While some small music shows are beginning to return to venues, one of Portland’s largest music festivals has announced it won’t be returning, for the second year in a row. Pickathon, the three-day festival hosted by Pendarvis Farm in Happy Valley, issued a statement saying there simply wasn’t enough time to plan an event. Zale Schoenborn, founder of Pickathon, tells us what’s in store for the festival.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Geoff Norcross: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Geoff Norcross. We’ve reached that stage in the pandemic when we eagerly await news of our favorite things coming back. But it’s not all good news. The organizers of the Pickathon Music Festival in the Portland area have announced the festival is not happening this year. It’s the second year in a row they’ve had to cancel. Here to talk about that decision is Pickathon’s founder, Zale Schoenborn. Zale, welcome to Think Out Loud, it’s good to have you.
Zale Schoenborn: Thank you. Joy being here.
Geoff Norcross: Why did you make the decision?
Zale Schoenborn: Well, we didn’t really have a big choice. The safety and kind of sustainability of trying to do something like Pickathon really requires us to almost plan for a full year and definitely October really starts to be a ramp up for us. And as we got towards March, we just had no real ability to kind of see a future where we could do it. And when it became possible in June, when we started to see that it was, it was just way too late. So we made the responsible decision just to respect everyone and kind of looked to the future, be optimistic.
Geoff Norcross: Yeah, and we’ll talk about what you have in mind, but it just wasn’t possible to put something on. Maybe just like a one day thing with local bands, some kind of Pickathon at all.
Zale Schoenborn: We tried, we tried, I think the complexities of what Pickathon is as a community, you know, something that’s grown up for 20 years, it has a real life force as a weekend with roles in community that people have plugged into it, that just know what to do. And we have made a lot of mistakes and we’ve kind of grown up into a place where it feels like it’s just this well orchestrated machine and we definitely put the maximum amount of effort imagining: could we do something? Could it be a day? Could it be a series? And in the end it wasn’t possible. Many of the artists and folks that come to Pickathon plan their entire year or their summer, at least, around the discovery for them as a band and tour around that. And when we lost all of those capabilities and asking our people to rally, and the permitting and I would just say we weren’t able to do it. It was a very sad day.
Geoff Norcross: Yes. And as you were envisioning this festival back in the nineties, I guess. I’m sure you thought about contingencies that might keep you from putting it on. Did a global pandemic ever cross your mind?
Zale Schoenborn: No, and I think we’re part of all of the world of performance and venues and promoters. Nobody could have imagined this. It was a devastating moment for us back in March of 2020.
Geoff Norcross: Pickathon has evolved into something really special since 1999. It’s a big music festival now, but it’s not huge, like Coachella or Sasquatch. You know, it’s much more slimmed down and it’s much more Portland. Has this unwanted downtime caused you to rethink the direction of the festival in any way?
Zale Schoenborn: Not, not necessarily. We spent a lot of our time early on in the pandemic thinking about community, how do we rally, what we could do to help music, musicians, promoters, venues, and so we’ve been quite involved and that’s been a really positive part of the pandemic: the resiliency, the optimism and the real just kind of innovation that’s happened during this time. And we raised a lot of money for MusiCares, which is one of the major organizations in the country that supports musicians, working with the recording academy, made a lot of great relationships, spent quite a bit of time working with Niva and Save Our Stages and just checking in with our people, trying to keep folks moving ahead, look into the future, trying to really think how do we all adapt and innovate here? And that’s been just incredibly awesome to watch. So that’s where we spent a lot of our time.
Geoff Norcross: How did you just keep the organization going?
Zale Schoenborn: Well, we’re a story just, almost like I said, I think there’s like 3000 of people like Pickathon in small towns, big towns, small versions, big versions all over the country and banding together in the working to kind of just slim us down to the bare essentials. Trying to just work with the National Save Our Stages organization movement and so we had some help from the state and the federal government to kind of keep things on life support and to look to reopen. That has, I think, funded and allowed all the kinds of performing arts organizations across the country to kind of weather this.
Geoff Norcross: Yeah. In a very practical matter, when you canceled last year, you said you weren’t going to be able to offer any refunds, ticket holders could either apply them to future festivals or donate the money to the organization. What about this year?
Zale Schoenborn: We are in a position to be able to refund. So we’re going to look to our community and have that discussion here to fully refund folks that need it. Yeah. And that’s our plan.
Geoff Norcross: If you’re just tuning in, we’re talking right now about the Pickathon Music Festival and why it won’t happen this year. Zale Schoenborn is the festival’s founder. Many performing arts organizations have gotten creative during this time and tried other things and many of them have relied on video to give their patrons something to enjoy in lieu of a live concert. Have you gone that way too?
