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How a Wisconsin Music Festival Is Making Indie Artists Feel ‘Famous for a Weekend’

Touring as an independent artist, with little to no financial support from a record label or sponsor, can be a dream-crushing experience. But the singers, songwriters, and bands that play Appleton, Wisconsin’s Mile of Music Festival each year find themselves reminded of exactly why they chase the muse.

“You go there and you’re famous for a weekend,” says Jamie Kent, an independent artist based in Nashville who’s played Mile of Music seven times. “This is a festival for the ‘road dogs,’ those up-and-coming musicians and bands who are trying real hard to break through to the next level. Mile of Music reaffirms that you’re not crazy — that all the blood, sweat, and sacrifice of being an artist are worth it.”

For four days every August, hundreds of musical acts overtake the eastern-Wisconsin city of Appleton (pop: 75,644) to entertain the more than 80,000 concertgoers Mile of Music attracts. It’s a number that has grown exponentially through word-of-mouth since the festival’s inception in 2013.

“We’ve let it evolve somewhat organically, where the musicians themselves are telling other musicians about what we’re doing here,” says Dave Willems, co-founder of Mile of Music and owner of the Gibson Music Hall in downtown Appleton. “Our goal since the beginning was to try and figure out a way to manage the growth and expectations by letting the event find its own identity and purpose.”

With a keen focus on booking only rising talent — those mostly unknown on a national scale — Mile of Music aims to help artists advance their career trajectory. In doing so, the fest catches stars before they explode: Sturgill Simpson, Nikki Lane, Milk Carton Kids, Lilly Hiatt, Aaron Lee Tasjan, and Langhorne Slim all played the event early on.

At the 2022 Mile of Music, acts ranged from psychedelic juggernaut DeeOhGee and Americana singer-songwriter Joy Clark to Prohibition swingers the Gentlemen’s Anti-Temperance League and indie-rockers Willis. They’re artists you might not have heard of, but will soon enough. And that’s the point of Mile of Music, whose website advertises “700 live music sets, 40 venues, 1 great mile of music.”

Developing a roster “is fun and challenging. Sometimes an agent will want to send their entire roster, but we can’t take everybody,” Ian Thomson, talent booker for Mile of Music, says. “We also want to make sure we’re inclusive to women, Black and LGBTQ+ artists — it’s very important to us to put those musicians on our stages.”

In the age of sky-high ticket prices and VIP packages, the Mile of Music business model is a curious one: The festival is entirely free.

“We never want live music to feel like a commodity. Live music should feel like an experience,” Willems says.

Wild Adriatic at Mile of Music 5 in August 2017 in Appleton, Wisconsin.

Graham Washatka

But that doesn’t mean artists who play in Appleton don’t make money. Mile of Music pays the performers through money underwritten by community sponsors: local companies, foundations, couples and individuals who band together to cover the cost. Artists are given free lodging, as well as food and beverages, and benefit from the Mile of Music “Artist Care Program.” Started in 2015, the campaign shines a light on Appleton businesses, who provide musicians with complimentary, onsite services like dental care, hearing screenings, publicity photo shoots, massages, physical therapy, and chiropractic care.

“The community really jumps in and supports these artists,” Thomson says. “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 painstakingly search for ways to include Appleton residents and businesses in the festival. “The businesses here were asking, ‘How can we get people through our doors and not just on the streets for a festival?’” he says. “With the artists, we wanted to make sure that hospitality was a top priority. The driving force behind this entire thing is to create this environment and platform of soul-enriching experiences for these artists — not soul-crushing.”

On the ground, the festival itself is a whirlwind of fans, performers, and unconventional venues. Artists play in the streets in front of thousands, in intimate clubs holding 100, or even in the tiny corner of a local business that seats 10. It’s the Choose Your Own Adventure of 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 — every single one of these artists deserves to be heard,” says Ann Koenig, community-relations director for the Avenue 91.1 FM, a nonprofit station in Appleton. “Whatever music we discover at the festival gets played on our radio programs throughout the rest of the year. It’s what our listeners want, and what music discovery is all about.”

The symbiotic relationship between artist and Appleton is what lies at the heart of Mile of Music.

“Places like Appleton are the fuel that keeps all of us ‘middle class’ musicians going,” Kent says. “When your music truly resonates with folks, it makes you think and hope that maybe someday it could feel like that everywhere you play.”

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