The main stage needed more flowers. It was already a peculiar setting, with the acres of white and lavender fabric arcing like a constellation overhead, and the dirty old Volkswagen Beetle trundling supplies around backstage, and the horses trotting in the paddock just a few yards away. But viewers online wouldn’t see any of that stuff in a tight camera frame, and the digital experience at Pickathon is just as important as the one attendees find in real life. “The production doesn’t just happen in a generic space,” says Zale Schoenborn, the founder and executive producer of the 20-year-old music festival. “Nothing at Coachella or these other festivals are built from a film set point of view.”
This year a wall of ferns situated stage right became the latest quirk at one of America’s most unusual music festivals. Located just south of Portland, Oregon, on an 80-acre farm, Pickathon is part weekend camping adventure, part live concert series, part 83-hour-long music video shoot. Though attendance is capped at just 3,500 people per day, the event has attracted plenty of acts who would land high on a megafestival lineup poster, including the Avett Brothers, Leon Bridges, and Broken Social Scene. “We asked if we could play this because we had so many musician friends come to this festival,” says Broken Social Scene frontman Kevin Drew, who performed at Pickathon for the first time this year. “This is the kind of festival that’s music for the sake of music.”
Schoenborn compares the Pickathon experience to a “Disneyland musical ride,” and he’s not far off. In four days at Pendarvis Farm, I witnessed the folk trio I’m With Her cover Vampire Weekend’s “Hannah Hunt” in a cozy hollow in the middle of the woods; the Philadelphia punks Sheer Mag rattle the foundation of a wooden shed in a fiery set that was not, thankfully, barn-burning; and a Ukrainian “ethno-chaos” band called DakhaBrakha win over the entire crowd on the main stage with a mix of rap, folk, and ambient bird calls.
All of these moments were documented by Pickathon’s 500-person production team, which floods the farm with more than 80 cameras to record every guitar strum and cymbal crash from the festival’s 64 musical acts. The idea is to turn this four-day burst of creativity into a long tail of video clips that can be released and monetized over the course of the next year. “You can think of Pickathon as a content company with a live event,” Schoenborn says.
Pickathon’s founder is fortifying the festival’s digital presence amid increasing turbulence in the world of live music. According to a 2015 Nielsen report, 32 million people attend a music festival in the U.S. each year; a third go to more than one. This massive interest created a decade-long gold rush, with festivals popping up in every corner of the country and across every genre. A downturn was inevitable. “There’s too many and they’re too expensive for a mainstream audience,” says Frank Riley, whose High Road Touring booking agency represents Broken Social Scene, Phoebe Bridgers, and Alabama Shakes. “It looks like there’s an infinite amount of money for entertainment, but there’s not.”
Midtier festivals like Washington’s Sasquatch have been forced to go on hiatus due to declining ticket sales. Some hyped new events are folding before they even open their gates—or in the case of Fyre Festival, welcoming gullible attendees to a weekend from hell. Even some of the megafestivals are facing challenges. Lollapalooza ticket sales were slower than normal this year, while Bonnaroo had two of its worst-performing years in 2016 and 2017. (2018 sales figures have not been released.) “We’re going to see a fallout of some number of festivals in 2019 because the market’s oversaturated,” Riley says. “There’s always some growth over a period of time, it reaches a saturation level, and then the whole thing implodes.”
It’s unclear how severe the impending implosion will be—new festivals are emerging as old ones wither away, and the corporate interests that have turned counterculture gatherings into a billion-dollar industry won’t let them fall out of vogue easily. But Pickathon’s online approach is a savvy new way to stay afloat in an increasingly competitive market. The tiny Portland festival may have lessons to teach others trying to adapt to a world where just plopping 30,000 people in a field with a few makeshift stages isn’t enough to stay in business. “That is how Pickathon is going to survive,” Schoenborn says. “Because content can scale to millions.”
