And the Bands Played On
Lessons from a cultural focal point of the late 1800s and early 1900s
Hi. Hey. Hello. This is the fifth edition of The Other 90. If you missed the first four, you can read them here. As always, if you like what you read, share it! If you don’t like it, still share it, but I understand you’ll be doing so begrudgingly.
Let’s start here:
In recent weeks, the future of the internet and its role in society's decline has dominated headlines in the United States and beyond. Litigating the disastrous community moderation policies that allowed disingenuous actors to poison the well until there was a coup is beyond the scope of today's post, but as I've read story after story of the radicalizations that have occurred, they all come back to community, and our common challenge of finding a place to fit in, to feel connected, and the importance of a sense of place.
Reading so much about those challenges the last few weeks sparked a memory for me - one that unearthed some documents I’ve had sitting in my apartment for the last decade. I hope it will spark some thoughts for you, too.
Byron McKinney made documentaries, mostly for public broadcast channels. One chronicled the history of flight and was the highest grossing documentary of all time until Fahrenheit 9/11. Another, a history of Washington, D.C., was nominated for an Academy Award. In early 2013, a collection of his films was accepted by the UCLA Film & Television Archive.
There's an unmarked black binder on the shelf in my office that isn't from one of those films, but it is from my grandfather Byron. In 1993, his production company was attempting to secure funding for a film called And The Bands Played On. The binder is a copy of the treatment they sent to businesses and philanthropists in an effort to fund the project.
The mere fact that the pitch is on physical paper is a sign of how far we've come in the decades since. Its pages are all in clear plastic sleeves, and the type is generic and flat. Some photo pages are clearly copy machine creations, a fact given away by the shadow from the caption when it was placed over the image and copied. The 23-sleeve affair is quite simply a relic of time passed by.
And The Bands Played On was supposed to be about the bandstand movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The pitch itself calls the brass band and bandstand movement "the greatest manifestation of culture in the United States of America" during that period.
That's a lofty statement, but for a certain subset of America, Byron was probably right. Bandstands popped up all over the United States following the Civil War thanks to nostalgic soldiers that missed their campfire songs and the camaraderie music brings. They were simple to construct - most were hexagonal with a roof but open to all sides - and therefore easy to duplicate, modify, and customize. The stands were often placed centrally in the town square or park and used for weddings, concerts, and whatever meeting needed a home. Bandstands were the place for families to begin, entertainment to be had, and also sometimes where an end was mourned.
Charles Gwathmey, a fellow of the American Institute of Architects, summed it up thusly in 1987:
"A bandstand is both symbolic and cultural. It simultaneously instills a sense of permanence and of speculation. It provides memory and fantasy. It bridges the generations by seducing both the child, as a large-scale toy, and the adult, as a stage of dreams. It is the ultimate icon of freedom; freedom of choice, spirit and soul. It is about wonder and universality. Finally, it is a recognition of human ideals; there is no limit."
And The Bands Played On was going to unfold through reenactments of performances, an off-camera narrator, and glamour shots of bandstands young and old (much like the 90s are the nostalgia of today, bandstands were the nostalgia of the 90s). In a climactic moment, the film was to include a re-creation of a concert at a bandstand where Wynton Marsalis played his way through the "Flight of the Bumblebee" or "The Carnival of Venice".
Performances aside, the pitch focuses on what bandstands meant to the community at large. Phrases like "sense of community" and "communal solidarity" are underlined throughout. The final paragraph of a section on the film's content reads: "Who among us cannot be concerned seriously about the quality, or more accurately the lack thereof, of life in the cities and towns of America today? One might also ask, 'Where are all those brass bands and bandstands now that we need them to help our nation recapture its lost sense of community?" (Their bold, not mine.)
At the end of the proposal, Byron gets down to brass tax. "You, the recipient of this proposal, are one of 100 leaders in America being approached initially to help in whatever way you can to fund this project," he wrote. "Will or can you help?" (My bold, not theirs.)
