Over the last 14 years, Pickathon Music Festival has grown into a premiere summer destination for music lovers and performers alike. Zale Schoenborn started the scrappy festival with his wife, family, and some friends, and a continued family-run mentality has kept it a unique experience. Situated on Pendarvis Farm outside of Portland, OR, Pickathons five core organizers have designed unparalleled sustainability efforts and a community atmosphere that has musicians and fans returning year after year. With another indie-all star lineup, neigh perfected greening practices, and their projected first-ever sell-out, this year might be the festivals finest yet.
Neko Case, Dr. Dog, Blitzen Trapper, Heartless Bastards, and The Wood Brothers top the lineup for the event running August 3rd through 5th. Other notables include Phosphorescent, The Cave Singers, Cass McCombs, Hot 8 Brass Band, Langhorne Slim, Abigail Washburn, Lost Bayouu Ramblers featuring Gordon Gano (of Violent Femmes), White Denim, AA Bondy, Handsume Furs, The Mynabirds, Typhoon, Bowerbirds, and Kitty, Daisy & Lewis, amongst 26 more on the initial lineup.
To find out more about the festival, its lineup, its sustainability programs, and its future, we called up Pickathons Executive Director and co-founder, Zale Schoenborn.
The festival has worked hard to stay at a relatively small size. To maintain a moderate breadth while continuing to grow, theyve taken a pretty obvious, yet atypical, route: ask the people. We said, should we raise ticket prices and keep it like, not growing, but we could get there that way? Or should we just keep ticket prices really below that half price of our standard, which is like Sasquatch, Bonnaroo, and just keep growing it. I dont think theres one person that didnt want us to just raise ticket prices, because they thought it was still a super price.
They also recently asked their audience how the camping situation should change on the ground. And why not? Like, why throw shit down peoples throats? Theres a great tweet out there that somebody said, If all the comments were like Pickathon, then shit would get done. We trust people. Its common sense, and more kinda like where most people are these days. So we love kinda muckin with all these big kinda taboos about how you should do things.
In addition to growing prices, theyre also planning on growing their digital presence. Last year, the festival recorded the entire proceedings for a free, hi-fidelity broadcast of each stage on Seattles KEXP. Capturing performances in such high quality originated from plans to launch a record label (!!!), but Schoenborn saw even more potential.
This year its still gonna be free. And then grow it like crazy, like 25, 30,000 people watching it. And then we wanna get it into the 50 going towards 100. Then thatll actually sustain itself and create this super high quality, amazing production that you could buy a pass for Pickathon before or after. Imagine an entire six-stage music festival that would survive digitally, for a price, after it had ended physically. As Schoenborn said, Were not Live Nation, were not C3, were not Superfly, were none of the big boys. But wed play a big boy on TV.
Superfly may dwarf Pickathon in stature, but the team behind Bonnaroo recently reached out to the smaller staff for some advice. One of the Portland festivals claims to fame is its entirely plastic-free experience, a concept Roo is looking to adapt.
It freaks people out to say getting rid of plastic, Schoenborn admits. We got rid of almost 50,000 plastic bottles the last year we had plastic. A festival like Bonnaroos size, its millions. Millions of water bottles. So you basically have to reuse something; you have to have your own cup. While that sounds easy enough, its a frightening concept for Roo-level events. Were trying to basically work with other festivals and convince them its not a crazy idea, it totally scales. I dont know if people believe it translates to them.
While the idea ran out of runway this year, Schoenborn is confident a plastic-free Bonnaroo is a real possibility. We had it totally designed out. You just need water trucks, which they got, they got water. And on the beer side, instead of throwing away compostable cups, we sell a stainless steel beer cup and a way for you to clip it on your belt. Its not that big a deal. It just isnt. You have a cup, and you rinse it out if you want to, but you just pour beer in it, and its fine. And then theres not garbage on the ground.
