Who Will Rock the Vote in 2008?

Who Will Rock the Vote in 2008?

In 2004, a handful of grassroots music activism organizations registered over 1 million new voters. As many of these groups struggle for survival, who will use music to reach out to 50 million Millennials in 2008?


Michael Connery

June 27, 2007

In 2004, over 4 million new young voters turned out at the polls on Election Day. By a 10 percent margin, those voters chose John Kerry over President Bush, becoming the only age demographic to choose Democrats over Republicans, a reversal of previous presidential elections in which Democrats and Republicans split the youth vote. In 2006, young voters again picked Democrats by increasing margins, proving that this was a trend, not a fad, a cultural shift in the politics of the Millennial generation.

In part, that shift was driven by the work of hundreds of musicians and a handful of nonprofit organizations which, for over a year leading up to the 2004 election, delivered peer-to-peer, and sometimes issue-oriented, messaging at concerts. Combined, these organizations claim to have registered well over 1 million new voters in 2004 (Rock the Vote alone claims 1.2 million). Just as important, by delivering hard-hitting progressive messages that linked politics to the daily lives of millions of punk, hip-hop, indie rock, and jam band fans, they reached many young people who were traditionally ignored by our electoral system. Together, they politicized live music communities to a degree unseen in decades and helped to reengage a new generation in politics.

Four years later, many of the organizations that helped drive that cultural shift are closing up shop or scaling back just as the Millennial generation is beginning to come into its own. In 2008, 50 million Millennials (those aged 18 to 31) will be eligible to vote. Some studies show Millennials are already rivaling Baby Boomers in size.

When the cultural organizations that helped motivate those millions of Millennials in 2004 are gone, and the infrastructure that supported the political activism of hundreds of artists disappears with them, who will continue to engage these new voters? Who will rock the vote in 2008?

In 2004, at least half a dozen national organizations rocked, punked or rapped the vote–that is, used music communities and subcultures to register, educate and motivate young voters who were not being reached by the political establishment and traditional campaign tactics. Rock the Vote, MoveOn’s Vote for Change tour, P. Diddy’s Citizen Change and Russell Simmons’ Hip-Hop Summit Action Network all cashed in on mainstream celebrities, media hype and massive stadium shows to raise money and register over 1.2 million new voters.

P. Diddy got most of the credit, but for over a year before anyone heard the ultimatum Vote or Die, grassroots organizations, operating below the radar within a variety of music subcultures, frequently lacking the media attention and resources available to the more well-known groups, laid the groundwork for the avalanche of music activism in the fall of 2004. Our contribution came not in sheer numbers registered (probably not more than 100,000), but in the way we returned political consciousness to an overcommercialized music industry and mobilized music communities–artists and fans–to reengage in the political process.

Music for America, of which I am a co-founder, held over 2,400 events in 2004, working with artists as diverse as Lifesavas and Def Jux Records, to Death Cab for Cutie and TV on the Radio. Air Traffic Control, an independent organization, determined that we were responsible for two-thirds of all music and politics events that year.

At MFA shows, fans would register concert goers and recruit volunteers to visit the MFA website–an online music and politics community with blogs and forums–and work future shows. Using night-club flyer style “issue cards,” volunteers engaged concert goers in conversations about topics as diverse as the war on drugs, our addiction to foreign oil and the rising costs of higher education. With these three activities, MFA worked to not just register new voters, but give music fans a reason to vote and a supportive online and offline community that could help make political participation part of their lifestyle.

Led by “Fat” Mike Burkett, Punk Voter operated under a similar philosophy, working with punk acts like Anti-Flag, NoFX, Jello Biafra and the Vans Warped Tour to repoliticize the punk scene. Their Rock Against Bush compilation CD sold over 650,000 copies. HeadCount, an all-volunteer effort started within the Jam Band community, registered 50,000 voters on a shoestring budget. Many smaller, local organizations like Concerts for Change and Bands Against Bush contributed as well.

