What Happened to All the Honesty? It Didn't Go Viral.
Can music escape the confines of “trendiness?”
By: Addison Schmidt
This past summer, one of my favorite rock guitarists, Robbie Robertson, passed away at 80. Robertson had a storied career — several solo albums, a history of advocacy for Native American rights, a decade-spanning partnership with Martin Scorcese, the filmmaker — but his work with the Band, a Canadian-American folk rock band, is arguably his most famous contribution to music.
The Band, which originated as the Hawks in the late 1950s, evolved into the final form of the Band in the late ’60s, producing two of the most influential folk-rock albums of the late 20th century: Music from Big Pink and The Band. A spearhead for the Americana and folk rock movements, the Band’s legacy has influenced scores of artists, including other late 20th-century rock acts like Crosby, Stills, and Nash and the sounds of newer folk artists such as the Lumineers and Mumford and Sons.
While the Band is best known for its historical ballads and Southern American sound, one of the less appreciated reasons behind their illustrious partnership was their history, particularly their roots as a backing band. Before becoming a solo act, the Band worked as the backing band for Ronnie Hawkins, a rockabilly singer from Canada, and later went on to play for Bob Dylan, backing on his historic 1966 “electric tour” throughout the United States and the U.K.
The Band was a unique paradox — a group of performers without a clear frontman and a group who eventually surpassed the talent and notoriety of their first lead singer (Hawkins, while arguably paralleling their second, Dylan). While bands of similar stature and nature have come and gone since the Band was a band, few have paralleled their level of synchronicity and success, and even fewer have done it the way they did — starting not with a desire for stardom but a desire to play.
Eventually, as happens with most good things, the Band didn’t last — Robertson has been credited with breaking up the group, citing a myriad of reasons like excessive drug use by the other members and a desire to break from touring, while the other members accused him of abusing songwriting credits. But while they lasted as a collective, the group served as a model for future collaborations and an example of what happens when music is put at the forefront of creative expression rather than fame.
Many of the Band’s original members remarked upon this notion throughout the latter part of their careers, but I believe Robertson put it into words best. In an interview featured originally in Classic Rock 169, Robertson ruminated on the Band’s intentions: “The name alone was saying: ‘This is anti-show business’... we were just five very individual musicians who did something very magical together. And it was only about the music. It wasn’t about trendiness, it wasn’t about selling records, it was about telling the truth.”
This kind of artistry — one that ignores the status quo in pursuit of a sound that may not even sell records — is one that may be officially out of reach.
Rumblings of the impending demise of the music industry have existed since the music industry became a concept — even back when the Band was still working with Hawkins, it was declared that rock-and-roll had, in fact, died — but recent years have demonstrated a substantial shift both in music production and distribution, one which almost inverts the creative ideology Robertson and his bandmates heralded.
The emergence of TikTok and other social media platforms as methods for music promotion has changed the way we consume music.
An entire genre of songs — often referred to as “TikTok music” — has emerged in the mainstream, dominating Billboard charts and streaming services. These songs, which often sport catchy titles and choruses, are meant to fit the format of the platform’s short-form videos, serving a specific demographic of both creators and consumers who, for the most part, are seemingly making music with an intent that serves as an antithesis to the Band’s ideology: to go viral.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with this pursuit — musicians like Salem Ilese and Gayle have earned success in their own right following this formula, accumulating millions of streams on songs promoted on TikTok and Instagram. Most artists are now being encouraged by their management to promote their music on social media, regardless of their songwriting style or sound.
But when a platform automatically bolsters one type of music over another, it presents a question of whether or not musicians can garner a following if their pursuit isn’t virality or clicks.
There’s no real answer to this dilemma — after all, rock-and-roll has never been a genre totally without fame-seekers — but it does seem to provide an unfortunate response to Robertson’s point: music may no longer be able to escape the confines of “trendiness.”