Cleveland Miles: An Unorthodox Approach to Music Stardom

by Brian Kalish

You’ve heard the story before. A local musician, starry eyed, dreams of making it to the top, making the cover of Rolling Stone, playing sold-out shows at Madison Square Gardens, and selling millions of CDs. However, to achieve this goal, he must first grind it out in local venues, playing to sparse crowds on week nights for free beer and popcorn, while attempting to rein in a local and regional following big enough to pique the interest of record industry executives. There’s an unstated right of passage, a paying of dues. Every band in search of stardom knows this blueprint. Every band, that is, except for Cleveland Miles. While the end goal is the same for this Riverwest-based urban rock outfit, Cleveland Miles is taking a decidedly unorthodox approach. Instead of playing shows to establish his band, Miles is making an album and banking heavily on the success of his newly-launched website and airplay on the nation’s most popular college radio stations — not to mention healthy dose of luck — to propel him into the limelight. Sound farfetched? Not according to Miles. “First one to the finish line wins,” says Miles, a 23-year-old Riverwest resident. “This is my option, my way to do it. Why shouldn’t it work?” Miles is no stranger to the local music scene. His resume spans eight years, honing his fret work with blues/jazz/rock bands Koala, Blue Fields of Belmont, and Verona Love, a band he formed while at Rufus King High School. He sat in with local favorite Freshwater Collins on a brief tour in 1999. In fall 2001, Miles cut ties with Verona Love to focus on recording his own album. He began to write songs on acoustic guitar, drawing from influences including Ben Harper and Freshwater Collins. Next, he contacted several Milwaukee-based musicians to help with the recording. Longtime friend Jason Lawent produced the album. All 15 tracks were recorded in Lawent’s Bayview apartment. The recording, and the band, simply go by the name of the artist. Throughout the recording, Miles says his ultimate goal has been to get the band playing substantial, well-paying venues in lieu of scuffling for attention in the crowded bar scene. Circumstance dictated that they would not be able to break into the local live circuit — some band members attend school out of state and Miles has a job that keeps him on the road for up to six weeks at a time. Instead of pushing the project to the side and waiting for a more opportune time, he hatched the idea to promote the album primarily through a professionally developed website: Miles researched the websites of his favorite bands and was underwhelmed with what they had to offer. He sensed an opportunity to distinguish his project. “It seems like in a lot of other bands don’t have any say in their websites. The contents are all squished together… [they’re] not very fan oriented. And these are artists that I love,” Miles said. “This website is only for the fans.” Miles knows the website is meaningless unless he can get enough people to check it out. He plans to distribute information in clubs and open mics on his travels to places like Charlotte, Tampa, Dallas, and Atlanta. He has already received e-mail from people he has met on previous road trips inquiring about the album’s progress. But perhaps the most encouraging news is that Miles has had a local investor express interest in backing the band financially at a time when major record companies are bleeding red ink and struggling to maintain their own acts. The second prong of the promotion blitz relies on a press kit that the band will mail to college radio stations. Lawent believes the music will “speak for itself” in attracting listeners. However, all of the effort to promote the album is futile if the music isn’t appealing. Cleveland Miles walks a fine musical line, treading somewhere between mainstream pop and Miles’ own acoustic jam-band instincts. “What’s in a Song” boasts slick production and a catchy, infectious chorus. “Brew City Joint” broadens the album’s commercial appeal by featuring a hip-hop interlude. These tracks, the strongest on the record, exude a live-band feel and, while still radio friendly, immediately separate themselves from the current incarnation of bubble gum synth-pop. Essentially a blues-based acoustic album, Cleveland Miles manages to avoid sentimental ramblings in favor of light-hearted lyrics. Miles also shows a willingness to take risks, summoning an electronic beat in “Bedroom Song,” which tests his vocal range with painstakingly layered falsettos against a smooth R&B backdrop. So, does this project really stand a chance? Miles and Lawent argue that it’s at least worth a shot. “You’d be truly amazed at the number of acts who have either never played a show or have played less than a half dozen shows before they were signed,” Lawent says. He names Liz Phair and Fiona Apple as examples. Miles insists he’s not snubbing the local music scene. He says he’s gone to great lengths to make this a Milwaukee project, noting that every person contributing to the project, including the web designer, is from Milwaukee. “I just wanted to make a great album and let everyone hear it. Every time someone listens, it’s a success.” Riverwest Currents – Volume 2 – Issue 9 – September 2003