Pickathon festival founder Zale Schoenborn on the importance of the “irrational approach” and Julia Jacklin’s greatness

Coming of age this year is the Oregon festival Pickathon – one of North America’s most respected boutique festivals. Set in the mountains outside of Portland, the event has made a name for itself by maintaining a low capacity, a trend towards artist discovery, celebrating unique design and putting a focus on sustainability in a way that puts most festivals to shame. Earlier this month I caught up with festival founder Zale Schoenborn to learn more about the event, how it’s evolved in its 21 years and their relationship with Australian music.

Let’s start off by talking about your role. As an event founder, how has your role – and by default the festival itself – evolved over the last 21 years?

We had 90 people attend our event in year one, and we just wanted to throw a good party. Now we have a real festival and an experience. We give the best experience that we know how to do. What’s changed is that there’s been a tonne of wonderful relationships between artists and teams. We figure out why they want to be involved, and then try to make it their dream sandbox. For instance, all six stages have amazing teams around them, like the Treeline stage changes every year, thanks to a new class of architecture students. And they help repurpose the stage after the fact. Like they’ll make pods for the homeless out of the timber. They’re going to build it out of apple crates this year, and then give the crates back. It’ll be a partial stage, partial hangout, with all the functional things.

Pickathon is at its best when we can answer the question “Who would love to do this and why”? The Mt Hood stage is one of the largest temporary fabric structures in the world, with 250,000 sq feet of fabric. The team behind it, Mar Ricketts, has built a whole business out of it.

Another one of our stages is the Woods Stage out in the woods, and we make a stage out of nature. Incredibly unique. It has everything to do with City Repair, the team who put it together.

So, a lot of my role is collecting the people who do that, and then it takes 5-6 years for us to get to the point where all that works. But all of a sudden you have this incredible event, that has its own team and reasons why everything is done the way it’s done, and why it’ll be done that way again. And everyone looks forward to it. It gives you a chance to step out of your normal world, and create this thing that’s irrational on paper. But it’s super fun to do. It’s why I do it myself. You could even call it selfish.

Zale crowd surfing during Bee Bee See on the Treeline Stage during Pickathon 2018 at Pendarvis Farm, Happy Valley OR, by Bill Purcell @rivetandroam

When you start a festival, it’s very dreamlike. Everyone’s working for free. And that works pretty well for a while, but at some point, people don’t have two months to take off work, and so you have to work towards a more and more professional standard. We could see as it was happening, and where that takes you as a festival is to the standard festival model. Scale the audience up, reduce the cost of infrastructure and charge as much as you can. We knew that if we started gravitating towards that, even in an unconscious way… the festival wouldn’t exist as it does now. We could sell 3-5x more tickets, but it would suck to be there.

So we’ve found ways to keep doing it as we’ve been doing it. We give away water – even though we could make a lot of money doing that. We don’t have any plastic, we got rid of that in 2010. We figured out how to reuse and wash dishes. All of those things lead to a question – if the festival is irrational, and you’re not going to make a large return on that, then what can scale? How do we keep the passion alive, to keep it cost effective?

So, we decided to become a content company. It was an abstract idea at first, but now it’s a much more formed idea, where we’ve decided that by having the best experience, the favourite venue that people play, then we should be able to create original content, and reach millions that way. We have comedy, street artists, James Beard award winning chefs, all these other cultural touch points – it’s a cultural immersion festival. There’ll be 750 people on our video team at the festival this year. They’ll make up a big percentage of the crowd. It’ll be like a film set, but you won’t notice it. It’s all built for it. But none of this has happened overnight.

It took people over a decade to trust us, and that’s just for the lineup – now it’s taken just as long to get to the point you’re creating the content that’s right to work with brands and licensing. We’re still not over that hump completely. But we see it as viable and we’re still standing.

What more can you tell me about that content?

So, from October to August, we’ll have 21 original series we put on YouTube, and this content is created during the event. So we have 6 hidden “fantasy stages”, in addition to the 6 actual stages.

This year you have Julia Jacklin representing Australia and The Beths for NZ – a truly international lineup. How does your curatorial team discover acts like them?

We have so many artists each year from Australia. Jen Cloher last year, with Courtney Barnett in her band. Julia (Jacklin) is great. It’s her time. She’s the next in line taking the mantle of Angel Olsen. I can see her becoming really big, and it’s well deserved.

We have been programming the same since day one, it’s only our level of access that’s changed… musically, we want it to be broad based, there’s not something that we wouldn’t do. Pitchfork used to compare the best 15 lineups in the country, and we were often the most unique lineup of the bunch.

We want to muster the best possible artists of the music scene. Who’s the next Elvis of that genre today? We start with that basic idea, which is much more fun to program than a database of Pollstar artists, and who sells the most tickets. We want to know what’s the driving force behind the scene. They often don’t sell the tickets though, but they’re amazing. We got over that hump 10 years into the festival, that people were OK with not knowing most of the festival lineup… but they go on to win Grammys. We had The War on Drugs, Courtney Barnett, Future Islands and more before they were big. Being OK with that approach is the core of us. We ask everyone who their favourite new artists are and we very quickly – between blogs and agents and regional people – you end up with 60 amazing acts. Makaya McCraven, the next Kamasi Washington, out of Chicago, heartbeat of contemporary Jazz, is driving Jazz right now for instance. And then we have faith that a Nu Metal band can sit next to Julia Jacklin or the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys, Bluegrass superstars that no one knows yet. We live on that approach.

It’s all about capturing people when they’re still touring in the van, versus the victory lap. There’s a different mojo there. The downside is it ends up being music fans and word of mouth. We definitely retain those people, and it’s become a positive, but it took a long time to get there.

What excites you most about what’s in store for 2019?

I love days like today. I’m going to this reveal of the new apple crate stage, and they’re using this five sided design element. It’s so cool to hear these kids and where they’re coming from, and know you’ll be putting this at the festival. For me the whole process is just so awesome. At the festival I’m just a fan, I don’t have a radio, I’m completely off the grid. It’s way too much work to do it and not be a fan. I’m looking forward to that. You can’t do it if you’re not a fan.

What is the build process like?

We start building a small city that takes three weeks to build, we pack it up and down each year. I’m all for sustainability, and at some point it’s got to be financially sustainable, but for me it’s got to feel artistically vibrant more than anything else. But it’d be a slow painful death if we just did what everyone else did.

Many Australians may not have heard about the festival before its appearance in Portlandia. Did that come out of your new focus on content too?

Definitely. It gave us connections in the film world, we had connections to the Portlandia crew, and Fred Armisen had been coming for years, even before that episode. They wanted to do a festival episode, and immediately Pickathon was chosen. We built that whole relationship, some was actually at the festival, we know how to integrate it – using the Mt Hood stage for The Flaming Lips, and then lots of B-Roll for the festival. We work with some of those comedians too, like the guy on the bicycle.

The same reason you want to keep music fun, and not just be a robot, is the same reason we’re doing all this. It’s so we can keep the festival irrational. It’s so we can make that experience more and more off the hook. And the more we do it, the more vibrant it becomes.

Pickathon is held in Pendarvis Farm in Happy Valley, Oregon from the 2nd to the 5th of August. For more details on the lineup, which also features the likes of Nathaniel Rateliff, Khruanhbin, Fruit Bats, Julia Jacklin and Phil Lesh, ahead to their official website HERE.

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Larry Heath

Founding Editor of the AU review. You can find him on Twitter @larry_heath or on Instagram @larryheath.

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