As we sit on a pair of hay bales in the backstage tent where artists swill beer between their sets, I can barely detect the lazy Southern drawl that was so evident in Schoenborn’s voicemail greeting. He’s wearing a tight red Pickathon T-shirt, gelled hair, and thick tinted glasses, evoking West Coast chill more than Southern hospitality. There’s a similar divergence in his topics of conversation, which range from the raucous barn show put on by Italian punk band Bee Bee Sea to the effectiveness of cloud-based festival management software.
The dissonance helps explain why he’s the only festival owner trying to turn his weekend getaway into a “studio audience” for a digital production. Schoenborn, 49, decamped for the West long ago, after studying electrical engineering and working at the college radio station at the University of Kentucky. He picked up the mandolin during a brief stint working for a company in Chapel Hill’s Research Triangle Park, then moved to Boulder to study electromagnetics at the University of Colorado. There, he started a bluegrass band called Soul Tractor and played in his first festival (he’d gone to plenty with his parents as a child in Kentucky). A job designing high-speed communication protocols for computer chips brought him to Intel’s offices in Oregon in 1997, and into the city’s eccentric music scene.
The first Pickathon, hosted in the fall of 1999 at a campground northwest of Portland, was an effort by Schoenborn to throw the “best party” for his musician friends. More picnic than full-out festival production, it attracted just 90 attendees, including staff, bands, and dogs. “My mom ran the gate,” he recalls. By the second year the festival had 220 attendees and the early inklings of a distribution strategy. A compilation album called Pickathon 2000 collected various live performances from the event, which was then primarily a bluegrass showcase. The project was released on compact disc, but soon enough Pickathon’s annual live albums would make their way to iTunes as well.
The festival landed at Pendarvis Farms in 2006, where it’s remained ever since. Its ambitions have risen in lockstep with its profile. In 2010, Pickathon transitioned to using rewashable cups to reduce waste. In 2013, Feist became one of the festival’s biggest headliners. By 2016, it made the transition to a multigenre celebration that could serve the Pitchfork set just as much as the folk fanatics: Yo La Tengo, Beach House, and Dan Deacon all played that year. The secret to the festival’s resilience? Bands seem to genuinely enjoy performing there. “A lot of festivals are just in a flat field somewhere where they can get a bunch of people to stand in the hot sun. This is very artfully put together,” says Sara Watkins of I’m With Her. “It looks like something out of a Pinterest board.”
To sustain the festival, Schoenborn realized early on he’d have to raise either attendance, prices, or both. Weekend passes jumped from $190 to $260 in 2013 and now cost $320. The headcount, though, remains limited to 3,500 people per day. (Coachella, by comparison, sells 125,000 tickets per weekend at $429 and up.) That cap has allowed Pickathon to avoid the megafestival trap of “walking up to the most extreme density you can tolerate with as few luxuries as you can provide,” Schoenborn says. But it’s also made the festival’s entire business model precarious, with Pickathon barely breaking even on its production costs most years.
The internet could provide a third path to sustainable profitability. In 2011, Schoenborn laid out a 10-year vision for how to transform Pickathon into a yearlong digital event. The festival itself would be livestreamed by a sprawling video production team. Content from the festival would be released over the course of the next year in carefully edited online installments. And new stages, built specifically for video shoots, would become elaborate fantasy settings that could catch the eye of a music fan trawling through YouTube.
“If you look at a normal music stage, they all use a pop-up [platform] with a black background and a truss to hang lights from,” Schoenborn says. “You can bring your USB stick and you can play at Coachella or Lollapalooza, doesn’t matter. It’s the same stage. We’ve always thought that was incredibly boring. If I’m going to have five or six music venues, they should all be wildly different.”
Pickathon now has 12 stages; six of them, including the main stage draped in 250,000 square feet of colorful fabrics, the enclave tucked into the woods, and the barn that feels like a dusky honky-tonk whether it’s 2 a.m. or 2 p.m., are open to the ticket-buying public. The other six are private stage sets where artists play their signature songs in half-hour filming sessions. At the Slab, a post-apocalyptic hunk of concrete flanked by a painting of a wild inferno, I watched guitarist Shakey Graves perform while a cameraman framed a shot of him through a rickety box fan. At the Pumphouse, the folk singer Haley Heynderickx squeezed into a shack the size of a walk-in closet with her keyboardist, drummer, and trombonist to serenade the woods and the DSLRs. At the Edge, an outdoor stage right next to the Pumphouse, the Swedish singer Daniel Norgren sang a ballad while festival staff and volunteers sat on weathered couches and peered around antique lamps hanging from trees. “[The art director] kind of makes it look like a living room in the middle of the forest,” says Ashley Mellinger, the producer of the Pumphouse and Edge videos. “We get to have this really intimate session with the band where it’s all about them and everything else sort of fades out.”
