HeadCount Gets Out the Vote: Nonpartisan group goes where the audience is to register 100,000 young voters this year.

“Our goal is to transform culture in America. We want to use the power of music to make the world a better place. It sounds really cheesy, but it’s true. That’s what we want to do.” – Andy Bernstein

By Mary Eisenhart

With the upcoming U.S. election just weeks away – and drawing plenty of attention from around the world – we thought this was a timely moment to spotlight recent Rex Foundation grantee Headcount, which is currently wrapping up a busy summer of registering concertgoers to vote.

Just four years old, HeadCount is a response to the fact that young people-those 30 and younger-make up one fourth of the U.S. electorate, but fewer than 60% of 18-to-24 year-olds are registered to vote. Musicians, friends and music-biz professionals-initially in the jamband scene, but ultimately expanding into many genres and fan bases-realized that getting youth involved in voting could not only affect the outcome of elections, it could encourage a lifetime of community engagement.

They also realized they were in a unique position to reach young people. As executive director Andy Bernstein puts it, “Where can you look out and see 10,000 or 50,000 young people? At a concert. There is not another place like that.” So they set about building an organization that would register people to vote, at concerts.

From the beginning, Rex and HeadCount were closely connected: several Rex board members, including Bob Weir, serve on HeadCount’s board also; Al Schnier of moe., a longtime Rex supporter, is another HeadCount board member, and various members of the extended Rex family have pitched in. What’s the synergy?

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“It’s very obvious,” says Bernstein. “We’ve gotten pretty broad in terms of who we work with, but the foundation of HeadCount is very much the world of improvisational music, very much the world of the Grateful Dead. Bob Weir is the heart and soul of the HeadCount organization, and it wouldn’t be around if it wasn’t for Bobby’s support. The Rex board includes some of the most influential people in the music scene, who also have really big hearts and really believe in causes. Many people on the Rex board have been helpful to us at HeadCount, and we’re very grateful for that.”

Some of those people, of course, aren’t shy about expressing their political views-Weir, famously, is playing a fundraiser for Barack Obama with the other surviving Grateful Dead bandmembers on October 13-but HeadCount isn’t about advancing a particular candidate, party, or viewpoint, and has been determinedly nonpartisan from the beginning.

After its initial successful efforts in 2004, HeadCount launched the Midterms Matter campaign of 2006. Bernstein explains, “In 2006 we were thinking about 2008 and how to get where we are now-which was not to try to do everything at once. In 2006, instead of having 40 teams around the country as we do now, we focused on the biggest events and did only 30, branding them the Midterms Matter tour. We tried to do a lot of activity around each concert, and we were able to register 8,500 people that summer, without spending any money-we were trying to establish best practices and create a scalable model. ’08 is the scaled-up end of the scalable model. Today the organization is really pretty huge; we’ve got 3,500 volunteers, we’ve done 750 events already this year. We’ve registered close to 50,000 people and expect to get to 100,000 this year.”

With the tour season winding down the election season heating up, we checked in with Bernstein for a little conversation about what HeadCount is up to.

Rex Foundation: What led the founders to start HeadCount in 2004?

Andy Bernstein, HeadCount: It was partially a quote from Hunter S. Thompson that said, “If every Deadhead in Florida had voted the world would be a different place.” That pretty much nails it.

We decided early on that it would be a nonpartisan effort, that it’s about voting, not about telling people who to vote for. It would be about making sure we are represented.

There’s many way to define “we,” whether it’s Deadheads, or people who go to see live music, or people who go to concert festivals. All you have to do is look out at Bonnaroo, or the raw numbers of people who bought concert tickets for the bands we work with, and it’s an extremely significant voting bloc.

So we said, we can make sure this audience is well represented at the polls. Other people focus on their constituency, whether it’s labor unions or gun owners or churchgoers-well, we’re going to focus on concertgoers and try to get them to the polls. People make up their own mind at the ballot box; we’re just going to make sure they get there.

HeadCount volunteers with strong supporter Dave Matthews. HeadCount set an all-time record in 2004 registering 12,161 new voters on that year’s Dave Matthews Band tour.

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Rex: Why concert audiences?

HeadCount: Well, I think there are a few things. One is that you have this wonderful platform: When the artist is talking from the stage about voting, the way Bob Weir always does, you have this incredible cost-free way to connect emotionally with people.

