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 unremarkable binder on the shelf in my living room that isn’t from one of those films, but it is from 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 100 “leaders of America” to ask for help with that funding.
The mere fact that the pitch is on physical paper is a sign of how far we’ve come in the past 20 years. 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 scanned. The 23-sleeve affair is quite simply a relic of time passed by. Its contents, however, remain as relevant now as when it was punched into the typewriter.
And The Bands Played On! was supposed to be about the bandstands 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 Byron might have been 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.
The binder doesn’t say all of that specifically, but the gist is there. And The Bands Played On! was going to tell that story through reenactments of performances, off-camera voiceovers, and glamour shots of bandstands young and old. In a climactic moment, the film was to include a re-creation of a concert where Wynton Marsalis would triple-tongue his way through the “Flight of the Bumblebee” or “The Carnival of Venice”. (Byron liked his documentaries to be action-based, not just talking-head drone-fests.)
Performances aside, the pitch focuses on what bandstands meant to the community at large. Phrases like “communal solidarity” are underlined throughout. The final paragraph of one section 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?”
The documentary was meant to show what we’d lost because of the Model T, and eventually also because of the TV. It would openly question what had happened to our communities, and challenge us to consider what that meant for America as a whole. It wasn’t to be an attack on new technology, but instead an attempt to raise a hand in class and open the discussion. It was, I think, pitched 20 years too soon.
HOW do you define community? I spend a lot of time asking that question since I work as a community manager at a digital agency, but anyone can see the difficulties in answering it simply. The technological advances of the last two decades have been astounding, and it will take decades more still to truly understand their lasting impact on our sense of community. But today, while we’re in the middle of it, I like to think about Byron’s words. Should we be concerned with the quality of life in America today? Has the idea of community changed for the better with the onslaught of social media? Do communities change at all, 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? And what happens when the idea of community becomes commodified?
Some of these questions are being asked, but not enough of them, and those that are certainly aren’t being asked loudly enough. We get caught up in the latest real-time marketing stunt or the newest witch hunt over an ill-advised tweet, bouncing from one 15-minute famer to the next faster than the moniker was designed for. In short, social media’s immediacy means that most of our evaluations of it are immediate too. That’s great for page views and retweets, but not so much when it comes to lasting thought leadership and change. We’re in a digital landscape awash with bandstands and brass bands, and that means there’s a hell of a lot of noise. Noise that many are struggling to discern what to do with.
WHEN Byron McKinney died in 2007, he was not a big user of technology. He still preferred radio to TV, and he didn’t use a computer. He begrudgingly had a cell phone for emergencies but never had it on when others would have liked him to. He was, quite appropriately, living out the questions he had tried to ask in 1993. Sure, some of the struggles to adapt are generational, but recent statistics show that even millenials are disillusioned by technology at higher rates than ever before. There’s something missing, and people are wondering how to get it back.
Unfortunately, And The Bands Played On! was never produced, its questions were never asked, and its search for answers never appeared on PBS affiliates or in grade school classrooms as planned. The appearance of such a documentary wouldn’t have moved the needle or caused an outpouring of discussion about how technology was changing society, but it might’ve left a few questions in the minds of viewers. We are, after all, one big community, so someone around here should start the conversation. My grandfather Byron wasn’t able to in 1993, so maybe it’s about time to try again.
What do you think about the intersection of community and technology, particularly social media? Shoot me a tweet and let’s talk about it.