HeadCount Pairs Music with Social Activism

HeadCount teams up with artists and concert venues across the country to register young voters

  • by Rebecca Nakashima
  • Published: October 21, 2014

HeadCount's 10,000 volunteers work in regional groups to register voters at concerts all around the country.

At most live music concerts, attendees can usually count on seeing signs that express an undying love for the artist whose show it is, signs containing lists of rules or even signs for the restroom. But they probably aren’t expecting to come in contact with signs saying, “Register to vote here.” That is, unless HeadCount has anything to say about it.

HeadCount Executive Director Andy Bernstein started HeadCount with Marc Brownstein 10 years ago after experiencing the 2000 presidential election, which exhibited historic lows in voter participation and the dramatic Florida recount that decided the election. 

“What we learned in 2000 was a very small number of people can change the direction of the world,” said Bernstein. “That was a very, very powerful idea to us. Florida in 2000 taught us that it doesn’t necessarily take a lot of people. If you can move a few people, that could be the difference to the direction of the planet.”

Today, HeadCount works with over 100 touring bands, and will set up at anywhere from 500 to 1,000 concerts a year and even more in a year with a presidential election, giving concert goers the chance to become registered voters. This year they have registered 25,000 voters and completed over 25,000 more pledges to vote. The organization has grown to around 10,000 volunteers nationwide with street teams in most major cities in the U.S.

“We really try to connect with young music fans on their level,” said Bernstein. “We’re not trying to push a message. What we’re really trying to do is provide something.

10492252_765375609725_5024992455794253343_n.JPGHeadCount really focuses on training its volunteers. They arrive before the doors open for the show and always lead with the line, “Are you registered to vote at your current address?”

Bernstein believes young people have the most at stake with student debt, youth unemployment and the national deficit affecting more young people now and in the future than any other group. Young people at concerts are generally socially conscious but view the whole political system as not relevant to them, so Bernstein believes targeting this demographic is very important.

“A lot of people say it’s really hard to bring out young voters,” said Bernstein. “Well, what HeadCount does is we go where young people are. We go to concerts and on social media. And maybe politicians aren’t in those places, but HeadCount is.”

What started as partnerships with the artists themselves has also grown into relationships with individual venues and promoters. Places like the 9:30 Club in Washington D.C., the Georgia Theatre in Athens, Ga. and the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, N.Y., among a list of others, host HeadCount volunteers on a regular basis.

“This is one of those things that almost happened by accident over time, where we started realizing these were the easiest and most natural relationships that we had with the venues,” said Bernstein. “And they were happening totally at the grassroots level. They were happening without the central organization making them happen. So, we kind of woke up to it and said let’s try to really grow this, let’s nurture it.”

For the last few years, HeadCount has regularly set up during concerts at the 9:30 Club, only a few miles from Capitol Hill. Donna Westmoreland, COO at I.M.P. Productions which owns 9:30 Club, explained that HeadCount will contact the club requesting to set up at a specific concert after clearing it with the artist. Through the years, concertgoers have responded well to the organization’s efforts to register voters.

“It’s as an innocuous a presence as could be,” said Westmoreland. “There’s no downside to trying to register voters, so the response has been always good and welcoming.”

The Georgia Theatre is another regular venue partner of HeadCount’s. Their marketing director, Katie Carmody, describes it as a “symbiotic relationship.”

“Since I began, we’ve always hosted HeadCount during election years and nonelection years,” said Carmoday, “just as a part of the community to help them fulfill their mission.”

RTV.JPGHeadCount created voter pledges for people to sign. They are mailed back to the person before the election. It also entered them into a drawing for a musical vacation provided by Cloud 9 Adventures.

Carmody has worked closely with HeadCount’s local leadership to help increase their effectiveness at concerts. Georgia Theatre has also tried to accommodate the volunteers by allowing them to roam the sidewalks around the theatre despite their no reentry rule and even includes signage at some concerts announcing HeadCount’s presence.

“I admire them so much as an organization,” said Carmody. “I’ve tracked their growth over the years and, having worked with them for this long, and seeing the development of their organization, I couldn’t be more excited for them.”

As an original board member at HeadCount, Pete Shapiro, owner of the Capitol Theatre and the Brooklyn Bowl, has worked closely with Bernstein and HeadCount to not only host voter registration rallies, but also to establish Capitol Community at the Capitol Theatre. By donating the presidential box to be auctioned off at every show, Capitol Community raises money to send local teachers to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for music curriculum training that they will then use in their classrooms.

“I try to do these things with Andy and HeadCount not just for the value it brings our venues, “ said Shapiro, “but also for the value of doing it and creating a model that can be replicated. That’s the end goal. If we can get others to do it too, then we multiply the impact.”

In addition to registering voters at concerts, HeadCount also heads up Participation Row, a social activism initiative that sets up at music festivals like Lockn’ Festival in Arrington, Va., Phases of the Moon in Danville, Ill. and the True Music Festival in Scottsdale, Ariz. Instead of being tied to just elections, Participation Row is a collection of nonprofit booths where people who attend the festivals can get involved. By taking socially conscious actions at the booths, attendees are entered into a raffle to win a guitar signed by all the artists playing at the festival.

As a nonprofit organization, a good portion of HeadCount’s funding comes from the venues, promoters and others in the music industry. DJ and record producer Bassnectar includes HeadCount in his Dollar per Basshead program which donates one dollar of every ticket he sells to a fund that goes to organizations voted on by fans. The Dave Matthews Band’s Bama Works also contributes to HeadCount every year. They have also teamed up with Qello Concerts, iCitizen and Cloud 9 Adventures to sponsor various promotions connected to their social activism efforts.

“We want to take these relationships to the next level. We think they’re really good and foundational,” said Bernstein. “And it’s so cool to think that concert venues are a place where democracy is being nurtured. They’re a place where somebody can learn about volunteer opportunities, learn about elections, learn about how to give back to their community because we’re setting up these tables.”

Interviewed for this article: Andy Bernstein, (646) 674-2382; Katie Carmody, (706) 850-7674; Donna Westmoreland, (301) 947-1133; Pete Shapiro, (917) 992-2433

  • by Rebecca Nakashima
  • Published: October 21, 2014