Songtrust Spotlight, Industry Insight, Industry Spotlight

Industry Spotlight: HeadCount

Chantelle St. Clair
Chantelle St. Clair on Oct 10, 2018

FOUNDED IN 2004, HeadCount is a nonpartisan nonprofit organization dedicated to voter registration and voter engagement. Working with a small core staff and a national network of volunteers, they hold voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives at music festivals, concerts, and cultural events nationwide.

Their work focuses on advancing participation in the democratic process by going directly to new and young voters to educate them on upcoming deadlines and elections, as well as registering them if they are not currently on the voter rolls in their states. HeadCount has registered more than 500,000 individuals to vote through their work at live music events and cultural gatherings. Additionally, HeadCount is partnered with March For Our Lives, having served as the lead voter registration organizer for the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students’ nationwide bus tour. This summer, HeadCount also organized voter registration efforts on summer concert tours including Jay-Z and Beyonce; Macklemore and Kesha; Dave Matthews Band; the Vans Warped Tour; and many other musical artists.

They are now focused on get-out-the-vote initiatives, as many states have already begun their early voting periods for the 2018 midterm elections.

What is HeadCount’s origin story?

It was late 2003, the height of the Iraq war. I was doing something totally unrelated to politics, working as a reporter covering sports and business. Doing a routine interview one day, the conversation turned to politics and I got all amped up. I put the phone down and said to myself, “I have to stop complaining and do something.”

Then I had the idea for HeadCount. I thought, if I just got a few people to vote who go to the same concerts I go to, that’s a contribution I can make. That’s how I can make a difference.

So, I sent a long treatise of an email to my friend Marc Brownstein, who is in the band The Disco Biscuits. He returned the email with two words: “I’m in.”

And so we put together a team and a board of directors. We had no experience. But this was in in the wake of the 2000 presidential election, and one idea that really resonated was that a few votes can change the direction of the entire world. Through Marc’s music connections and mine (I had written a book about Phish and knew a lot of people in the live music scene through that), we were just able to network our way to bringing together a pretty solid group of founders as board members and volunteers.

The model back then was -- and still is -- that we’d have volunteers around the country form voter registration street teams. And then we’d affiliate with bands who are on tour and register voters at each stop on their tour. 15 years and 500,000 voters registered later, that original idea is still the foundation of the organization.

What is HeadCount’s ultimate mission and who do you benefit?

HeadCount’s ultimate goal is to make the world reflect the values of the music community, which has certain inherent values of art, joy, respect, and togetherness. The initial idea was to harness the power of the music industry and music fans, starting by getting people to the polls. Beyond that, we believe that we can apply our “music for good” mentality toward other charitable efforts, and we’ve seen that take place with our “Participation Row” initiative which creates social action villages and charitable auctions at major live music events and other cultural gatherings. Thus far, Participation Row has involved more than 50 other nonprofit organizations and raised more than $1,000,000 for a variety of causes.

We feel that musicians and their fans can be leaders in worldwide social movements, and we’re focused on harnessing that energy and translating it into real action. Our vision is that the music community will mobilize itself into a politically influential force that can shape policy and culture.

Why does Headcount focus on music festivals and concerts to pull in voter registration?

It really goes back to our early familiarity with the space due to my and Marc Brownstein’s backgrounds, and we’ve seen our work and our success grow thanks to the critical mass of individuals who faithfully attend events like LOCKN’, Newport Folk Festival, Dead & Co. tours, and the Vans Warped Tour.

The other idea behind it is “go where people are.” Want to find a bunch of young people (who are more likely to be unregistered voters)? Go to a concert. Simple. Efficient. Effective.

What kind of impact has your initiatives had for the music community and for your volunteers?

Well, certainly registering 500,000-plus voter is what most people will point to. So many music fans have registered through HeadCount and been turned on to their role in democracy through us or a musician talking about our work.

But the thing I’m equally proud of is the direct impact on our volunteers. So many have gone on to get full-time jobs with our partners. There are people all over the music and nonprofit world who got their start with HeadCount. That means a lot of all of us.

Why do you think it’s so important for songwriters/artists/labels/etc to be politically active, especially now?

Songwriters, artists, labels, musicians, and celebrities in general have such incredible reach and influence -- especially in today’s connected media climate -- that they truly have the ability to spread awareness about important issues and galvanize their fans to act. If today’s influencers can leverage their platforms to raise awareness and even connect like-minded communities, we’re happy to play some role in making that happen.

