THE MUSIC FESTIVAL business is booming. Despite a 2013 lineup widely derided as underwhelming, Coachella sold out two weekends. Sasquatch sold out in less than two hours and, following Coachella, Sasquatch will add a second weekend next year. In Tennessee, Bonnaroo was at capacity, as was the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago.
Forget for a moment the lunacy of holding a festival like Coachella one weekend after another, and the propensity for that second weekend's energy to drag. Consider the creature comforts, or lack thereof: the heat, the masses, the security, the rules, the short sets, early end times, parking lots, bottlenecks, the lines. Lines for entry, exit, bathrooms, food, and beer. Food and beer—and water!—that are going to cost you.
And when you finally see the band—from likely too far away—sets are often woefully short, unambitious, and polluted by errant sounds from the drum-and-bass tent or some loud-mouthed toad you're packed in against. Rarely are festival sets better than the same band in a club.
The same is not true of Pickathon, about to kick off its 15th year. In the ever-competitive world of summer music festivals, Pickathon is a farm-to-table bistro to Coachella's McDonald's. The independent theater to Hollywood's multiplex. A white-hot spark to slow-burning coal. The art in a sea of commerce.
PICKATHON began in 1999, as both a fundraiser for KBOO and an excuse to get some friends together.
"I love a lot of different styles of music and I was playing bluegrass music," says Pickathon co-founder Zale Schoenborn. "And also I loved community radio... so I felt like if you're going to rally and have a festival you should have a cause, and if you have a cause, KBOO is a good one."
As Pickathon grew, however, its ties with KBOO became a liability for the station. If the fest lost money, KBOO would be left holding the bag. "It was cut and dry," Schoenborn says. "They couldn't do it. We were in year seven. So we just sucked it up and became partners and created an LLC."
That same year (2006) Pickathon moved to Pendarvis Farm, about 20 minutes outside of Portland. The change of venue offered a wealth of new creative control. It also offered more complexity.
"We had to build everything," says Schoenborn. Stages went up across the property, in the woods, on the meadow, and in the barn. Soon the Pickathon crew realized they were constructing more than a simple venue. "It's not just music, it's a small city," Schoenborn says. "It's not just a city, it's these conceptual little art zones. It's not just these conceptual little art zones, it's millions of things that should actually function well in those zones. It just goes on and on and on and on."
To take on the multitude of projects, the crew adopted a sort of ethos that practically governs Pickathon in its entirety: "We look at it more like art projects," says Schoenborn. "We love that process and that idea of how you visually and emotionally create all these performance spaces."
The goal was simple: serve the music, and create an environment that's not only comfortable for audiences, but also compelling for performers. In the years since, they've drilled down on it, from everything to the bathrooms to the silverware to the dust.
"It's super tangible to an artist who's never been to Pickathon who comes to Pickathon for the first time," Schoenborn says. "There's just this kind of building, resident behavior where everyone gets excited, and they walk away feeling really good about music and what they're doing and the fact they had this kind of insane response to what they're trying to do.
"Odds are," Schoenborn continues, "one of their sets was one of their favorite they've ever played. We've had that all the time."
Performing while surrounded by gently swaying trees, or in a beautiful old barn, or beneath twinkling stars will do that, especially in Oregon, and especially in August. And while the calm, comfort, and beauty may provide artists with the inspiration or freedom to go somewhere special, Pendarvis Farm—and the Pickathon ethos, in general—beckon some who wouldn't otherwise take the call (such as Bonnie "Prince" Billy, who avoids traditional festivals but made an exception for Pickathon in 2010).
The success at Pendarvis, however, presented Schoenborn and the Pickathon brain trust a rather interesting fork in the road. They chose, as artists often do, the path less traveled.
"THERE ARE big things that we've done that come to the forefront over and over," Schoenborn says. "Things that are still reverberating, and we're still trying to get a handle on."
The biggest question is about staying small.
"The normal festival model would have us basically becoming profitable by putting in a lot more people," Schoenborn says. By killing the camping, Pendarvis Farm could accommodate two to five times more people than the few thousand current daily attendees now served, which includes 3,500 paid ticket holders, a 1,200-strong volunteer force, 600 to 700 musicians and their guests, as well as hundreds of crew members. But pushing more folks' heads through the gates is basically a non-starter.
