Insider’s Look – Pickathon 2017 – How to Jump a Shark

Aaron Sharpsteen / July 28, 2017
Ural Thomas and the Pain. All photography by Aaron Sharpsteen
Pickathon – Ural Thomas and the Pain – Aaron Sharpsteen

This is largely meant for people who work in the music industry, as freelancers, contributors, content producers, public relations agents, and many more. I suppose the average festival attendee might find some of the information here useful, in that it provides a “behind the scenes” viewpoint into some ways that the festival may be different this year.

It is with great sorrow that I must declare at this point that Pickathon as I know it and love it is probably dead. What exactly was that festival? Several years ago I was attending and I saw a great performance from Ural Thomas and the Pain, and noticed that drummer Scott McGhee was acting as the defacto band leader, leading from behind. So afterwards, backstage, I walked up and talked to him. We ended up talking about drums and I did my first interview for a website that I would eventually establish (and neglect, admittedly) featuring interviews with underground drummers.

Another time, as I was standing backstage waiting in line for a refreshing beverage, Sinkane walked up behind me and we had a conversation. I was able to personally thank him for getting me into a show in Portland years earlier when he opened for Toro y Moi at the Wonder Ballroom and the headliner’s press person flaked. He personally got me into that show that night.

Last year, backstage in the Galaxy Barn, hushed onlookers watched as two birds left to go find food for their chicks and a rather large hunting spider made its way into the nest, with the parents frantically flying back to try and save their offspring. It was a reminder that even in the midst of a very technologically advanced festival, we were still all in a barn, listening to music in rural Oregon.

Wolf Parade
Wolf Parade

Pickathon has always been my favorite music festival because of the ideals that it manifested, particularly egalitarianism and democracy. Backstage access was given to volunteers, journalists, managers, and artists alike, and those areas turned into places where people could mingle with their friends and favorite bands in equal measure, conducting on-the-fly interviews and portrait sessions and contributing to a vibrant ad-hoc creative community that really did start to feel familial by the time the weekend was over.

That vision has been scrapped. This year, with the help of A&O Public Relations (a PR firm NYC and LA who are attempting to put roots down in the PNW), Pickathon has moved towards a more corporate, exclusive festival structure, in which only select outlets and journalists are being given backstage access and photo access. This plummets the festival from the pedestal it was surely on in the eyes of many who covered it and puts it squarely in the midst of other festivals who treat freelance journalists as a kind of a more interested attendee.

Jessica Pratt
Jessica Pratt

It is important always to keep things in context. Pickathon is still a world-class festival that has very positive approaches to sustainability, artist curation, and integrating local talent. It will be a joy to watch Coco Columbia and Charles Bradley open up the festival on Thursday. It will be a pleasure to watch Cat Hoch, 1939 Ensemble, and The Last Artful, Dodgr represent Portland on Friday. It will be hard to pick between Dungen and Dinosaur Jr. on Saturday. And it might be impossible not to close out the festival with Ty Segall and his antics on Sunday. But added to all this quality in previous years was another layer: a layer of community, cooperation, and egalitarianism. The festival has turned away from those ideals in favor of tiered-access for journalists, giving access only to select outlets and creating first/second class press pools, denying freelance photographers the chance to create work without having to jostle around in the front of the crowd (that is if they let any unapproved DSLRs in at all) to get workable shots, proposing that controlled folders of pre-selected and edited images should be acceptable after years of accessible creation for everyone, Adding to this is the complication that many of these policy changes were not communicated until after the press application process, meaning that people found out exactly what they would and wouldn’t be getting based upon criteria they never got to access.

There are plenty of conversations to go forward from here. In the larger context of Portland, I suppose it shouldn’t be at all surprising that one of Portland’s best festivals has decided to blow up the open access policies which made it what it was in the name of whatever new values are guiding their decisions, as many worthwhile vestiges of Portland are being cast aside in favor of the new. However, this is certainly an example of how not to do a bunch of things, and a lesson in how to piss a bunch of people off who have supported your project for years.

Pickathon is next week and tickets are low. Go here and buy one to enjoy great music. If you spot someone wearing an “Eat My Shit” shirt, please feel free to come up and talk about music, journalism, and art.



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