Artists appreciate the opportunity to perform in spaces different from the typical festival stages and tents. “Whenever you’re in a forest and that’s where your set is, you have an upper hand already,” Broken Social Scene’s Drew says after performing a private set at the Edge. “It’s going to look beautiful.”
The footage from all 12 venues is brought to a three-room trailer tucked behind the main stage that serves as the digital nerve center of the festival. This is the domain of Ryan Stiles, who manages Pickathon’s video production and is a partner in the festival’s business with Schoenborn (the other two partners are Terry Groves, who manages talent, licensing, and industry relationships, and Ned Failing, who manages finances). The day before the festival begins, Stiles shows me the honeycomb of monitors that will display live feeds of all six public stages throughout the event, routed through a device called a TriCaster to send the appropriate footage to the YouTube livestream. Across the trailer, a squadron of audiovisual engineers monitors the feeds of nine cameras fixed on the main stage, some of them robotic devices controlled in that very room via tiny joysticks.
“A song is your story,” Stiles likes to tell his video teams. Instead of looking to other festivals’ livestreams for visual inspiration, he cites David Fincher’s work on classic Madonna music videos as an influence. Still, his technique must adjust to the technology of the times—though he likes wide establishing shots, he notes that 60 percent of Pickathon’s livestreaming audience watched the festival on a mobile device last year. “A wide shot on a small screen is boring. You can’t see anything,” he says. “So we try to go in for closeups on everything. Get that sweat rolling down, get the emotion when they’re singing and playing.”
Between the two live broadcast stations is a long hallway lined with iMacs, where volunteers log and edit festival footage for more than 16 hours per day. Some of this content will be edited on the fly to be used as bumpers between the live performances on the YouTube stream. But most of it will be stored until after the festival, when Stiles and his team return to the Pickathon offices in east Portland to begin assembling the next year’s worth of original series. “We walk away with over 37 terabytes of footage,” he says in the editing room, laughing at the absurdity of the figure.
Ultimately Stiles’s team will produce more than 250 videos across about 20 original series, to be released almost daily between October and July. Some of the videos have amassed large audiences—a clip of the folk duo Mandolin Orange has more than 500,000 views on YouTube, and a video of the producer and bassist Thundercat has more than 100,000 views. Many of the more popular videos get a boost through distribution by more famous media partners such as NPR. Overall, Schoenborn says the videos attracted about 5 million eyeballs last year, more than double the year before.
Pickathon is in the early stages of monetizing these videos through pre-roll advertising, season-long sponsorships with local and regional brands, and advertisements that make use of festival footage for short online spots. The eventual hope is to license long-form content, like Pickathon’s 20-minute documentaries about local chefs, to platforms such as Netflix. Schoenborn expects that the festival, which has a budget in the low seven figures, will be profitable this year.
The festival’s online efforts have tangible benefits for artists as well. While the rights to livestream musical acts is baked into the artists’ performance fee, Pickathon pays additional money to use artists’ sets in its chef documentaries. In other cases, artists stand to make money from festival videos after Pickathon earns back its production costs. Shortly after the festival ends, Pickathon uses custom contract software to start negotiating licensing rights for hundreds of videos every year.
Schoenborn’s digital strategy is an ongoing experiment that’s slowly beginning to generate real revenue. “When we initially started, it was 100 percent burning capital,” he says of the videos, noting that Pickathon has never had outside investors. “I like to say that piles of money in the desert were burning. They’ve gotten smaller, and the tide is very close to turning completely to at least paying for itself.”
