A Conversation with Pickathon Co-Founder Zale Schoenborn

Earlier today, Pickathon, the annual Happy Valley roots music festival, released the lineup for its 2011 edition, and it might just be the most musically diverse in its 13 year history. Headlined by gospel-soul legend Mavis Staples, the bill also features gritty R&B throwback Lee Fields and the Expressions, electro-pop outfit Future Islands and hard rockers Buffalo Killers mixed in with big-name folkies like Bill Callahan (a.k.a. Smog), Vetiver and Thao Nguyen and such Portland luminaries as Laura Veirs, the Builders and the Butchers and Old Light, among many others (check the Web site for the full list).

Willamette Week talked to festival co-founder Zale Schoenberg about this year's event, the performers he's looking forward to, and spurning the advances of corporate sponsorship.

Willamette Week: Is Mavis Staples a pretty big get for you guys?

Zale Schoenborn: I would say so. In the world of major music festivals, I don't think she qualifies as a headliner, but for what we do, with people who love music and cross borders pretty willingly and pick up whatever moves them, that's definitely the biggest, most legend-type of a name we've ever had. For us, in our crowd, that's totally the biggest headliner. We've had Iris Dement, which is probably the only person who comes close to her in terms of status in the past.

Who else on the bill are you particularly excited about it?

That's a loaded question. We are very much into picking the minds of a bunch of music lovers in the community, to throw in what they think is amazing. We pay attention to spreading around the genres and styles, and within a particular sub-genre or style we focus on the people who really know that music and can attest to what is the best thing going on in that style or genre. It's been awesome to broaden that collaborative circle, because we've gotten those artists who are the best at what they do.

We have a lot of really crazy wildcards that we've never had before, like Lee Fields and the Expressions. The most kooky band, which I love, is Future Islands. That is like New Order, synth-driven dance music with Henry Rollins singing lead. Another band is Brownout. That is the Latin-psychedelic-funk alter ego of a group called Grupo Fantasma. They're Prince's backing band, and they're coming. That'll totally surprise people. There are folks like that, to the most obscure folks, like Ted Jones and the Tarheel Boys, who's this crazy, awesome, old-school bluegrass talent that no one knows about. He's never been west of Mississippi. If you're from Virginia, and you're into that kind of world, that bluegrass, he's like legend status. I had to call his mom to book him. He's stuck in time, this 24-year-old kid with a black pompadour singing Delmore Brothers-type harmonies with cross-stick and mandolin. So folks like that I'm really excited about, who are going to be complete surprises for folks.

Outside of the lineup, is there going to be anything different about this year's festival?

There will be many changes. We're opening up another 15 acres or so of campable space. There will be another two miles of hiking trail. We're going to try to give slight upgrades to all the venues, to make sure it's super comfortable with the increase of folks we're going to have. We sell out at 3,750 paid, but there'll be another 2,200, 2,300 people including musicians, volunteers, bloggers, staff—it's a big back end. We're just doing little things to make sure it's super comfortable for that bump up of folks. We're looking to have another 1,200 people.

Other than the smaller size of the festival, what do you feel separates Pickathon from other music festivals?

Definitely our music choice, in trusting the audience to explore a lot of acts that are truly good but maybe not really well-heralded or known. There's not one theme all these bands fall under, like jam band or indie or any kind of traditional label. That straddling of these music universes and trusting you can attract an audience without a true major festival headliner in terms of, like, Arcade Fire—that separates us.

The other thing that's really different is we have a very outsized footprint culturally for the size of the festival. You would think we're a lot bigger on all levels, because we're one of the more heavily visited music sites on the West Coast. One of the ways that we'll play into magnifying the cultural impact is that we've been gearing up the live broadcast part of Pickathon. Our goal is to broadcast a lot of the content in high-def video and audio, and let that content be watched and viewed and explored over the weekend, then have it disappear after the festival is over. We're not sure how ambitious we can be this particular year, but we've been working really hard with Benefest and done some awesome live broadcasts.

You mentioned in a recent interview that because of the commitment to creating a sustainable festival and not doing things like selling bottled water, you lose money every year. How, then, does Pickathon stay afloat?

We don't lose money in a large sense. We don't maximize our profits, let's put it that way. We refuse to make money off things you shouldn't be making money off of, in our opinion. You've got to live, you have to drink water. Why in the heck would it make sense to buy a $5 water?

We're not taking a hit in any way. We don't have a humongous staff. We're not owned by LiveNation, is probably the best way to put it. That's also very different about us. We're one of the only truly independent major music festivals out there, that isn't run by C3 or LiveNation. Nothing against them, but you have a lot of people that are trying to draw salary from that. We put our focus into the things that make Pickathon what it is, like the artists and trying to make sure good food is there. We built a very elaborate, over-the-top infrastructure as part of Pickathon to make it a unique experience. That shade structure is one of the largest in the world. It's ridiculously cost prohibitive if you were looking at it like, "Let's just pop up a giant tent." That would be a quicker, easier way to do it, but it seemed like so much more of a bummer to be under a big canvas tent. You can call those poor business decisions. We're not losing money, but we're definitely not getting rich.

The other big place we lose tons of money on, even more so than not charging for water and basic living stuff, is that we're just not interested in people who would pay money for big corporate sponsorship. It just feels like crack to get hooked on Budweiser giving us $50,000 to be a title sponsor. That costs us a lot of money, because we turn away people who would not make sense for us. Our feeling is that if that money ever dried up and we were dependent on it, we'd be in a world of hurt. And they don't really have any relation to what we're doing. Our audience isn't into Budweiser. Maybe Pabst. It's not that we don't do sponsorship, it's just that the right folks don't have a lot of money for us.

Pickathon runs Aug. 5-7 at Pendarvis Farm in Happy Valley. Ticket information here.