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The Nation

Seattle Brings Local Bands to Callers on Hold

February 27, 2006|Lynn Marshall | Times Staff Writer

SEATTLE — Chances are that if you call City Hall or one of this city's many departments -- say, waste management or animal control -- you will be put on hold. The average wait time runs about 50 seconds.

They are precious seconds, so precious that Seattle, a city devoted to civic politeness and self-promotion, figured out a fresh way to fill them: with the music of its homegrown bands.

Now, while waiting to talk to the mayor or report a neighbor's barking dog, you might hear the gentle strumming of folk duo CeltoGrass or the soothing rhythms of the Japanese zither as played by Aono Jikken.

The music of 11 local groups -- from genres as varied as jazz and salsa -- is featured in the city's OnHold program. It's on a loop, so you get what you get.

A blurb at the end directs you to www.seattle.gov/onhold, a city website where you can download the music as a podcast or order it through Amazon.com and CDBaby.com. A percentage of the proceeds goes toward furthering arts education in the city.

Some see the program, which began this month, as an example of Seattle being on the cutting edge of digital marketing. A few see a city -- forced indoors by rain for months at a time -- with too much time on its hands.

It appears the city "invested a great deal of staff time on the program," wrote Stefan Sharkansky, a contributor to the blog Sound Politics. "Is there really that much spare capacity hanging around in city government?"

The city hasn't compiled numbers, but the program's website has seen steady traffic since its debut, spokeswoman Lori Patrick said.

"Dozens of visitors have raved about the project," she said.

Michael Killoren, director of Seattle's Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs, home to the OnHold program, said he believed the program was a first of its kind in the nation. He has fielded inquiries about the logistics of OnHold from officials in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The idea came from city employees who were tired of complaints -- from the public and co-workers -- about the phone system's background tunes, which Killoren described as "basic canned music."

"We have a strong directive from the mayor to find more ways for the different departments of the city to work together, and this is a creative solution that enables us to do that," Killoren said.

OnHold is the result of a partnership between Killoren's office and the city's Information Technology Department.

The new music is anything but canned.

"A lot of it is about what's up and coming, and you'd have to be an insider, part of the scene to even have some of these folks on your radar," said Peter Monaghan, editor of Earshot Jazz, a local jazz magazine.

His only complaint about OnHold is that callers won't be on the line long enough to really get a sense of the music. Yes, it's true: He'd like longer wait times like he's experienced in other parts of the country.

"It's ironic really," he said. "The bureaucracy here is actually pretty efficient, unlike other cities I've lived in."

In the '90s, Seattle was known as the center of the grunge music movement, made popular by such bands as Nirvana and Pearl Jam. The city doesn't have that kind of a national reputation these days, but the mayor's office estimates that the music industry here supports about 8,000 jobs and generates $1.3 billion annually.

Monaghan calls the local music scene "phenomenal," and says that participating musicians such as Dave Peck and Wayne Horvitz "really are world class." He hopes the program will bring more exposure to Seattle's musicians.

The city, which had a list of more than 100 "civic partners" in the music industry (groups that perform at noontime concerts at City Hall and at other city events), invited about 200 artists to submit music. Fifty groups responded. Since the program launched, at least 50 more bands have submitted recordings.

The selections will change quarterly; the program advises artists that "unusually harsh tempo, abrasive instrumentation and aggressive timbres" might not be suitable. A panel of city employees listens to submissions and decides which recordings to use.

Betsy Brockman, manager of the 40-member Northwest Chamber Chorus, said that the group submitted recordings from three of its CDs and that she was happy one of them made the cut. "For us, it is really about getting our music out there," she said. "If people hear it, they might like it, and follow up with a purchase or by attending a performance."

And that is the whole point, Killoren said.

"This is about promoting local artists," he said. "It's good for the city, and we hope the podcasts will pick up, maybe generate some sales. We're thrilled about the program. There are so many ways a city can directly support the arts, and this is a step in that direction."

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