And the Bands Played On was never fully funded or produced. It was, I think, pitched two or three decades too soon.
How do you define community? I've spent a lot of time asking that question ever since my first job out of college, acting as what we now commonly call community managers, but a decade ago was a "multimedia content specialist." Brief after brief in the years since have usually asked one of two things from the internet: 1) make us money; 2) make us famous. Both are certainly doable online, and we have the case studies to prove it. But to make a lasting impact online, to truly embrace the power of what the internet can do, has always required building a community that can rally around you. Maybe it's because you're entertaining, or because people share your opinion on an issue, or maybe it's because you find similar things oddly satisfying. It's in those moments of commonality that people see beyond brand or personality and see others like themselves. It's in those moments that the central figure, whether a brand, an idea, or a person, becomes the bandstand.
In 2021, the idea of a central place where everyone truly gathers feels so foreign. Sure, we're all on Facebook, and a lot of us are on Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and more. But we aren't really gathered together in those places thanks to algorithms, who we follow, etc. It's as if we all think we're meeting at the same bandstand but in reality the music we’re hearing is all just different enough to make it a problem when we compare notes. The niche-ening of the internet has fractured common connection points, created alternate realities, and given everyone their 15 seconds of fame at the top of their own bandstand steps. The pendulum of history swings between "for better" or "for worse" a lot, but it certainly seems to have been stuck on the "for worse" side a lot more lately when it comes to the internet and its impact on the world.
So it was with all this in mind that last week I pulled out the proposal for And the Bands Played On once again. The prescience of the questions being asked continued to shine through: Should we be concerned with the quality of life in America today? Do communities change at all over time, or is it merely where those communities gather that continues to evolve? Who do we leave behind when we set a barrier of entry for communities? What happens when the idea of community becomes commodified?
At its best, a bandstand came to represent a common place where there was always something going on, open to anyone who attended, rooted in a want for connection and empathy for all. It sounds almost naive to wish for more of that mentality on the internet and where it takes us next, but that hasn't stopped me from pondering what a more "bandstand" approach to the internet might look like. What it could to algorithms, the nature of our personalized internet firehoses, refocusing on small connection points versus scale and reach, and so much more.
When Byron passed away in 2007, he left an enormous amount of physical documents to be sorted through, one of them the proposal for a documentary about bandstands that never got made. What my grandfather saw in 1993 was just the tip of a 28 year iceberg; the starting line for a period of unparalleled growth in technology that we are only now starting to reckon with the consequences of. And The Bands Played On was never meant to offer a verdict on that uncertain future, but to draw parallels of lessons learned and to showcase the potential of community, no matter where it finds its home.
The experiment that is the internet is still in its infancy compared to the long arc of history; it's not too late to learn the lessons my grandfather saw in the rise & fall of brass bands and bandstands a century ago. When documentaries are made about 2021, they will likely voice many of the same prescient concerns And the Bands Played On was meant to give credence to. And so I'll put this to you - the people helping shape the future of community online and off in your roles at agencies, companies, and more:
How can you approach briefing, creating, producing, etc, in a way that builds communities for the better? How can you use the bandstands you control for good? What tangible value will you push yourself and others to provide in 2021? Will or can you help?
Rex Woodbury’s post about the bifurcation of social media into more personal social spaces and more broad media-driven spaces makes some points that intertwine with pieces of the post you just read here.
I love the premise of critic Alan Sepinwall’s new podcast Too Long; Didn’t Watch. In each episode, he watches the first and last episode of a famous show with an actor that never saw it. Give a listen to Jon Hamm trying Gossip Girl or Alison Brie trying to figure out what’s going on in Game of Thrones.
Meet the most famous North Korean on YouTube.
The Other 90 is written by Rob Engelsman, a former baby model and now the VP, Head of Strategy at Annex88 in New York City. You can find him on Twitter, Instagram, & LinkedIn. Today’s post was first published as a blog for Huge in 2013, but has since been wiped from the internet. I significantly updated that original post and added more contemporary thoughts for today.