Interview: PDX Pop Now! Media Director Benna Gottfried

Portland, Oregon is considered by many to be the true indie music capital of the U.S.... or at least on the West Coast. Being at the epicenter of a region filled with great talent is no small feat or burden. Carrying that torch forward is the PDX Pop Now festival. Entering it's 7th year, the festival is a prime example of what a grassroots-organized, DIY music showcase can offer a community. It can also provide a blueprint on how to run a successful volunteer driven event. I had a chance to share a Q&A session with Benna Gottfried Media Director of the PDX Pop Now! Festival.

James Martin: This is such a unique festival for a number of reasons, it's free, it's all volunteer driven, it's all ages...Entering it's 7th year, how was the festival initially conceived (who was behind the original idea) and how has it evolved over the years?

Benna Gottfried: Begun in 2004 in true DIY fashion by a dozen or so members of the PDX-POP mailing list, the group has produced seven music compilations and FREE, ALL AGES multi-day music festivals, to which The Shins, The Thermals, Sleater-Kinney, The Decemberists, Viva Voce, Stephen Malkmus, Lifesavas, Quasi, M. Ward, Menomena, The Blow, Mirah, Talkdemonic, The Gossip, Helio Sequence, and dozens more Portland artists – nationally-heralded and little-known alike – contributed recordings or performances.

In 2007 PDX Pop Now! became a 501 (c) 3 non-profit organization and began expanding programming beyond the annual festival to include workshops and performances in local schools as well as an annual event on the steps of Portland’s City Hall.

One thing that has never changed: all of PDX Pop Now!’s year-round program is planned, presented and performed by volunteers. The organization continues to reach for new heights and take advantage of opportunities to collaborate with other organizations.

JM: Has attendance grown over the years? What do you expect this year?

BG: Attendance has grown by leaps and bounds every year as the word has spread. We expect over 5,000 people over the three days. At the final set of the 2009 festival we estimated at least 1,500. Luckily we’ve been able to move the final sets each night outside to accommodate the growing crowds.

JM: What is the selection process for choosing talent to perform? When does the process begin? What sort of criteria must be met?

BG: Every band that plays PDX Pop Now! must be at least 50% from Portland, OR. The festival is booked by a committee of volunteers led by the Booking Coordinator (also a volunteer). Each spring we launch an online “nomination” process where fans can nominate bands that they want to see at that summer’s festival. The booking committee then takes all of the nominations, plus genre requirements (making sure to include fringe genres such as classical, hip hop, noise, etc.) into consideration when booking the festival.

JM: Are performers compensated for their appearance? Sharing in the sales of the PDX Pop Now compilation? If not, does that dilute the pool from which to pull from? If they do receive compensation, how is the distribution of compensatory funds made? Do bands share in the revenue generated by merch sales?

BG: PDX Pop Now! is a completely volunteer run organization. Everyone from bands, to promoters, graphic artists, bookers, and band guides volunteer their time. When the booking committee sets out to book the festival, they don’t consider any band “too big” and more often than not it is scheduling conflicts rather than need for compensation that deters bands from participating.

JM: With the economic downturn of the past couple of years, what steps have you had to take to keep the Festival going?

BG: Over the past two years we have expanded our fundraising efforts beyond corporate sponsorships. We now hold our signature “Make It Pop!” fundraiser at the Ace Hotel Cleaners which has included performances by James Mercer (2009) and Colin Meloy (2010). We also participated in Willamette Week Give!Guide, allowing individuals to make contributions to PDX Pop Now! We plan to increase our fundraising program over the next couple of years in order to support not only the Festival and Compilation, but also our outreach programming.

JM: Part of your mission statement proclaims you are 'dedicated to stimulating and expanding participation in Portland music." Portland has some world renown musical talent, how involved have those artists been in helping to promote your mission statement?

BG: Every musician who has every participated in a PDX Pop Now! event has done so as a volunteer in support of our mission. Many musicians see the annual festival as a homecoming or reunion. The participation of nationally renown bands such as Menomena, AU, Mirah, The Shins and Starfucker has helped bring our festival into the national spotlight. We have had extra levels of support from the artists who have played our benefit events including Colin Meloy (The Decemberists), Britt Daniel (Spoon), Janet Weiss (Sleater Kinney) and James Mercer (The Shins) among others.

JM: PDX Pop Now is not only about the three day festival, it also helps promote music in schools and holds the Make It Pop benefit dinner/auction. Can you explain the background and goals of both of these events?

BG: The school programming is an essential part of our mission. By bringing local music into our public schools and by showing students how they can be involved in creating and presenting music, we are expanding participation in Portland music and ensuring it’s future.

In the current economic climate with shrinking corporate budgets, we have to turn to our fans to help make, the keystone of our annual programming calendar, the PDX Pop Now! free, all-ages festival possible. Make It Pop! as well as the event we presented at Mississippi Studios with Britt Daniel are benefit events. The funds raised at these events have helped to fill in the gap in lost corporate dollars.

JM: With the festival held literally held on a city street block is it easy to promote BEING GREEN and encourage attendees to recycle? What GREEN aspects has the festival incorporated over the years?

BG: PDX Pop Now! has always been held in a central location, easily accessible by bike and public transportation. Furthermore, we’ve always encouraged attendees to bring their own water bottles rather than use cups on site. This year no cups will be provided, and instead a water dispenser provided by the city of Portland will be on hand for general use.

JM: PDX Pop Now is entirely volunteer driven from the stage hands to the merch table...does this create unique challenges from year to year? Has there ever been a consideration to move away from all volunteers? What are the demographics of your volunteer staff?

BG: In time PDX Pop Now! would like to evolve into an organization will full-time paid staff focusing on youth music education and outreach, among other areas. Additionally, it’s a long-term goal to secure funding for the musicians who donate their time each year at the festival, city hall concert, and numerous other fundraisers and school outreach events. Volunteers come from as diverse a spectrum as artists represented. Musicians, music writers, professionals in the local music economy/local business owners, and, of course, fans of all kinds of music make up the volunteer contingent.

JM: One of the local performers slated to appear this year is HOCKEY..They've recently started breaking out on a massive scale...How did they come on board? Do they have a history with the festival? Is it unusual to have a band of this caliber at the festival?

BG: Early on in the booking process Hockey were identified as an “established” Portland artist perfect for headlining an evening of the festival, drawing people to see other bands that may be lesser known. Each year certain high profile acts are targeted to attract attention to the overall lineup of the festival (e.g. Menomena in 2009). Hockey have been PDX Pop Now! fans and festival attendees in years past, but are playing their first festival this year thanks to a perfect storm of scheduling, and of course, their gracious generosity. We’re certainly honored to include them on the bill.

JM: Sponsors are always looking for "value" when aligning themselves with an event. Has PDX Pop Now been an easy "sale" when seeking sponsorship partners?

BG: When comparing to other music festivals PDX Pop Now! sponsors receive far more benefits for their sponsorship dollars than they might with a larger festival. An exclusive sponsorship at our festival $10,000 in cash or $20,000 in-kind can go quite a long way in making the festival possible and will also give the sponsor benefits in all marketing collateral, press releases and ad buys. This said, with the declining economy, sponsorship of the festival has still not been an “easy” sell.

JM: What does the future hold for PDX Pop Now? Is it a year to year festival? Or are we assured of having the festival around for the foreseeable future?

BG: PDX Pop Now! has a committed volunteer and fan base. As long as the musical magic continues, PDX Pop Now! isn’t going anywhere.