The artists perform in the streets in front of thousands of people, in intimate clubs of 100 people or even in the small corner of a local business with 10 seats. It’s the Choose your own adventure music festivals, where you never know what you might stumble upon depending on how you walk the mile.
“We’re presented with such an abundance of great music – each of these artists deserves to be heard,” says Ann Koenig, director of community relations for Avenue 91.1 FM, a nonprofit station in Appleton. “Whatever music we discover at the festival, it plays on our radio programs throughout the year. That’s what our listeners want and that’s what musical discovery is.
The symbiotic relationship between the artist and Appleton is at the heart of Mile of Music.
“Places like Appleton are the fuel that keeps us all ‘middle class’ musicians going,” says Kent. “When your music really resonates with people, it makes you think and hope that one day it might sound like that everywhere you play.”