You really want to go where the people are, especially when you want to reach young people. Where can you find young people? Where can you look out and see 10,000 or 50,000 young people? At a concert. There is not another place like that. So in terms of a place that’s ripe for organizing and having an impact, I can’t think of a better place than concerts.

You can take it one step further-the music community really is a community, and the fans are constantly talking to each other and are so wired in, and if you can make political participation part of the norm and make what’s happening in the world part of the conversation, you can move people from being passive to being participators.

Rex: Why is it important to vote? We’re doing this interview against the backdrop of a lot of impassioned discussion about the Obama show, including lots of comments from people who say they haven’t voted for 30 years and they’re proud of it.

HeadCount: Yeah, well, people can also be proud of not recycling, or proud of not being a respectful citizen-there’s a lot of things that people will say that I think in general people view negatively.

But going back to Florida, clearly voter turnout changed the direction of the world-there’s just no question about that. Many, many people’s lives were changed-for better or for worse, that’s debatable. But we’ve had many close elections-multiple congressional elections have been decided by fewer than 1,000 votes. If every Deadhead votes in every election, some election results will be different.

The argument that it doesn’t matter is easy to refute, because there are very strong policy differences between various candidates, and those things do affect people’s lives. If we can, as a group, make our voice heard, the world will be more reflective of what we want it to be.

People say the politicians don’t listen anyway. Well, of course they don’t listen if you don’t vote. Politicians are self-interested; they want to get elected. One reason they’ve not necessarily tended to listen to young people is that historically older people have had higher voter turnout. If we could change that we might make a big change in how politicians adjust their message and policy.

And the people who just sort of live on the margins and don’t want to participate-OK, don’t complain. You had your chance to make yourself heard, and if you choose not to make your voice heard, you lose your ability to have any gripes.

Rex: Have you done any follow-up to see how many of the people you register actually vote?

HeadCount: We’re going to do a lot more this year. In 2006 we found that we were 38% above the national average in voter turnout in terms of this demographic. We know the people we are registering are turning out more than the general population the same age, and we’ll do a broader study this year.

Rex: How do artists get involved? Do you approach them? Do they approach you?

HeadCount: It’s both. It varies. Some of the biggest artists came to us-Dave Matthews Band came to us, John Mayer came to us. And then we went to Pearl Jam, we went to Jack Johnson. We try to make it very turnkey and make it easy on the artists, and I think that’s one reason we’ve been able to attract so many.

We have teams in 40 cities around the country, and we also send teams on the road with some of our bigger bands. We’re based in certain cities in the U.S., and when an artist’s doing a tour, we just let them know what shows we’re going to be at, coordinate with their tour manager, and set up the tables at the show. We keep it really simple.

Rex: You make it clear that you’re not telling people how to vote-what was the Voter Guide HeadCount was distributing at events this past summer?

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HeadCount: If we just tell people to vote and aren’t providing any information about what’s at stake, it’s only half the battle. So we’ve really made an attempt to engage the community in a real conversation about this election.

Among the many things we did in this area, we did a voter guide, for which we teamed up with Rex and with Oxfam America, one of the largest nonprofits in the world. We created a guide that had questions and answers about voting, statements from the artists about the issues they feel are most important in the election. Then Oxfam put together some pages about some of the issues they feel most strongly about, and where they are, and “How do you feel?” The idea was to make it a conversation topic, make it thought-provoking. Put some of the really heavy issues that face the planet into the conversation at a concert. We want to have fun, we want to dance-but we want people thinking about where the world is going.

The voter guide was very well received-we distributed 10,000 of them this summer, both HeadCount and Oxfam.

Rex: Is there an inherent tension between being nonpartisan and your choice of the issues you consider important-and perhaps a tendency to frame them in terms more associated with one political viewpoint than another?

HeadCount: I can tell you we really try hard not to do that.

Rex: So, for example, everyone knows where Weir stands, but if someone came up to you and wanted to register Republican, you wouldn’t give them any grief.

HeadCount: Oh, of course not. Absolutely not. It’s in all of our training materials not to do that.

We’re doing a Christian rock tour right now, and that’s obviously a very different audience. One of our best markets this year is Salt Lake City, a very heavily Republican city, and we’re just as excited about our success in Salt Lake as we are about our success in San Francisco.

We do try to be careful-the other day I was writing some copy, and writing about global issues. I did notice that some of my terminology would be more associated with how a progressive would view global issues, so I intentionally changed the word to “security,” which is more associated with the right side of the aisle.

