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Columns > HeadCount

Published: 2008/11/09
by Andy Bernstein

HeadCount’s Future

The most frequently asked question I get as the executive director of HeadCount is, “what are you going to do after the election?” My canned response is, “take a nap.” It took us five years to build a national organization and register over 160,000 voters. After Election Day, we almost need to start again from scratch. I'd rather sleep it off a little.

But, really, there's a plan for HeadCount after this November that we've been thinking about for almost as long as we've been around. It's a plan that takes HeadCount logically forward — building on our collective momentum and experience — but is also far more ambitious than anything we've yet attempted. Call it HeadCount 2.0.

Starting in 2009, our broadened mission will be to use music as a platform to inspire people to be more active participants in our democracy. We will stretch the incredible grassroots network we've built to new purposes. Voter registration will always be a core element of HeadCount's work. But registering voters is only the first step. The next step is to give music fans the tools and inspiration to become more involved, more organized, and ultimately more influential citizens.

By our count, there are more than a million of us attending festivals or concerts by the heavily touring artists we love. We make up a community, and we believe that our community, in all its many faces and branches, has something significant to contribute to the world. There is a set of inherent values that tie us all together: an underlying "Love thy Neighbor" credo that is implied by our lifestyle and our choices. That extends to how we treat the planet, what we expect from our leaders, and what we expect from ourselves. Personally, I believe the world benefits when these values are reflected by the electorate and by our government.

So what would happen if we got organized? If we, as a group, were politically active? If there’s any doubt that the live music community has the power to change the world, just think back 40 years ago, when the culture and aesthetic we’re keeping alive was born. Musicians provided the soundtrack and the rallying cry for people taking to the streets — demanding a national debate on issues like Vietnam and gender equality. They won some battles and they lost others, but they forever shaped the future in ways we can't quite measure and should never take for granted. Back then, the '60s counterculture was at the forefront of a social revolution. We are living in its echo, and it is up to us whether it will be a ripple or a wave.

With 21st century technology at our disposal—the social networking sites and blogs and text messages and micro-communications that have already changed the way our society functions — a unique window has opened. With the right strategy, resources and people, we can weave this all into something truly transformative, something that will have an impact well beyond the homey confines of the live music scene.

In many ways we are like any other subculture or population segment that is poised stand up for its values. If labor unions or mega-churches can be politically influential, so can Festival Nation. We have something they don't, remember. We have the all-powerful force of music at our backs, and that makes the potential as limitless as improvisation itself. When the artists get behind us, as they have with excitement so far, it pours rocket fuel on everything we do. We can change the planet. We can and we will.

Here's how it's going to happen: we are going to take HeadCount's teams of volunteers and bring them well beyond concerts, using live music and affiliations with musicians as a conduit to bring socially-conscious young people together. A HeadCount table won't just be a place to register to vote. It will be place for people who share strong convictions to meet. The concerts will be the gathering place, a point of entry, but our real work will go on away from shows and in the communities we live – both online and physical. HeadCount's current structure will be the foundation of something far grander. We're going to build a home that politically-conscious music fans can call their own.

There are many, many ideas as to what exactly this will look like. And this evolution comes with challenges. How do we take a stand on issues and remain politically non-partisan? How do we maintain a defined sense of purpose when our results can’t be measured by number of voters registered? What exactly will a politically engaged live music community do to make the maximum difference?

We don't have all the answers yet, but many exciting ideas are already brewing. Perhaps we'll work with other non-profits who are already making a positive difference and can break new ground with help from our volunteers and musicians. Perhaps we'll tackle issues through a national campaign, or turn our sites to the Gulf Coast and New Orleans — a place so dear to live music fans that remains neglected and in great need. Maybe we'll work with the non-profit and charitable organizations that our supporting artists hold most dear, and put our volunteer network and know-how at their disposal.

The ideas don't end there. Imagine using music to directly drive civic engagement and socially conscious acts. What if someone could get better seats at a concert or a free download by writing a letter to their congressperson or documenting their carbon footprint? Who is to say HeadCount can't make that happen? Or, what if we were to connect the musicians themselves with the fans who are making a positive difference? Thousands of music fans are leaders In their community or their schools and have a long resume to prove it. What if these fans were to receive special invitations to soundchecks, or dinners with artists? How about a weekend-long retreat, bringing together the most socially conscious musicians with the most socially responsible fans? We can create a dialogue between the artists and the public that can be the spark that lights a fire.

Over the next few months we will consider these ideas and many, many more. Like our country's future, it's an open book. We encourage your input and welcome your suggestions. HeadCount is a collaboration between fans, the artists and the people who make live music happen. Our future will reflect a collective vision where all the best ideas have an equal chance of coming to fruition.

Some of the best concepts, we hope, will come from the musicians. When I meet with the musicians and their managers next year, I will ask them a series of questions: "What do you want your impact on society to be?" I imagine the answers will be similar — that they hope to use their influence to enlighten and awaken, to make the world a better place.

I will then say to them, with humility and confidence, “We’re here to help you do that.”

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