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 home-grown 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.
Music from 11 local groups – ranging from jazz to salsa – is featured in the city’s OnHold program. It’s on a loop, so you get what you get.
But wait, there’s more. A blurb at the end directs you to a city Web site, www.seattle.gov/onhold, where you can download the music as a podcast or order the selections through Amazon.com or CDBaby.com. A percentage of the proceeds goes toward furthering arts education in the city.
Some see the program, which began in mid-February, 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.
“Looks like they invested a great deal of staff time on the program,” wrote Stefan Sharkansky, a blogger for the conservative-leaning Sound Politics. “Is there really that much spare capacity hanging around in city government?”
The city hasn’t compiled numbers, but the program’s Web site has seen steady traffic since its debut, spokeswoman Lori Patrick said.
“Dozens of visitors have raved about the project,” she said.
“It’s really pretty cool,” said Michael Killoren, director of Seattle’s arts and cultural affairs office, home to the OnHold program.
Killoren said he believed the program was a first 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.
“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 monthly magazine devoted to the local jazz scene.
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.
“It’s ironic really,” he said. “The bureaucracy here is actually pretty efficient, unlike other cities I’ve lived in. Back east, you could be on hold forever.”