We have a staff of three full-time people and two full-time freelancers, and only two of them, I know, are registered Democrats. Among the people running the organization on a day-to-day basis, every ideological spectrum is represented.

Rex: So if Toby Keith, say, invited you to come register voters at his show, you’d be there.

HeadCount: Sure. What we’re looking for is artists who have a strong connection with their fan bases, and artists that our volunteers will go out and see.

The Christian rock world is perfect for us, because it’s very community oriented-different community, but still very community oriented, where the message coming from those artists is very strong. We haven’t gone to pop music, because it’s not quite a fit for us-we’re a grassroots organization.

The best example of them all is the Allman Brothers Band. I can’t speak for the politics of Allman Brothers Band fans, but I can tell you it’s not the same as a lot of the bands we work with-a completely different ideology, a completely different aesthetic. And we kick ass with Allman Brothers Band tours.

We want to register voters.

Rex: You mention on your Web site that in 2009 you’re going to expand from registration per se to getting people involved in various forms of grassroots activism. Could you explain some more about that?

HeadCount: We have a long way to go before we really put that plan together, so I’ll speak in broad terms.

We have wonderful potential here. We have a group of artists that is totally supportive and believes in what we’re doing. We have an audience that is passionate, large in number, and connected with each other.

There are certain core values, not political values, but human values, that I think we share-the “love thy neighbor” undertone that comes from the Grateful Dead community. I believe there is an underlying message of the Grateful Dead music and history, and it is “Love thy neighbor,” and it is about sort of finding beauty in the world.

Not to be sappy, but I do buy into that, and really believe in that. I was touched by that, and so many people are. That’s not a political value, it’s a human value. I think it’s shared by all the artists we work with and all our volunteers.

So the question for us is, what can we do with that? How can we take the infrastructure and technology and organizing and volunteers and assets in the music industry, and try to live that out, and maybe live that out in a way that wasn’t possible even 10 years ago? That’s the overall objective.

Now the how and the what-we’re brimming with ideas, and I don’t want to say what they are because I don’t know which are more realistic than others. But right now we’re in a very exciting state where we’re trying to see what this is going to look like, after talking about it for years.

Pretty soon we’re going to figure this out and start making some announcements. We’ll wait till after the election. But our goal is to transform culture in America. We want to use the power of music to make the world a better place. It sounds really cheesy, but it’s true. That’s what we want to do.

Rex: I think Rex is fine with that value.

Headcount: Exactly. So what do you need? You need the support of artists; you need smart people; you need people who are willing to work hard; you need technology; you need some dollars. You need all these ingredients. It’s doable.

At HeadCount we try to connect everybody. We’re trying to bring all these people together; it’s our job as an organization to put all the pieces of the puzzle together and create something very meaningful.

The first step is registering 100,000 voters this year; the next step is staying in touch with those people, and building community, building infrastructure for real organizing and action-around nonpartisan ideological pillars, but through a foundation of shared values that I’m willing to say we believe in.

We believe that the earth should be preserved; we believe that government should be fair; we believe that people should have equal access to voting; and we believe in personal freedom. And you know what, if you asked John McCain or Barack Obama, do you believe in those four things, they will say, absolutely.

And I totally believe they do. No one is going to argue there shouldn’t be equal access to voting. Or “No, I don’t think personal freedom is a good thing.” Or, “Let’s not preserve the earth.”

There are a lot of different opinions on how to do those things, and that’s where it gets dicey. But I think we can agree on some general values, and at the core foundation, it is all about “Love thy neighbor.” It is all about respect. It is all about being the kind of person that gives as much as you take. The things we were taught as very young children hold true.

And now we have this incredible power of music and the music community, and it’s sort of our humble duty to try to put together the pieces to channel that into something genuinely positive.

The Rex Foundation is a really good example of the things we believe in and the things that inspire us. The Grateful Dead were out there for a long time, and there was this potential to channel the force of the Grateful Dead into something tangible and good. That’s what the Rex Foundation has done, and it’s a true survivor. That inspires us, and we’d like to do something like that.

Rex Board Perspective

Rex and HeadCount board member Andy Gadiel says:

“From the first moment Andy Bernstein told me about the HeadCount concept, I knew it was going to be successful. The artists in our scene are committed to making a difference beyond the music, and using the music to raise awareness. By promoting something as simple and democratic as ‘VOTE,’ it gave everyone a framework to rally behind and participate without alienating anyone. I’m proud of the commitment the music industry has taken in trying to promote political participation for the youth of America. It’s the only thing that will truly change the world.”