Today, we think nothing of MTV playing an anti-war video like Green Day’s “When September Ends” or seeing Linkin Park’s new video–commenting on everything from Katrina to global warming–which has gotten almost 10 million hits and 38,000 comments on YouTube, but such things were almost unthinkable four years ago. In 2003, the Dixie Chicks were tarred, feathered and censored for speaking out against George Bush and his war in Iraq. Their activism was both a rarity and a cautionary tale in the music community.

While Dixie Chick Natalie Maines was onstage speaking her mind, Music for America was scouting for artists to take our progressive message on tour. Even though most artists disapproved of Bush’s policies and were against the war, many were scared to get in bed with us. Some musicians (who prefer to remain anonymous), told us they feared industry retribution from corporate radio or record labels. Even more, envisioning earnest canvassers and blue-blazered college Dem types invading their shows, artists were afraid that our volunteers would alienate their fans. Others were skeptical that voter registration and political messaging at small events would make a significant impact. A few, unregistered and disconnected from the political system themselves, thought it would be hypocritical to tell their fans to vote.

Week by week word spread that we were a trusted organization, and hotter artists–many like TV on the Radio and Death Cab for Cutie who were just starting to rise in popularity–signed up to get involved. As the number of shows accumulated (coupled with the valuable work of Punk Voter and HeadCount), taboos disappeared and momentum began to build in spring and summer 2004. Political action by artists–at first underground but eventually mainstream artists–became not just acceptable but cutting edge. The political climate changed in the music industry. This new movement spilled out of the subcultures and underground scenes, culminating in the creation of highly mainstream programs like Vote or Die! and Vote for Change in the fall of 2004.

Fast forward to 2007, and we see the fruits of our labor in those Green Day and Linkin Park videos or the embrace of Punk Voter by MTV, who once told Punk Voter that it was “not relevant.” Yet as the political consciousness of artists and fans and the mainstream music industry continues to rise, many of the organizations that sparked that political consciousness and channeled it into more informed, registered voters are closing shop or significantly scaling back.

The “Big Players” in 2004 were the first to go, but they were never very good at “rocking the vote” anyway. Rock the Vote was always more of a media organizer than a grassroots organizer, focusing on ad campaigns and cashing in on a music pop culture brand instead or organizing on the ground within music communities. Rock the Vote was largely absent in 2006, and the organization is now dormant. Rumors abound of its resurgence in a new incarnation, but no one knows what form it will take or role it will play in 2008.

It’s hip hop cousin, Citizen Change, closed up shop shortly after 2004. Russell Simmon’s Hip Hop Summit dives into electoral politics only during high-profile presidential elections, and there have always been tensions between Simmons and grassroots activists who see his endeavor as more capitalistic than altruistic. MoveOn’s Vote for Change soaked up a lot of cash for Democratic vehicles like America Coming Together, but they too closed up shop by Election Day, taking any lasting results–money, lists, industry connections–with them.

The real loss is at the grassroots level. Fat Mike, founder of Punk Voter, recently stated that his organization would be much less involved in 2008, probably limiting their activities to maintaining their website as a news resource. Music for America lost its funding this year and is scaling back to focus solely on registering and engaging in peer-to-peer outreach at local Seattle shows. Of all the grassroots groups working within music communities that launched in 2004, only HeadCount is scaling up for ’08. Once again, the “dirty hippies” are showing us how activism gets done.

Music for America and Punk Voter alone accounted for over two-thirds of all music and politics events in 2004, and one study shows that congressional districts targeted by MFA experienced a large increase in young voter turnout. That’s a huge hole to fill, and to be sure, it’s a hole that needs to get filled.

In a recent poll of 16- to 22-year-old residents of California by New America Media and Sergio Bendixen, respondents were most likely to identify themselves on the basis of their music or fashion tastes. Not by their race, religion, ethnicity or political ideology, but rather by the cultural communities in which they participate. And numerous studies show that the best way to reach a young voter is through face-to-face peer contact. That’s what made our model so powerful. While the “big players” focused on stadium events that automatically precluded peer-to-peer contact, working small local shows allowed for face-to-face voter engagement among young people within and through the communities they most identify with.

With these groups gone, on the way out or dormant, who will “rock, rap or punk the vote” in 2008? Who will provide that kind of peer-to-peer contact that helped engage and turn out so many new voters?