"It wouldn't be Pickathon," Schoenborn says. "It would be the normal festival that everybody sees, like Sasquatch and Coachella and Bumbershoot. At those kinds of places, there's a huge discrepancy in how many people they put in per acre than us. There's a huge segment of people who are used to being crammed in and the fact that the swamp is drained of any quality doesn't really register with them."
To that end, Pickathon has also sided against price gouging. Water is free, and beer and food are reasonable by everyday standards, and cheap by those of a festival.
The second traditional business option would be to blanket the farm with sponsorship banners, something Schoenborn opposes not only for aesthetic concerns but also for the ultimate relinquishing of control. Say the economy were to take a dip and the sponsorship money that Pickathon relies on were to dry up—the festival would wither and die without it.
Such dangers are very real, according to Schoenborn. "If we ever have a really bad year," he says, "the whole thing could crumble down. There is no backstop."
"We're the only major music festival out there with no investors," Schoenborn continues. "We don't have a city backing us. We don't have grants backing us. We basically have to nail the tickets to pay for everything. Then we turn around and invest everything we have right back in, trying to get the quality up, trying to be sustainable."
"Now," he says, "we're investing really heavy in the media stuff."
Which is, of course, the veritable path less traveled. The plan is simple in theory yet incredibly complex in execution: make audio and video from the festival available to consumers online.
SINCE PICKATHON BEGAN, the audio from every set has been recorded (though a few early ones have been lost to archival issues). "For the last four years we've been doing video, too," says Schoenborn. "We've gone from hand-held, home, shaky style, to full, almost-pro crews across the board." In 2012, a live online broadcast hosted more than 10,000 viewers at peak times—more than were on the actual festival grounds.
Capturing the sights and sounds is a massive technological undertaking, which includes a small army of audio engineers, video crews, editors, producers, directors, archivists, and more. Each year, 50-odd bands play the many stages of Pendarvis Farm, resulting in five full days of content when played back to back.
This year Pickathon plans to produce a new kind of episodic coverage, a mix of live performances and sort of reality TV, working with directors such as Ondi Timoner (Dig!).
But for Pickathon to crack open their vast archives online they must creatively solve another problem: the administration of rights and the payment to copyright holders. With about 50 bands a year, and soon to be 15 years of archives, it's a daunting organizational challenge—especially for a team driven by art rather than spreadsheets.
Nonetheless, Schoenborn & Co. flirted with creating a second company to build an automated rights management system, but deferred when they found CASH Music, a Portland-based nonprofit at work on similar, open-source software. They're working together and, fingers crossed, could have the thing going by next year. Schoenborn, for one, can't wait.
"It's ridiculous to have all this and not be able to share it," he says. "We are so ready to share it. My partners and I are listening to this stuff all the time. It's so good. It's soo good."
Recently I was allowed to dip a toe into the archives and I can attest to its quality—not only in terms of fidelity, but in bringing back those precious moments that only Pendarvis can provide. Bonnie "Prince" Billy truly was transcendent in the woods, where I saw him for the first time and, suddenly, made sense of him. Or that set from Cass McCombs on the Starlight Stage, swirling along with some psychedelic mushrooms—it was as mystical as I'd thought.
Then I went further back, to 2009, my first Pickathon. Sam Quinn, singing through his teeth beneath the moon, again on the Starlight Stage. There I was, in that magical moment, when I realized that Pickathon was not only a marvelous place to see bands, but also to discover new ones as well.
Hearing these recordings, and dreaming about the multitudes of others still locked away in the archives, may not necessarily help Pickathon stay small in one regard: They make me want to return to Pendarvis Farm all the more. A champagne problem, I suppose.
Nonetheless, if the commodification of the archives helps solidify Pickathon's financial future while preserving the artistic bent that has governed the festival over these first 15 years, I shall raise a glass—rather, a stainless steel Pickathon cup—and cheers to 15 more.
"I think we can do it," says Schoenborn of continuing along the art-first path. "I think it's not as profitable. I think it's more fun."