His online efforts aren’t just a passion project. They’re an insurance policy in a business that seems to grow less stable every year. “The general festival world really competes for the same kind of people typically. Mostly young, mostly people that are OK with the normal production. It’s very generic,” he says. “When you don’t have enough young people willing to put up with it, then things start to collapse.”
The same year Pickathon kicked off, a concert promoter named Paul Tollett started another underfunded music festival in the desert of Southern California. It was an ambitious affair, attracting headliners such as Beck, Rage Against the Machine, and Tool. But a lot went wrong. Tickets, at $50 per day, were too cheap. The lineup announcement, just two months before the event itself, was too late. The temperature, at 120 degrees, was way, way too hot. The festival lost nearly a million dollars and might have been a forgotten blip in the history of live music. But Tollett sold his house and car to help fund a second attempt in 2000, and by 2002 the event was profitable. Tollett and his company, Goldenvoice, eventually built Coachella into an empire that spans two sold-out weekends and an H&M clothing line. In 2017, Coachella sold 250,000 tickets and generated nearly $115 million in revenue, making it the biggest music festival in the world.
Coachella’s unprecedented success ushered in the modern era of megafestivals. Now there are dozens of weekend ragers that bring together tens of thousands of young people in a field/desert/Bahamian island for music, casual drug use, and at least a little degradation. Many of the events are owned by AEG, the sports and entertainment conglomerate that bought Goldenvoice in 2001 and has continued to snap up other popular festivals, including Delaware’s Firefly, Seattle’s Bumbershoot, and New Orleans’s Jazz Fest. Most of the rest are owned by Live Nation, another entertainment conglomerate, which has taken over megafestivals including Tennessee’s Bonnaroo, Chicago’s Lollapalooza, and New York’s Governors Ball.
Corporate consolidation has led to stagnation. An analysis by Pitchfork found that the percentage of shared bands among Lollapalooza, Coachella, and Bonnaroo increased from about 15 percent in 2005 to about 32 percent in 2017. Research by Uproxx shows that headliners at megafestivals have grown even more homogeneous in 2018, with Eminem being the standard-bearer for exhausting omnipresence.
The biggest festivals have little motivation to spice up their lineups—in fact, they’re incentivizing this uniformity with their contracts. When a major act like Eminem headlines a festival, he typically agrees to a radius clause that prevents him from performing nearby for a certain time period. Coachella’s radius clause, which is currently the subject of an antitrust lawsuit, prohibits its acts from performing in solo shows in Southern California between December 15 and May 1. Coachella also pays its headliners between $3 million and $4 million, according to The New Yorker, more than they could expect to earn from an arena show. So for Em, it makes sense to have a summer tour composed of stops at Coachella, Bonnaroo, and Governors Ball rather than at Madison Square Garden. For music fans, it means it’s time to brush up on The Slim Shady LP or sit out the major festival circuit for a year.
This is not a problem for Coachella, which sells out 75 percent of its tickets before its lineup is even announced. But it’s placing an intense strain on the festivals just below the top tier, which can face devastating financial straits if music fans don’t show up. “The model, when it scales, works really well. But the price where you make money is between 50,000 and 70,000 tickets if you’re going to have 150 bands at your festival and you have headliners that fall in the seven-figure range,” says Keith Levy, a booking agent at Paradigm Talent Agency who previously worked for Austin City Limits promoter C3 Presents. “The margin where you really start making money is in that 80 percent to 100 percent of your capacity. And if you don’t hit that, then you’re losing money or breaking even.”
Sasquatch, a three-day gathering in a remote part of Central Washington, has suffered lagging ticket sales in recent years and finally fell prey to the festival squeeze. All four of the event’s top-of-poster acts this year—Bon Iver, the National, Modest Mouse, and David Byrne—played the festival circuit all summer, including Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, and Coachella. The 17-year-old event now also has to compete with Seattle’s Bumbershoot, which has transformed from a publicly funded community function to a youth-chasing corporate megafest under the aegis of AEG. Sasquatch, like Bonnaroo, also requires a sojourn to a remote camping site far from any urban center. The thing that once made the festival experience unique has turned into a hassle in the era of on-demand entertainment. “The concern is that if you don’t go younger or broader then you can’t live on for years and years and years,” Sasquatch founder Adam Zacks told the Seattle Times in May. A month later he announced that the festival won’t be returning in 2019. (Zacks declined to comment for this story.)
