Each summer, Oregon welcomes the return of one of the sweetest festivals around: Pickathon.
Think intimate barns strewn with twinkly lights and wooded stages built into the natural landscape, with blissed-out listeners soaking up the scene from sprawled-out blankets, bales of hay and hammocks suspended high in the trees.
Zale Schoenborn, a mandolin player himself, helped launch the groundbreaking event two decades ago, in what began as a small gathering of less than 100 music lovers (representing all genres). Their simple goal from the beginning: “How do we get the most amazing music we can in one spot?”
Since then, the festival has experienced a “slow growth” that Schoenborn jokes has been a true labor of love and an experiment in the making.
He claims that he and his team work under an “incredibly crappy business model,” yet they remain deeply committed to building the best possible experience for everyone involved – from young camping families who return every summer to artists who claim to have had the best set of their career here.
In year eight, the production moved to tranquil Pendarvis Farm just outside of Portland, where – much to loyal fans’ delight – it returns for 2018. “We are a festival trying to have the best experience possible,” Schoenborn says.
Since the start, organizers have impressively prioritized aesthetics, quality and sustainability; they’re proud to be the country’s only outdoor music festival to have minimized all single-use cups, dishware and utensils.
When it comes to green practices, Schoenborn comments, “It’s really easy and it pays for itself. People like it; it doesn’t interfere with their experience.” And although the Pickathon team says they’re more than eager to share their model, no other contemporary festivals seem willing to get behind these efforts (beyond slight attempts).
The Pickathon crew aims to create the most amazing sensory experience while following a mantra that keeps “beautiful things” at the event’s core.
They work hard to eliminate “normal festival hassles” by emphasizing factors from shade and comfort to the accessibility of water and delicious, affordable, locally-sourced food (like acai and poke bowls, noodle dishes, pizza, plus the best biscuit sandwiches around).
“We’re all over the map again,” Schoenborn says when asked what’s on tap for this year. “We’re super deep in, always asking: How do we reinvent things?”
“The fun part of Pickathon,” he adds, “is that it never really repeats itself in a lot of ways.”
Schoenborn enthusiastically discusses projects like the redesign of the Galaxy Barn courtyard, a potential virtual reality mural and enhanced landscaping planned for the main stage.
He’s also excited about an amazing Curation Series program (intimate concert-meal pairing experiences) and the return of Portland State University School of Architecture designers, who create temporary Treeline Stage structures that later get repurposed into pods for the homeless.
With so much “genericness” circulating among cookie-cutter-style festivals, these organizers take care to never let their capacity expand beyond 3,500 attendees per day. Schoenborn has witnessed too many other fests “eventually eat themselves by making it more hollow and jamming more people in.”
Now that this event is gaining credibility as a top music festival, it’s getting easier to sign on top acts, too. “Experience is the secret weapon,” says Schoenborn, who insists that attention to detail matters not only for the audience members, but also for the caliber of artists the festival is able to attract.
He comments, “Stage design, production, lights, every little thing comes together in the equation to feel awesome for [the performers]…If they feel they had a historic experience, it actually matters; it’s no longer just a job.”
Many people think “folk” tunes when they hear “Pickathon,” yet the event actually covers a broad spectrum of genres from R&B and rap to country, psychedelic rock and Ukrainian pop, too.
“We could argue it’s our best lineup ever,” states Schoenborn, “A lot of these artists are going to be stars; you just don’t know it yet.”
Per usual, the organizers have compiled a roster that’s not driven by data but based on discovering “the greatest thing in the world now, regardless of what’s popular.”
They aim to find “the Elvis of different music worlds” through an open-source method of asking smart people (labels, regional music folks, etc.): “Whats the most amazing thing you know of right now?” and “Who’s in your top 10?”
Toward the end of September and October, the team begins gathering names. Schoenborn likens the process to stirring a big stew. “Some things rise up when you boil it down,” he explains, “and you think, this is obvious.”
Highlights of 2018’s lineup include returning favorites like Phosphorescent, Shakey Graves and Daniel Norgren (a Swedish talent you won’t want to miss); plus acts like Built to Spill, Rising Appalachia, The Blind Boys of Alabama, Shovels & Rope, Tinariwen; and regional gems like John Craigie (Portland) and Sera Cahoone (Seattle).
Schoenborn summarizes what makes Pickathon so special – its attempt to get the mantra of making beautiful things out to as many “smart, brilliant people as we can,” granting others the freedom to reach a creative level not typically available in their normal lives.
“We’re able to attract those people year after year, giving them an honest reason to do what they love to do…Pickathon is a reflection of all those people.”
He also candidly reveals that it’s been an incredibly hard journey. When discussing the milestone upon them, Schoenborn admits, “It’s completely irrational that we’ve survived 20 years. We’ve been going against the grain for so long for how music festivals should be run. There are so many ways we could have died an early death…”
So what’s Pickathon’s secret to staying alive? Schoenborn believes that the community’s vulnerability has been the glue holding them together. “We have a lot of people invested,” he says, “…a lot of people who want to see us succeed.”
The fest’s incredibly passionate leaders (who all have day jobs, too) enter this new era with a heavy focus on digital content. From live-stream options to Original Series creations that feature long-form pieces, this beautifully-curated material grants access to everyone (not just in the Pacific Northwest, but around the globe) and allows organizers to generate money to stay afloat, too.
“How do you make this beautiful thing survive?” Schoenborn asks. “We want to be the best versions of ourselves who can continue to create pop culture.”
“Can digital content save the Pickathon music festival?” he asks. “That’ll be the question.” We can assure you that we’ll be enthusiastically rooting from the sidelines, soaking up the music magic and supporting the fest as best we know how.