I don't do outdoor festivals. This has as much to do with my own pasty skin and aversion to large crowds as it does the with inherent disadvantages of seeing your favorite band's music drift up and away into the ether, or paying exorbitant prices for a small cup of bad beer. Still, this May, feeling my music-critic biological clock ticking and excited about the eclectic lineup, I finally drove the three hours to Sasquatch, the decade-old summer music festival at the beautiful Gorge Amphitheatre.
I spent most of my day at Sasquatch thinking about Pickathon.
For all its venue's ample natural beauty, Sasquatch has evolved into a profoundly ugly experience. Campsites are vast Mad Maxian fields of rowdy drunks and trashy teenagers getting their first taste of freedom. Upon entering the festival grounds, participants are herded into long, narrow rows and searched for outside food, booze or drugs by an annoyed staff. Once through the gates, concertgoers have their pick of expensive, greasy Live Nation food stands and a handful of $10 to $12 beers. The stages are tricked out with sponsor banners, and the paths between them are speckled with promotional giveaways. By midafternoon each day, garbage cans overflow and the entire gorgeous locale is completely covered in trash, crushed food and remnant vomit. "Think of the message that sends" to the largely teenage and early-20s crowd, a fellow music critic suggested to me. "It says it's totally OK to go to these beautiful places and throw your shit all over the ground."
Pickathon, now in its 14th year, could not be a sharper contrast to the Gorge's behemoth. While the festival's headliners are familiar names—Neko Case, Dr. Dog and Blind Pilot have all played Sasquatch in years past—the trash, advertising and trashy advertising that most festivalgoers have come to see as a given have no place at the 80-acre Pendarvis Farm. Beers cost $4. Food is local and largely organic. Sponsorships are subtle and giveaways are nonexistent. Pickathon co-founder Zale Schoenborn says sponsorships fund about 10 percent of the festival, far under the industry standard. âWe just donât want to deal with it,â he says. âThereâs not going to be a photo booth with a logo across the photo, or a giant banner across the stage. What's the point? It's just, like, noise. It doesn't improve the experience, and in fact, it detracts."
At $190 for a weekend pass, Pickathon is not cheap. People pay a premium, it turns out, to escape the tie-ins and waste that generally come with music festivals. Most of this year's passes—the festival hopes to grow by 10 percent this year—were sold out as of press time. But it's hard to accuse organizers of gouging. "We make bad business decisions all over the place," Schoenborn says. Those decisions range from capping attendance to booking bands with minimal attention to draw. "Look at our water. We could make $50,000 off bottled water. At a big festival, they make a quarter of a million dollars off of water, easy. But it's not worth it. Any one of those [little] things can throw the balance off-kilter. We would lose our interest, and we wouldn't be able to excite so many people to go all in, if we lost any of those little things."
The trade-off is a hint of chaos: At Pickathon, campsites are improvised and attendees keep track of their own reusable dishes throughout the weekend. Security is loose and low-profile ("Our philosophy is that if you're going to police something, you better have a real good reason," Schoenborn says). But the festival grounds remain nearly spotless, and the attitude among those on the farm—including a fair number of 12-and-under kids, who attend free of charge—is far more mellow than that found at larger events. "The key thing is avoiding arbitrary rules," Schoenborn says.
Such is the Tao of Pickathon. Each year, festival organizers spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about things most attendees may never notice, from "choke points" to beer lines to stage designs that eschew the industry-standard big box. "It has to be designed to just work," Schoenborn says. "If it canât work, youâve got a problem.â