An XRAY Interview with Pickathon Founder Zale Schoenborn

With one week out from the 21st annual Pickathon Festival we’re sharing our interview with Pickathon founder and CEO Zale Schoenborn. We talk about what sets Pickathon apart from other festivals, how Pickathon is curated, and his best advice for artists who aspire to play the festival.

Check out a condensed version of our interview with Zale below and listen to the complete interview which originally aired on the PDX Pop Now! show here.

XRAY: We’re joined today by Zale from Pickathon. You are one of the founders, you have been doing this for how many years now?

ZALE: 21 years. 21 years of surviving, yes, and having fun.

XRAY: So, it’s hard to believe that anyone here in Portland wouldn’t know what Pickathon is but for anyone that is in a bubble, would you mind just giving a breakdown of what it is to you?

ZALE: Well, I would say it’s the most irrational national music festival there is because we make a bunch of choices that preserve experience over kind of maximizing the amount of money. Which is very Portland but is kind of a crazy business model to actually try and survive off of. 

But the benefit of that is the experience of being around for the musicians and for the audience. And we build like six stages for 3,500 people paid, which is about 8,000 people there if you put in all kids and free, and musicians. There’s actually more people behind the scenes than paid at the festival in general. It’s kind of over-the-top, there’s nothing that looks like a normal stage, everything is kind of a themed fantasy musical ride if you want to think of it that way.

We like to say we bring in all these people and make them a sandbox which is their dream thing they can do. it’s like their Olympic Town. They do this for a living but this is the most ridiculous thing they get to do in their lives.

XRAY: And that brings artists back year after year. I feel like they really want to play, people are clamoring to play, because it’s such a unique experience for everyone involved. It seems like the artists love playing it as much as the attendees love watching them.

ZALE: Which is a very precious thing. We’ve known this for 10 years or so. Like, okay, we’re either building a real music festival or we’re building this thing that’s kind of pegged to the passion side and we need to figure out how we’re going to survive in that whole world. And we basically are still figuring that out. But, I don’t know if you know, we have a huge digital content thing where we build out original series and live stream, and that can go really big and not really ruin it. We are hoping that that actually keeps Pickathon to be this ridiculously small precious thing.

Zale Schoenborn, Pickathon founder

XRAY: So it started in 1999. And I read it was started as a fundraiser for KBOO. When you started it, did you have an idea that you wanted to do like an annual festival? 

ZALE: Oh, yeah, I mean, we started it in the days of festivals being kind of more factional. Like you did a rock festival, you did a bluegrass festival, you did punk rock. Everything was in its own little camp. It was before festivals started mixing it up. We knew we wanted to mix it up, and it was super hard. When we first did it, we had like 90 people because all of those worlds were like, “It’s just gotta be blue grass, or it’s just gotta be rock.“ And that took us a while too, but that was what we love. We loved all music. When we started we knew that. If we can do it, we just do it again and see what other kinds of things we could add to it and make it fun.

XRAY: I’ve noticed that the lineups are just so incredibly diverse. How do you go about choosing lineups? And who plays?

ZALE: First of all, we use as many smart people as we can find, like we open source, which is kind of unusual for a festival. I think lots of people like PDX Pop Now! also do something similar. Then we kind of go into this mode of “What is the Elvis or the red meat of this world?” It doesn’t have to be popular. But if you were into this music, this has to be what the whole scene is into. And then if you do that, you can kind of go as broad as you can, it doesn’t matter if you’re into that music. You tend to be like “Wow, that’s awesome. I’m confused. I thought I hated that, now, but that was great”. Yeah, that’s our general philosophy.

XRAY: There’s been a lot of international artists lately that I think people have been really excited about. Has that been an intentional push to have more of a worldly presence? 

ZALE: Yeah, I mean, there’s some great music that just exists other places. Music that is kind of regional in a lot of ways. A lot a lot of great music. And so it’s just fun to tap into those worlds. And for us, it’s more about getting a hook into it. We really struggled to get any bands from afar to Pickathon until the first couple came and had a great time. Their worlds kind of spread messages. And now there’s probably 10 people not from the United States, at least in this lineup.

XRAY: Speaking of lineups, do you have any stand out ones from the past few years where you just were like, “I can’t believe they’re playing this festival.”

ZALE: Well, we were just talking about this. I have a very strange kind of feeling when any of these bands that I get to see, as obscure the the band Cedric Burnside, who’s RL Burnside’s grandson, you know. I just I just get really excited about weird music. Or this great punk, hip hop artist Sneaks from from New York. Or this other great band called The B boys. Who’s this kind of different type of punk rock, less electronic. And The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys, which is this really tiny bluegrass band out of Virginia but they are amazing.

And then the big artists, just from Pickathon being around so long. Nathaniel Ratliff really wanted to come. We can’t afford Nathaniel Ratliff in any kind of capacity, he’s playing two nights at Edgefield kind of big. But he really is a cool guy. Interesting, if you remember Richard Swift, who just passed away, he recorded a lot of his records. And so he always came to Cottage Grove, we had lots of connections and it just kind of lined up for them to make it this year. And he’s going to do something he doesn’t do which is his older catalogue with a different band, or part of the same band, he’s going to do two different things at the festival. And he is just like a kid, just totally into it. 