Pickathon also implemented a new dish washing program. Essentially, a token gets you a delicious portion of local fare atop a totally awesome product made of bamboo – biodegradable – and bamboo utensils. You drop that reusable dishware at a dishwashing station, pick up a new token, and the processes repeats. You can even take the product home at the end. It makes sense. [The attendees] arent pissed off; they feel involved. Thats the crazy, most ironic thing. When we start mucking with the social order, we try not to make it a drain on everyone else, which I think seems unreal. We say, Look, people will be happy. Youll have this huge sustainability impact, and itll actually essentially make money on your scale. Theyre like, No.
Schoenborn is aware that profitability will likely be the one thing that wins the day, but says his faith in people tells him it will happen eventually. Still, he says, the festival isnt even about that; its about the music. It just kinda feeds into your ability to enjoy yourself. I mean, look, theres no trash! It just becomes another reason to relax and chill.
With the initial lineup, there are currently 40-plus other reasons to relax and chill at Pickathon. Schoenborn says they generally disregard crowd-drawing power when booking talent, and the Pickathon staff has a unique way of curating the festival. Much like they reach out to their audience, theyve gathered top 20 lists from musicians, bloggers, and friends across the musical spectrum asking, whats the red meat in [your] world? Whats the coolest thing youve ever seen thats going on right now?
A collection of some 600 albums culled from those lists led to some pretty interesting unknowns on the lineup. Kitty, Davis & Lewis is a huge band in England. They opened for Coldplay last time they were in the States. They headline big festivals all over Europe. But theyre completely unknown. Theyre these super cool kids. Theyre kinda like very fashionista, Avett Brother type kids. Theyre just a freak of nature. When you see them, theyll blow you away.
Schoenborn also mentioned The Hot 8 Grass band from New Orleans ninth ward, hardcore, experimental Cajun band Lost Bayou Ramblers with Violent Femmes Gordon Gano, Vieuz Farka Toure, and Los Cojolites, whom he calls the Avett brothers of their mountainous region in Mexico. He continues, We pulled this crazy band out of Nova Scotia, called Genticorum. Zero draw. I got these guys from Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas, who just happen to be some of the most amazing Irish/Scottish players in the world. I was picking their brains and they gave me this huge list of Irish, Scottish and Celtic music. Right at the top of the Celtic list was this band Genticorum. Theyre like rock stars in Nova Scotia, but theyre totally unknown.
Its true that Pickathon has a history of traditional musical styles, but it isnt all about the underground roots acts. I mean, half of these artists are all over Consequence of Sound. Cass McCombs, White Denim, Handsome Furs are an awesome band, Bowerbirds. Its really all about all this music just mixing together and kinda blowing your mind.
Expectations for this years experience are high, as the organizers predict their first pre-gate sellout. So we had to ask: why the confidence? Were kinda just going on a historic curve. And our lineup is still growing in terms of there were lots of things we couldn’t afford before. But this year, top to bottom is full of these freaks of nature. Like Neko [Case]; weve just never had anyone of that kinda level. Shes got two sets, one way out in the woods and then one on the main stage. Itll be historic stuff.
What it comes down to, says Schoenborn, is lineup plus atmosphere. We try to keep it pure. We have no banners, nothing like that at the festival. If a sponsor wants to like plaster stuff, it aint gonna happen at this festival. [Were] trying to do things that just feel right. It feels like were threading the needle and doing what people are hungry for. Its kinda natural to us.
Were in the top five or 10 festivals country wide in terms of [cultural festivals], he concludes. Were starting to kinda suck some of the same oxygen [as bigger festivals]. And thats our whole subversive plan long term is just, how can this scrappy little thing throw on this crazy music no ones ever heard of, all mixing it up, do that? Theyre not allowed to do that. Its fun as hell; thats where were coming from.
The 14th annual Pickathon Festival will continue the fun this August 3rd through 5th. Tickets, complete lineup, and other information can be found on their newly redesigned (courtesy of Schoenborns brother, Eric) website at www.pickathon.com.