I can see a number of ways that progressives could fill this gap in our 2008 youth outreach:

  • A new national organization with a more sustainable financial model than MFA, employing many of the same, tested tactics and organizing strategies, gets bootstrapped into existence or supported by progressive megafunders. An unlikely scenario, since it would have made more sense to attempt to “fix” the problems with MFA or maintain support through 2008 rather than start from scratch with a new brand and an untested organization.
  • New partisan grassroots groups along the lines of Concerts for Change might spring up in support of individual candidates. This will undoubtedly happen no matter what; the question is one of geographic diversity and numerical scale. Concerts for Change held approximately 100 shows in 2004. We would need 25 Concerts for Change in 25 different states focusing on multiple musical genres to replicate what MFA did. It’s not impossible, but without a national force driving activists to bootstrap those organizations into existence, it’s highly improbable. Some cities and states are bound to get left behind. Centered on particular candidates and campaigns, these orgs also would be as ephemeral as their predecessor, turning into a pumpkin after Election Day.
  • Political campaigns add outreach at concerts to their youth field operations. This is a solid strategy that was deployed in Ohio in 2004 by a group called VoteMob. It’s not the same as a peer contact from a fan working inside a venue in partnership with an artist, but it touches many college and noncollege youth not reached by traditional campaign field operations. It’s a valuable tactic that I hope campaigns will adopt.
  • Local grassroots groups strike deals with venues or local artists and make concert outreach part of their strategy. Organizations like Forward Montana and the Oregon Bus Project, who already understand the value of cultural outreach, could expand their work and their membership base through a local concert strategy. This is also a tactic we might see in young communities of color through organizations like Cincinnati-based Elementz, Minneapolis-based YO! The Movement, or Milwaukee-based Urban Underground.
  • Music communities themselves might cut out the “middle men” and create their own political vehicles just like HeadCount did for the Jam Band community. This strategy could be facilitated by the work of Air Traffic Control Tower–a group that advises music artists on how to engage in political action.
  • To my mind, the last two options are the most likely to occur, and would create the most stable, sustainable models for youth outreach through music communities. If there is anything we learned at MFA, it’s that local, venue-based organizing is probably the most sustainable form of outreach through music communities, and local grassroots operations with ties to the community, rather than national organizations based in D.C., are a better vehicle for forging those connections. Without a venue, organizations are at the mercy of a tour schedule that skips from one venue to the next on a given night or sometimes leapfrogs entire cities or regions altogether. And local people, who you can meet in person and who have roots in the community, are more likely to gain the trust of venue owners and managers than D.C.-based consultants who are more interested in maximizing turnout in any way possible than coherently integrating political activism into the music scene.

    Here are some more best practices we developed at MFA that can help new organizations looking to do outreach in music communities to get on their feet and hit the ground running:

  • Venues are key to sustainable activism, but in the beginning you’ll need to take what you can get. Talk to the bookers, labels, artists, tour managers, sound engineers–anyone who will listen. It’s a small world and word gets around.
  • Working with small artists builds street cred and opens doors to big-name acts. It seems unglamorous at first, but it’s the surest way to get good word of mouth and gain artists’ trust.
  • Small shows (100-800) are better than big stadium events, and registration can double if the artists encourage people to register during the performance. MFA typically did better at smaller shows where the artists’ commitment was high than at large stadium shows where the artists weren’t committed. Your volunteers have the opportunity to speak personally with everyone at the event, whereas they fade into the background pretty quickly at a large stadium event.
  • The exception to this rule is large festivals that last all day and at which you can have a presence at a booth staffed by 10 folks in the merch, art and food area. Booths at these festivals–and a continued presence at them year in and year out–can be registration goldmines and make your organization a fixture in that music scene.
  • Canvas the ticket line before a show, hang around outside the venue to chat up folks after the show.
  • Hire full-time local staff. Turning a local music scene into a politically organized community is a full-time job, involving volunteer corralling, booking shows, writing and stocking materials, scouting action or event opportunities, tracking down lost materials, filling in for flaky volunteers. If you want it done right, this is not a part-time gig, especially in an urban center during an election cycle.
  • Have a politically savvy person available to artists as a resource, but not as the main point of contact. Artists and political strategists frequently will fail to see eye to eye on messaging and tactics, and you’ll need someone to bridge the gap.
  • Volunteers must be from the local community and from within a specific music scene. That’s the best kind of peer connection.
  • When it comes to materials, shorter is better, but don’t dumb it down. Make sure that your materials match the culture in which you are campaigning in both tone and style.
  • Create a culture of accountability. One of the biggest problems in concert organizing is that you get a lot of flaky people who just want to see a show for free. HeadCount has instituted a volunteer rating system and a zero-tolerance policy for flakiness and laziness among its volunteers. Andy Bernstein, co-chair of Head Count, credits its high registration numbers (despite a small budget) to this culture of accountability.
  • Finally: Involve the bands! Get them sending out emails about volunteering to their lists and spending a few minutes at your table before or after their set. Registration can double if the artists shout out the organizations from stage. The more involved the artists are, the more successful you will be (But don’t push it. Demanding this or that from the artists is usually where the political adviser and bands start to clash).
  • These are just my preferences and what I see as the possibilities. There are a lot of other ways that this can play out and plenty of time in which to do so. At this time in 2003, MFA was just three guys running around Howard Dean Meetups, trying to throw some shows in NYC. It would be months before we received funding and started to scale up. Many of the major hurdles facing organizations or campaigns looking to dip their toes into concert-based cultural outreach are also already overcome. Thanks to the work of all of the organizations I’ve mentioned, artists are more comfortable engaging in electoral politics than at any time in years, and many best practices are already established for organizing volunteer work at hundreds to thousands of concerts across the country.

    A lot of the organizations from 2004 may be gone, but they left a lot behind, and no one needs to start from scratch again this year. Still the question remains–who will rock the vote in 2008?

    Music and Activism: A Snapshot of the National Players

    Air Traffic Control Tower: Working primarily behind the scenes, this group provides advice to artists on how to effectively engage in political activism.

    Elementz and Yo! The Movement: These community organizations successfully use the four pillars of hip-hop to get 14- to 24-year-olds off the streets, providing an outlet for expression and civic education. Such community-based organizations may be the local face of hip hop organizing in 2008, but these myriad efforts are often disconnected and tend to focus on issue activism, not electoral politics.

    HeadCount: This grassroots organization, founded and run entirely by and for artists and fans in the jam band community, has registered 50,000 voters since it started in 2004. In 2008 it plans to be on 12 national tours and hopes to register an ambitious 200,000 live music fans.

    Hip-Hop Summit Action Network: Russel Simmon’s 500 pound Gorilla of Hip-Hop organizing with a mixed reputation among activists. The Action Network registered tens of thousands of voters at its massive Summits in 2004 and teamed up with ACT for a final 70 show GOTV Tour in October of 2004. Lately, the organization has focused less on elections and more on the economic empowerment of young people of color.

    Music for America: MFA sat at the heart of live-music organizing between 2004 and 2006, delivering a peer-to-peer, progressive message to over 3 million concert goers at over 4,000 shows. The organization recently lost its funding and will either massively scale back or close up shop completely in 2008.

    Punk Voter: in 2004, Punk Voter helped build a movement among punk fans with its anti-Bush compilation Rock Against Bush, which sold over 650,000 copies. In a recent interview, Fat Mike stated that Punk Voter will function primarily as a news site in 2008.

    Rock the Vote: Contrary to popular belief, Rock the Vote has thus far primarily functioned as a mass media organization or, at times, celebrity spokesman vehicle, not as a grassroots organizer. In 2004, some RTV street teams canvassed live music events, but their real contribution was an incredible 1.2 million online voter registrations through its website. The organization was largely absent in 2006. Now dormant, no one knows what form Rock the Vote will take in 2008.

    In 2003, Michael Connery helped found Music for America and served as its communications director until December 2004. He is a weekend blogger at MyDD.com and a full-time blogger at FutureMajority.com. He is currently writing a book about progressive youth politics.

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