One initiative that’s a great model for ways that musicians can become politically active is our partnership with Jim James of My Morning Jacket for #TheFutureIsVoting tour. Earlier this month, Jim kicked off a tour of six college campuses and towns located in competitive electoral districts where he’s performing an acoustic set, appearing with special guests, and inviting political candidates to make remarks and take questions from students in the audience. We’re producing the whole thing and paying for it with a crowdfunding campaign so that students in these areas can attend the shows for free and get information about upcoming elections. Our message isn’t about how to vote or which candidate to support. It’s about being engaged.

What are the benefits of being registered to vote?

It is the most basic and the simplest way to actively participate in our country’s democratic process, and we think it opens the door to larger forms of activism. Earlier, I mentioned how close the outcome of an election can be, even being decided by as few as a couple of hundred votes. We’ve seen this evidence not only during the 2000 presidential election but also in more recent special elections for congressional seats. We focus our work on voter registration, voter education, and voter engagement, because we want to encourage people -- all people -- to become more involved in their communities and in the systems that impact their lives. Whether you’re most concerned about the economy, healthcare, taxes, security or racial equity, voting and calling your elected representatives to express your views will play a huge role. Our message is not about where you land on these issues or what party you support; it’s that you must speak to be heard.

What kind of resources do you offer to your community that can help them navigate the political arena?

On HeadCount.org, you can find all the information you need about registering to vote, your registration status, upcoming deadlines and election dates, how to navigate early and absentee voting, and even what’s on your ballot or where your polling place is located. We aim to be a one-stop shop for voters, and we are especially focused on taking away the anxiety for young and first-time voters.

What advice do you have for first time voters?

First and foremost, don’t be scared! Voting for the first time can be intimidating; we totally understand that, but it doesn’t have to be. After you’ve registered, it may help to make plans on how and when you’re going to the polls. You might even want to bring a friend along with you. Do it! You’re doing a good and important thing. There’s no reason it has to feel like a chore. Make it as enjoyable as possible. And plan ahead.

One way we’re helping folks plan to vote is through a partnership with Penguin Random House called “Mad Libs Your Way to Election Day” which is an online version of the classic game that allows people to fill in the blanks and then receive a funny, nonsensical story about how they’ll be getting to the polls. Players will have the option to invite their friends to create stories, share their stories on social media, and find their polling places. You can get a link to download the game by texting “ELECTION” to 40649.

How do you think artists/songwriters/etc can better have a voice in politics that can also ultimately benefit them and their careers?

Political organizations may be looking for spokespeople or ambassadors, and knowing where artists stand on the issues -- especially those they feel passionate about -- could lead to potential partnerships and may expose those artists to brand new fans.

But I think it all comes down to authenticity and showing a side of yourself. I don’t think benefiting one’s career is a great reason to be outspoken or active. But sharing a personal piece of yourself is always good for connecting with fans.

How do you think the political arena has changed, even for artists/songwriters, in the last 10 years, and what do you think still needs to change that can ultimately benefit the music community?

Technology has been the biggest change agent in the past decade. The ability for individuals to connect directly to their elected officials and their favorite artists is something that has never been available with the efficiency and the scale of today’s social media platforms. On the flip side of that coin, these public figures now have the ability to engage directly with their fans, and we’ve seen a number of politicians and musical artists use this to their advantage, making real connections with people across the country.

Recognize the power of your voice. You can and should feel comfortable raising issues and speaking out about your concerns, and social media is one very effective way to accomplish that.

I think the opportunity for benefitting the music community lies in the power of technology to bring people together. We saw it in the early days of the internet with fan bases connecting over message boards and websites, and that ability has been further democratized through tools such as hashtags and trending topics.

What does the rest of 2018 look like for Headcount?

Currently, we’re pretty focused on our get-out-the-vote efforts. Most states have just reached their deadlines for voter registration for the 2018 midterm elections; however, a few states do have registration up to the week of the election or even same-day registration (visit our website to check your registration status and to find information about voting in your state).

One major aspect of our get-out-the-vote efforts is our #TheFutureIsVoting tour featuring Jim James of My Morning Jacket. We’re halfway through the tour, and we really hope college students and other members of the communities that make up the tour are taking the opportunity to see a great show and learn more about the candidates running for congress.

I also encourage anyone and everyone to download and play “Mad Libs Your Way to Election Day” by texting “ELECTION” to 40649. It’s a fun, easy way for people to plan to vote on November 6 to make sure they take part in the most important aspect of our democracy.

 As part of Songtrust's continued mission to support and supply songwriters and artists with insights and resources to be successful, we're collaborating with like-minded companies globally to discuss relevant topics in the music industry. These interviews are purely for educational purposes and do not indicate a partnership or exchange of services. 

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