Zale Schoenborn: Oh yeah. I mean one of the really unique things about Pickathon was we wanted to protect how we could actually grow and export and be influential and also just grow our business model. So back in, we were really early to this party, and in 2010, we decided, hey, instead of growing the festival attendance and kind of ruining this great experience because we knew just deep down that growing the attendance was the quickest way to really not make it special. So we said, what if we built a digital content vision here and we kind of stunk at it for a while, but we got really good and we became kind of the national leader in livestream and music content and Youtube and original series to the point where we had like 700 people, more on our staff doing just video in 2019. and so when the pandemic hit and its tsunami for live streaming kind of hit everyone like, oh my goodness, this is what we need to do. We were in a really interesting position because we had already known that live streaming was a pretty terrible experience as it was manifesting at the time. It was, I don’t know how much live streaming you did, but it’s like watching a video on demand on Youtube and not like connecting with artists or going to a show with friends and we just, we wanted to really reimagine it. Imagine if you could clap and cheer and fans anywhere in the world and the artists could hear you. What if you could go to a show and hang out with your friends and go between public and private spots? What if all that energy really drove the show and kind of just memorably made it something where the artists and the fans just had a special experience, like a real event, not like a video. And so we started a company called Frequency to kind of really, as a very Pickathon-ish type of mission, to build a sustainable infrastructure for creatives that wanted to like find newfound revenue even when live events come back, imagine that if something that was truly live and people could be a part of it, they would buy tickets and it could be this great way for independent artists to actually become even more sustainable. So that is the vision and a lot of our energy has gone into manifesting that to happen.
Geoff Norcross: Have you heard from former Pickathon performers who have been to the festival and liked it? Have they reached out to you after you made the decision not to have it?
Zale Schoenborn: Oh, we’re in constant contact with so many of our past performers, current performers that wanted to come to that we had scheduled in 2020 and 21. And yeah, it’s just really sad. I think what everyone’s response has been for us has been the ability for folks to be just optimistic about the future. So without exception, I think we’re looking forward and so we haven’t lost that. And that’s been the magic of that community and the kind of optimism I think is giving us really a lot of guidance and hope for the future.
Geoff Norcross: What gives you optimism about being able to put it on again next year?
Zale Schoenborn: Well, we’re in the golden years, we’ve survived the hardest part of something fragile and irrational. Like Pickathon we’ve, or rather we all make a lot of mistakes. There’s a lot of things you can’t imagine when it’s such a custom and if you can survive long enough, anything like Pickathon becomes special and we’re in the golden years. So we know that in many ways that’s our superpower. We can create this kind of cultural, artistic and economic influence and know and adapt. I think we’re looking really excited about what comes next and 2022 is going to be a great year.
Geoff Norcross: Well, can you be specific, I mean, what do you think will come next for the festival when it finally makes it to the stage?
Zale Schoenborn: Again, we’re going to try to be a festival in Happy Valley and on Pendarvis Farm. We are what has made Pickathon special. If folks have been, they know the location and our relationship with the community and the relationship we have with the city and the region. I mean specifically, I think there’s a lot of excitement for, even as development is kind of really kind of closing in and kind of growing into the one of the largest left tracts of land in the metro region for development. We’re excited to kind of be part of that in a positive way. And I think that there’s a lot of momentum for figuring that out. On paper, it looks challenging and you know it’s a lot of things that you would imagine could overrun something like Pickathon. But if you dig a little deeper the city, the landowners, the neighbors, the community, nobody wants this to not exist. Once you get something to the level of Pickathon that has that kind of international influence, it’s incredibly hard to build that and the value of that for a community as a kind of a cultural and economic engine, I think it’s very appreciated. And, we’re going through that kind of motions and steps to really find a permanent solution out there. We don’t really have any details, but I would say we are going to do 2022, we don’t have exact details, but we’ll be just updating our community all the way through the fall on what that’s going to look like. But expect Pickathon to be back.
Geoff Norcross: We only have a few seconds left. But I’m wondering if your experience can have lessons for other arts organizations that are struggling right now.
Zale Schoenborn: Absolutely. I think the banding together of arts organizations in general was not a feature before Covid. I think what you’re gonna see and experiences like ours are common with other organizations is the power of us together as a voice. The ability for us to kind of help each other is going to have a lasting impact. And I think we’re all going to see a strong performing arts in Oregon, in Portland, nationally, kind of coming out of Covid. I’m really optimistic and excited to see what happens.
Geoff Norcross: Zale Schoenborn. Thank you so much.
Zale Schoenborn: You’re welcome. Thanks, wonderful to be here.
Geoff Norcross: Zale Schoenborn is the founder of the Pickathon music festival.
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