You know, I’m really into Tyler Childers, who you may or may not have heard of, but he’s kind of like a superstar, somewhere in a weird, ideology, stuck between like Sturgill Simpson and the Avett Brothers. But he’s very much his own thing and he’s amazing.

XRAY:  Do you get to enjoy the festival when you’re there?

ZALE: I’m off. No radio, no nothing. All I’m doing at that time is actually just watching music because it’s way too much work. Way too much work, to not just have fun. 

XRAY: That’s good. Would you say that’s the most rewarding part of about the festivals when you get to actually go and see all the bands?

ZALE: Yeah, I mean I always contemplate this. Year round there’s a cycle. And I know since you guys are involved in the PDX Pop that you understand this. You get to enjoy different parts of it for different reasons. Like picking the lineup is really stimulating to kind of try to take in thousands of things and boil it down and get excited, and you know, have late night parties listening to it with friends, and making fun calls. And so there’s a whole cycle and a rhythm and now we’re right past the lineup and now we’re going to start getting into producing a lot of original content. Writing shows, because we’re starting to write stuff that could end up on Netflix. But we’re trying not to do it like the typical way, we’re trying to make a docuseries cool, with real things that happen and taking advantage of just the fact that it’s kind of ridiculous at Pickathon.

XRAY: Would that just follow the creation of the festival?

ZALE: Well, the one series that were two series that we’re doing probably this year, like we do a bunch of small, we do 20 original series that are on YouTube on our YouTube channel that are more music based, comedies, spoken word, like one song kind of thing. But there’s one every day from October to August, we’re releasing stuff all year long. 

These other bigger shows are more like 20-30 minutes. One is called “Curation,” where we take a chef and we take an artist, and we have them collaborate. We go to their hometowns, and we meet them and they have this collaboration and where they just kind of figure out what they want to do together. And then they create a meal for 100 people at Pickathon, which is a real thing you can buy tickets for, and we’ll have 10 of those. 

And then we have another one we’re shooting probably called “On the Road” where we’re going to follow like some young or established bands for several weeks on the road. Just a real thing. Like the ups and downs, the struggles, the good the bad, and weave these stories in and as they come through Pickathon and after. These are like things that artists are kind of trusting of us we get in their personal space and can do these cool things.

XRAY: That sounds really exciting. I’d watch those shows.

ZALE:  It’s all theoretical. 

XRAY: So Pickathon is really is a year round content producer. I mean, the live videos that are that are out there for performances, it just it feels like it’s just constantly going.

ZALE: It’s the only way we can survive. So if we’re going to survive, that is really truly the only way. You know, paying people, it comes down to running these festivals is expensive. And really after so long of doing it, you really want to start taking care of people and not asking everyone, for us. And I know it’s the same for PDX Pop, how do you just make it sustainable? You know, and since we’re bringing artists that would never play for free, like we actually are in that ecosystem now where we have to pay, and it just trickles down to more and more dedicated people that you really want to make everything fair and awesome. And it’s hard, you know, and running the festival the way we do. This content idea is kind of something that we’ve been saying for 10 years, and it’s just now finally coming to fruition because digital content is finally much more in demand.

XRAY: And it kind of brings a bit of Portland to the whole world.

ZALE: Yeah, we want to keep it real. I think that a lot of this music doesn’t get out there in pop culture a lot, some of it does. And so having it subvert that kind of machine of, you know, easy to digest pop culture, I think is kind of part of our mission. So we can we weasel in there as a top 10 Festival in Pitchfork. And we do. 

But I always say, we’re like 20 x smaller than the next Festival on that list. And that’s just like, okay, but we can take all these artists and kind of elevate them to this level. And that’s fun, too, because we were pretty fearless on the fact that you should program these things based on the best possible music and not get mixed up with the fact that yes, you know, some of your best possible music is going to be expensive and draw. The normal festival model is I’m going to look on Pollstar. What do they record, do they sell? How many tickets do they sell? And I am going to program a festival based on that? So it’s like a data driven thing, which is no fun.

XRAY: Yeah. Pickathon is so refreshing. I find it really is about the music and being an authentic experience.

ZALE: Yeah, I gotta keep it fun.

XRAY: We have like a lot of younger artists that we play on the show. For anyone that their big aspiration is to one day play Pickathon, what advice would you give them to get noticed or really put their name out there?

ZALE:  Just be into what you do. And and just take yourselves seriously, make it believable for whatever you’re doing. Feel it and make it believable. And you know, I think that that’s really the core thing, lots of styles can work. It’s just when you are a fan of something and you see it, you really believe it and feel it. And it’s a subtle thing to say but it’s kind of the line for me. If people are copying something and they just are playing a style that they really want, that just takes you out of it. So just be passionate.

XRAY: What’s your favorite stage at Pickathon?

ZALE: Well, the galaxy barn is perennially where the mayhem kind of is. I’m a mayhem guy. So rolling apocalypse zombies like tumbling over each other to the Bee Bee Sea last year was one of my favorite things. They were fantastic. Yeah, Bee Bee Sea from Italy for people that need a reference.