Sumedha Sood

April 22

HeadCount evolved from an idea that politics and music are inherently intertwined, says co-chair Andy Bernstein. The grassroots group recognized that young people are already getting together and sharing ideas. They’re already organizing around things that they care about, and one of those things is music. It just made good sense to add civic engagement into the mix.

Last week, Concerts4Charity released A Call to Action, a documentary about how the live music community and grassroots organizers came together to form HeadCount, a voter registration group focused on registering young people at concerts and music festivals. Those involved with HeadCount include Phish, Bela Fleck, the Dave Mathews Band, and Bob Weir of The Grateful Dead–who sits on the organization’s Board of Directors.

Bernstein says when he thinks about political organizing, he hears music. “I always picture music from the 1960s. Social movements to me are often tied to music,” he said. “[We’re] fully recognizing that Woodstock is not the Martin Luther King ‘I Have a Dream’ speech–and that Jerry Garcia and Gandhi are not to be in the same sentence. I’m not trying to put music in a place it doesn’t deserve to be. But music is an imprint. It’s something that strikes people at a very core emotional level. Something that inspires people and also inspires change.”

In 2004, HeadCount registered 48,500 people to vote – more than any other all-volunteer group. Now, before the 2008 Presidential Election, the group plans to beat that record, with the goal of registering 100,000 voters at 1,000 live concerts.

But how many young people who happen to fill out a form at a music festival will actually turn out to the polls come November? Bernstein says 81 percent of 18-to-24 year olds who registered to vote ended up voting. That’s pretty comparable to the rate for the general population, which is 89 percent. “It’s probably a misconception that a lot of young people register and don’t vote,” Bernstein said. “The reality is that a lot of young people don’t register.”

The 20-minute film, A Call to Action, makes it clear that HeadCount tends to show up at certain kinds of concerts and festivals. Bernstein said that the group’s next step is to diversify ethnically and register voters at hip hop shows, international music shows, etc. “Very candidly, we’re not there yet,” he said. “You start somewhere…. The festivals that we’re at is very much a music community–not a very ethnically diverse community, but a community.”

Targeting some audiences and not others could potentially affect HeadCount’s nonpartisanship. But both Bernstein and board member Weir say that their only goal is to register as many people as they can, regardless of political preferences. “Headcount has to by nature be totally nonpartisan…,” Weir says in the film. “Its only purpose is to get people registered and get them pointed toward to the polls. It’s up to the folks to make their own minds up.”

Bernstein says the organization can’t make young people care, but it can do its best to inspire people. “We want to give people a reason to care, inspire people, and make things relevant,” he said. “You can’t make someone care about something, you can only present things in a way where they choose to care.”

Music has proven an effective way to do that. Watch the full HeadCount documentary, A Call to Action.

Sumedha Sood is a 2007 fellow in the Academy for Alternative Journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. The former assistant editor at the Center for American Progress, she is a frequent contributor to WireTap and