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Interview: Zale Schoenborn of Pickathon

Interview: Zale Schoenborn of Pickathon

“You have to have a word of mouth for Pickathon to succeed.”

It’s that time of the year, Portlanders. Pickathon is the best music fest right now. It may not have Wilco or Paul McCartney headlining, but hey, we don’t want the thing to get any bigger, right? Pickathon founder Zale Schoenborn certainly doesn’t. Schoenborn called us on a warm summer day to talk about the festival’s goals to get better, where it plans to leave its pop culture footprint and why getting Wilco is a bad idea.

It seems like most festivals try to get bigger and better each year. However, Pickathon seems to get better, but not bigger.

True story. We have a fun corollary to that. We want to make it better, and we have a ridiculous list of things we’re doing, but there’s not much more we can do in terms of density. At some point, you just ruin it by cramming it full with people. There is a finite list there. We’ve been very committed to holding that line which we will hold again this year.

But the place where we are trying to explore is our media impact. I’m not sure if you’ve seen much of our YouTube channel or stuff we’re doing with the different stages we’ve turned into different channels on different websites or our live broadcasts, but we’re seeing huge numbers in growth and hopefully a pop culture impact. We’re trying to refine the experience of each stage and make it the most awesome video, audio and sensual type of experience. One that the artists love and the audiences love. That’s the type of live improvement you’re talking about. On film you go over that generic boundary that almost all concert footage has and capture that kind of magic that happens live. That’s what we’re working on and what Pickathon is aggressively exploring.

In terms of getting bigger, you don’t have anyone as big as Nickel Creek from last year. It seems like a retreat in some ways.

We’re just doubling down on the best music. This year, in the genres we went after, we’re super hardcore on picking the most amazing thing going on in that world for this year. Sometimes the tree shakes out that way. Leon Bridges is going to be huge. Post-Pickathon, I fully expect to have a bunch of Schnitzer bands Ed.- big name bands play the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland like we did this year. Shakey Graves is playing the Schnitzer this Halloween. Mac DeMarco jumped right to the Crystal. The War on Drugs… Last year we just had a big laundry list of bands that just jumped.

Courtney Barnett.

Courtney Barnett blew up. That will happen this year. There will be more of that. We will have a whole group of artists.

Any predictions?

I think there are some really obscure bands like the Turnpike Troubadours out of Oklahoma. They are kind of in that sweet spot like the Avett Brothers. You know Leon Bridges, right?

Well, he is on Columbia already.

He is on Columbia already. But we got him before he was on Columbia. We basically ID’ed him through friends in Dallas. We heard a single song posted on Gorilla vs. Bear. All of that stuff happened when we were going through the motions. There are bands that are blowing up that aren’t that big in part like Kamasi Washington who is this amazing, once-in-a-generation, jazz musician. We’ve never done super hardcore jazz like Kamasi. He is on Brainfeeder, which is Flying Lotus’ label. So is Thundercat, a band that was actually at Music Fest last year.

I’m stoked to see Kamasi. I will catch both his sets that Friday.

He will be staying around all weekend. Watch out for Thundercat and Kamasi crossovers.

Yeah, that’s one thing I like about Pickathon versus other festivals. It’s like, “Hey! That’s Johnathan Richman walking around or standing next to Ty Segall while watching another band.” It seems the artists get to have fun and don’t get helicoptered in and then vanish when they’re done, like at a bigger festival.

That’s right. It’s about how you treat them. A lot of festivals have a parking lot in the back and you get your trailer for the hour you play and then you’re out. It’s all in how you design it. Ty was on vacation, but he and his whole band were at Pickathon last year. You probably saw him.

It seems every article about Pickathon talks about how wonderful it is. What do you think is the biggest challenge for you and the concertgoers that is still a work in progress?

Trying to make Pickathon sustainable. Keep investing in making it awesome. With all the irrational choices we make and get a beautiful thing, there is a fundamental dance to keep it sustainable for all the people who put their heart and soul into it. It’s challenging. If we were just blowing it out, we wanted have those challenges, but the festival would stink. It’s getting easier, but that’s still the big elephant in the room for like us. We never had investors. We don’t have Live Nation. If we don’t sell tickets for some reason, it would be over. We’re literally walking on the edge.

The details you put into it make it worthwhile. If you go to Sasquatch, the first thing you see is Honda. And there is trash everywhere. Garbage all over the place influences the behavior of the people at the festival.

We’re not selling tickets much faster than last year which is a challenge for us. I know it’s directly related to the lineup. We don’t have a Nickel Creek, like you said. But we’re super committed to the idea that we’re programming this thing with the most amazing music. Kamasi isn’t going to draw anyone, except for a couple hardcore fans. But everyone was trying to convince Kamasi to come up with a three-piece. He wouldn’t come up with anything less than a septet. This is one of the only things he’s doing this fall for festivals. I don’t know, we’re going to be totally fine. But the challenge is that Pickathon as a model isn’t the norm. You have to have a word of mouth for Pickathon to succeed.

Right. If you get a Wilco, it will totally change the face of your festival.

Yes (laughs). It will. And I don’t know if we will. It may not be necessary. It may happen. For one, we really want to be true. Wilco better have a damned good album that we would be behind and have to be relevant in pop culture in that moment. We have a ton of Wilco fans, but economically they would swamp out our whole budget. You’d need five times more people than we have. We should have five times more people. That’s what MusicfestNW has, that’s what Project Pabst has. Between four and five times, that’s the density Pickathon should have. But that would suck. That would suck so bad. That really undercuts what you can draw. Even if you wanted Wilco, you can’t afford to do that. We are in that vanguard of finding the things that are amazing that are almost found out about or bands like Ty who don’t play festivals but loves Pickathon. We have a mixture of artists who only want to play Pickathon or have heard of Pickathon and are going to make it work.

But if you get giant, it will be like MusicfestNW where people say remember when it was good.

We’ll never do it; that’s the bottom line. The only way we’ll get bigger is via pop culture growth in our media. We have 300 people on our broadcast team. Do you know how insane that is? That’s ridiculous! But that’s the scale of what we need to do to make something totally amazing. You’ll see from our live broadcast schedule. We’re going to jump around stages every set. We have fiber optics and wireless communications. Every stage will have a director for up to 12 cameras. We capture all that stuff. We’re mixing the sound from the live sound for the broadcast. It’s insane what we’re doing. But things like that: quality, emotional intensity and capturing artists in their favorite set they’ve ever done should matter, right?

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