photo by Jason Redmond

Until last Thursday, May 7, Pickathon 2020 was set to go on as planned.

The local music festival had already been slowly rolling out its 2020 lineup, which included avant pop ensemble Vanishing Twin, jazz trumpeter Jaimie Branch, and Seattle roots band Western Centuries. And, in the midst of the pandemic, the team behind the event was raising money for MusiCares’ COVID-19 relief fund by tapping into their huge backlog of video content and offering daily livestreams of past festival performances.

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But once Governor Kate Brown announced Thursday that all large gatherings through September should be canceled, Pickathon officially pulled the plug on the 2020 edition of the fest.

“That was definitive,” Pickathon’s founder Zale Schoenborn tells the Mercury. “There was no ambiguity. There was no longer a choice.”

Pickathon is just the latest casualty of an ongoing wave of events around the world that have been canceled or postponed in hopes of both stifling the spread of coronavirus and protecting attendees. To date, the pandemic forced Coachella to push their two weekends of music from April to October and caused the cancellation of everything from the Montreux Jazz Festival to the Insane Clown Posse’s Gathering of the Juggalos. Here in Portland, we’ve already seen the cancelation of the Waterfront Blues Festival as well as many of the concerts scheduled at Edgefield, the Oregon Zoo, and the dozens of other venues throughout the city.

While it seemed inevitable, something about the Pickathon announcement felt particularly deflating. The annual event, held at Pendarvis Farm in nearby Happy Valley, remains the utopian ideal for a music festival, from its commitment to environmental sustainability to its well-curated, genre agnostic lineups.

At the same time, Pickathon suffered some major setbacks since the start of 2020. In February, the festival was hit with a $12,500 fine from OSHA for not following safety regulations that led to the deaths of two contract workers last August. Two months later, John Prine, one of the planned headliners for 2020, died after contracting COVID-19. The tough, but logical decision to cancel this year’s event felt like a particularly acute blow to Schoenborn.

“We were built to be pretty agile,” Schoenborn says, “and thought we could pull it off if the world settled down. But it wasn’t meant to be. It’s not going to happen this year. It is what it is. You can’t do anything about it.”

Since the announcement on Monday, the many people who work, or have worked, in the music festival business have been responding with sympathy for Pickathon’s fate.

“The minute you commit to doing a festival, you spend every waking second—between weather, natural disasters and every other possible worst case scenario in your head—[worried about] how it can go wrong,” writes Matt Slessler in a Twitter message to the Mercury. Slesser is the Pabst Blue Ribbon brand ambassador who helped run Project Pabst, a weekend-long music event that ran for three summers from 2015 to 2017.

“It gives you sleepless nights, every night, and in certain cases cause you to drink four times your normal amount to cure the anxiety," Slesser continues. "There is no better feeling than pulling it off, knowing that you had 364 days of stress and anxiety all exiting out of every pore in your body.”

“I think a lot of us in the music business right now empathize with each other quite a bit and the challenges that we’re facing,” says Eric Gilbert, co-founder of Idaho’s Treefort Music Fest. “I feel for those guys. We’ve definitely been seen as a sort of sister festival to [Pickathon] in some ways.”

Unlike Pickathon, Treefort is still scheduled to happen this year. Usually held throughout downtown Boise in March, organizers made the decision to postpone the event until September under the assumption that spread of coronavirus will have been slowed dramatically by then. The challenge they now face is whether the city will be able to accommodate all the shows they have planned.

“The question is, ‘Are we going to lose any venues between now and the fall?’” Gilbert says. “It seems like, at least in the current moment, maybe not, but I think into the future, it’s a legitimate concern.”

With its single location, Pickathon doesn’t have that issue to wrestle with. What is potentially concerning is the financial setbacks they could face from this postponement. As the organizers for the festival stated in their announcement on Monday, they can’t issue refunds to everyone who bought tickets or passes for 2020. (Before postponement, they had sold about 20 percent of their expected tickets, according to a Pickathon spokesperson.)

“The tickets sold to date do not cover the costs already incurred in our year-round planning,” the announcement reads. “At the end of each of our 21 years of operation we typically break even; we have no safety net.”

Pickathon is instead encouraging people to either transfer their tickets or passes to cover entry to the 2021 or 2022 editions of the fest or gift the cost of the tickets back to the event. There is also a refund option for ticket holders who are in desperate need of the returned ticket cost—anywhere from $130 for a single day ticket to $1,250 for a "patron pass." So far, says Schoenborn, most people are choosing to hold on to their tickets for a future Pickathon, with the rest split between gifting the money or getting a refund.

What is troubling to some music fans is Pickathon's insistence that they "cannot issue refunds" to everyone that purchased a ticket or a pass. That is in keeping with their original policy for ticket buyers. Before the cancellation, the FAQ on the festival's website stated, "All sales are final. We do not provide ticket refunds." But that doesn't take into account Pickathon getting canceled due to an unforeseen circumstance like a pandemic. In that case, as Slessler pointed out on Twitter, the festival's insurance policy should have allowed them to refund everyone.

"It all depends on what is in your 'force majeure' clause," Slessler wrote in his public Twitter feed, "but when we purchased it in the past, it would have covered non weather related cancelling [sic]."

Force majeure is a common provision in insurance contracts that covers unforeseen circumstances, meaning, in the case of a festival, they would receive a payout if they had to cancel the event due to riots, political insurrections, or acts of God. But according to Schoenborn, that kind of insurance doesn't cover pandemics.

“They never have as far as we’ve seen them written,” he says. “Festival insurance is something we have as a policy. That’s standard. But they’re very clever in limiting force majeure. Pandemics are one of those classic small print things. There’s not really any festival out there, unless they got some awesome policy that we didn’t know about, that has that covered.”

Peter Vaughan Shaver, an arts and entertainment lawyer whose firm Sound Advice represents events like PDX Pop Now! and the Portland Jazz Festival, agrees with Schoenborn that pandemics aren't typically included in such contracts, but they should still be covered.

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"It depends on their policy," Shaver says, "but unless the restrictions are lifted by August, if the state says that there can be no gatherings, that should render [Pickathon] impossible to happen."

Amid the fallout from Pickathon’s 2020 cancellation and the work he has to undertake to put together the lineup for 2021, Schoenborn sounds surprisingly upbeat and optimistic. Some of that is due to seeing how the global community has responded to their work raising funds for MusiCares (around $50,000, by his estimation). Their A Concert A Day initiative also got a big boost this week with news that Spotify agreeing to match donations during the livestream up to a collective total of $10 million. But mostly, Schoenborn credits his attitude to having “good intentions” and trusting that people will respond in kind.

“You have to have a really clear mind and heart,” he says, “and if you’re talking bullshit or acting in a fake way, you’re going to lose it all fast. That’s the DNA of Portland. You have to know how you got there and why you’re there. Hopefully what you have is lasting and real. And so far, it feels kind of lasting and real.”