WARNING: The opinions expressed below are DEFINITELY those of The CoLab Theatre Company! Learn more at www.colabtheatre.org!

Monday, May 31, 2010

Dispatches from Michigan: Play Payola?

This is something of potentially disturbing news: EncoreMichigan.com, an important online theater publication based in Michigan, is proposing a fee for media coverage on the statewide theater community. Here is the text from an e-mail sent to Michigan producers:

So again I ask: How much is EncoreMichigan.com worth to you?

How about $25 a month for the next 12 months? (Or $125 per season for the summer theaters?) Or $1,000 to become a Seasonal Sponsor (though May 2011)? Or $2,500 to become an annual Gold Sponsor? Or commit to raising $500, $750 or $1,000 through various fundraisers?

Does this seem dangerous to anyone else here? We're not talking about StageSource here. With an organization like StageSource, a fee makes total sense. We pay into the system, we receive benefits and resources as individuals artists and organizations. But these resources and benefits are not valued beyond their individual worth. For example, our fees help pay for community-wide events, a script library, general auditions, etc. None of these benefits are contingent or directly affected by our flat fee.

But imagine if TheaterMirror.com required a fee? Think about the potential problems with this system...

In all cases, financial support of EncoreMichigan.com does not guarantee favorable reviews or news coverage. As always, we'll continue to call 'em as we see 'em! And once again we will not review children's theater productions.

That's nice to hear, but how can a community really ensure that a de facto "Payola" system is prevented from taking form? In the music industry, Payola was outlawed decades ago, and yet the current system works such that kickbacks are still paid by large record companies in order to ensure maximum exposure to large artists and to prevent independent artists from receiving comparable airplay.

You make all the rules you want, but it will not change the fundamental nature of a system that makes reviews contingent on payment, especially when the payment is based on a ranking system. Who can afford the higher tiers of payment? Big theaters? Corporate, commercial theaters? It's hard enough for small and locally owned theater companies (really, small businesses, which we claim to support in America) to compete with outside touring broadway shows. What's to stop a large producer with tons of New York money from blitzing the donation bin?

I'm not saying that there are any malicious motivations behind this proposal. I'm saying there's a naive notion that this "No favorable reviews for money" policy can be enforced. In the beginning, I'm sure players will play nicely. But time equals complacency. I fear the potential for disaster in the Michigan community if this particular business model is adopted.

Something to chew on...


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