There are plenty of other cautionary tales. Los Angeles’s FYF Fest was canceled in May due to poor ticket sales. Phoenix’s Lost Lake Festival went down the next month. And amid any talk of a festival bubble, the specter of last year’s disastrous Fyre Fest continues to loom. The spectacularly bumbling Carribean getaway, billed as “Coachella in the Bahamas,” was both a satisfying comeuppance for Rich Kids of Instagram wannabes and a signal that the festival gold rush was finally yielding gilded returns.
Might the challenge of trekking to a festival and the risk that the whole thing turns out to be a Ja Rule–endorsed scam convince young people that it’s simply not worth the effort? Why leave home to enjoy live music when YouTube will beam it directly to your bedroom? Insiders in the live music business are confident that the appeal of festivals will be ongoing, and not just a fad taken up by millennials. “You’re really on your second generation of festival-goers in the U.S.,” Levy says. “I don’t think there’s any concern that consumers will not want to go to festivals in the future. It’s just what type of festival works and how many of them can coexist.”
The events with less to worry about are the ones that aren’t trying to take Coachella head-on, like Pickathon. “There’s this other breed of the boutique festival,” Levy says. “That’s something a lot of consumers are latching on to—a festival with 10,000 or less people where it doesn’t have to be 150 acts but maybe it’s 40. … That’s what you’re going to have to do if you want to start a festival today.”
Festivals aren’t going anywhere—this summer’s Coachella presale sold out faster than last year’s. But a market correction is underway. “The household names, as in a lot of things in entertainment—the big movies, the big music hits, the big TV shows—get bigger and bigger,” says Catherine Moore, professor of music technology and digital media at the University of Toronto. “And the niche ones do well. The middle is much, much harder.”
Despite its elaborate digital efforts, Pickathon will not have the most popular online music festival event of the year. That distinction goes to Beyoncé, whose HBCU-inspired Coachella performance stopped at least my corner of the internet back in April. The two-hour set was livestreamed on YouTube and attracted more than 450,000 viewers, propelling Coachella to its biggest year yet on the video platform.
Despite generating reams of press and breathless tweets (also “Lose My Breath” tweets), Beychella has been wiped from the law-abiding portions of the internet. And it doesn’t seem to have sparked any plans for Goldenvoice to start curating iconic moments for easy access later or charging online viewers for festival livestreams—YouTube announced in May that it will be the streaming home of Coachella for the next three years. All that’s left are cellphone recordings that have escaped copyright takedowns and the promotional shots on Beyoncé’s Instagram.
In this era of overexploited content, it’s shocking that neither Beyoncé nor Coachella has tried to do something more with such a massive pop culture event. Most likely, Coachella’s hands are tied. Festivals often include the right to livestream a set in the contracts that artists sign but have to renegotiate for other rights to the music, as Pickathon does for its original videos.
The scarcity of Beychella, though, may work in the event’s favor. Months later it feels like a “you had to be there” moment, even for the hundreds of thousands of us who weren’t actually there. For most festivals still focused on selling tickets to survive, that’s about as far as they’re looking to push their digital strategy. “You can kind of think of this as an existential question for the festival industry,” Moore says. “Are festivals one-off, never-to-be-repeated experiences, or are they not?”
Schoenborn believes he can have it both ways. Pickathon is quietly worming its way across the internet, but the elaborate stages and impassioned performances may encourage people who’ve never been to Pendarvis Farm to pay a visit. This year a couple of the volunteers on the video production team hailed from New Mexico and Ohio. They’d discovered the festival through its videos on YouTube. Now they’re helping the festival’s reach spread even further on the platform. The Pickathon experience can’t exactly be re-created online, but it can certainly be shared.
“People just like playing here,” Schoenborn says. “It’s a super-fragile feedback loop that we could destroy really easily—but it’s our superpower.”