Seattle’s Pay-For-Play Trickle Down Effect

Seattle playwright Paul Mullin has been weighing in on the Pay-for Play scandal within the Seattle’s arts community that was examined here on 5/4/2010 (and even earlier @ Scanning the Dial). To paraphrase Mullin’s perspective, the decision by larger arts orgs to buy into the pay-for-play model as embodied by King5’s New Day Northwest program is ultimately self defeating but it’s the small budget groups who will suffer the initial brunt of diminishing returns…

It all comes down to control. For a media outlet to hand over control over advertising spots in the form of featured segments to any one arts organization (or even a small collective) the only groups with the resources to participate are those with larger budgets. Consequently, even if those groups have the best of intentions, there is a high degree of likelihood that regardless of how much they work at including smaller and independent arts groups, self interest eventually wins out. That’s not to say it is a bad thing; in fact, boards of directors have an obligation as stewards of their institution to look after their interests first and foremost.

The very idea of a Pay-for-Play system as something that will benefit an entire arts community is dubious; in fact, it looks more like a cultural adaptation of trickle-down economics. What I mean here is that regardless of merits and deficiencies of the tickle-down theory, recent events across Wall Street over the past few years have demonstrated that trust without verification and transparency can lead to disastrous consequences.

Another item that gets easily lost in the greater debate on this issue is by designing Pay-for-Play scenarios along the lines of New Day Northwest, media outlets are quietly assigning journalistic responsibilities using methods that have more in common with bait and switch than above the board devolution. It seems clear that the station cane to the conclusion that packaging an entertainment media product in the trappings of traditional news formats has appeal. But making the line between entertainment and news so blurred as to be no longer recognizable could be considered as duplicitous as it is opportunistic.

Mullin points out that the pressures on arts organizations are great enough that it becomes increasingly difficult to resist the allure of short term gains over long term stability. At one point, he writes:

“When they do this, they tend to make ethical errors, some small, like sacrificing genuine artistic quality and innovation for the safety of the tried and true; but some missteps are more egregious, like being dishonest about how their media coverage is come by.”

And Mullin is right. Fortunately, undoing the damage is comparatively easy but there’s no way to prohibit arts orgs across the country from engaging in these practices. If nothing else, perhaps this is another ideal item to be included in the performing arts organization code of ethical practices. Of course, nothing like that exists. Yet.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my recent communications with Paul Mullins even if some of the impetus isn’t exactly the sort of thing that sparks positive relationships. You can catch up on how this rapport unfolded via the following article/comment threads:

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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1 thought on “Seattle’s Pay-For-Play Trickle Down Effect

  1. Thanks, Drew, for your considerate responses in this matter. There’s a struggle for the soul of our art form going on in Seattle. I can only hope that other cities can learn from our struggle and our mistakes. It’s certain to get nastier before it gets better. Your measured and informed voice is a welcome tonic.

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