How a Non-Profit Uses Music to Increase Voter Registration: A Chat with HeadCount

26 June 2017
Cheyanne Powell

"We aren’t showing up which means our voice isn’t being heard"

Many attend music festivals for the enjoyment of the performers and artists but let's not also forget the vendors and organizations that travel with the music. Attending over sixty-seven music festivals in the 2016 festival season, the HeadCount Organization is spreading their mission among fans and musicians. HeadCount is an organization that holds a space at music festivals working towards having people sign up for voting registration. They use the power of music, bands, and artists to help spread their mission and participation. Aaron Ghitelman had the opportunity to sit down with us at Summer Camp Music Festival 2017 and explain the importance of the organization and how easy it is to participate in voting registration as a volunteer or a voter.


What is HeadCount Organization?

HeadCount is a national nonprofit that aims to use the power of music to engage others in democracy. We want to elevate and amplify other voices. Be like the organizing arm head of the music community but this is more getting people to engage in democracy. We have a three full-length activation. One, the basic voting registration. HeadCount has registered close to half of a million people to vote since our start in 2004. For last year's election, we registered over 50,000 votes across the country. We’re doing the basic voting registration in addition to getting people to vote local. Our big 2017/2018 campaign is Vote Local. What does that mean? It means millennials, us, we show up to the presidential election. We show up in a greater state to the presidential election and pretty much every generation that came before us. However, we do the exact same thing every generation that came before we did and miss the small ones. The ones for judges, for city councilmen, for state assemblymen or women. These are the elections that determine aspects to our every day to day life and we aren’t showing up which means our voice isn’t being heard. So we want to make it easy and fun, as fun as it possibly can be, to vote in these small elections so we partnered with TurboVote. They are a service that will let you know about all of your small elections so you never miss them. HeadCount is sending updates and tracking for elections in the fifty largest cities in America. TurboVote has every election. It will let you know about all of the races. It’s how can we alert more people. This is why we have this photo booth where you take a photo holding a vote local sign, take the photo, and to thank you we give you a BOBO’s oat bar.

When searching through your initiatives, it is to my attention some consist of PSA’s, webcasts, music for action. What is the strongest source to promote participation for HeadCount?

Our two biggest campaigns are festival activations and digital activations. We’ve been doing this since 2004. We have it down. Last year we did 67 festivals across the country. Then online, our big digital campaign is our register to vote campaign. We have our partnered artists hold clipboards that say Register To Vote. These are the exact same clipboards our volunteers carry. We take photos of them and then they share it on their social media on National Voter Registration Day. So last year the week of National Voter Registration Day, that digital campaign registered 20,000 people. Artists consist of people like Dave Matthews, Jack Johnson, and Mike Gordon. There’s something kinda authentic about an artist's voice telling you to vote for whoever you want to vote for. Also, these are people who have this tremendous reach and that’s how HeadCount started. Marc Brownstein from the Disco Biscuits thought that he has this elevated stage, this speaker and he’s going to use it to make great music but also to do something beyond the amazing music. He started HeadCount with Andy Bernstein our other Co-Founder and it was their idea that they could use this power that they already have to elevate and amplify others voices.

So you said 67 festivals, typically is it the same team always or are there several volunteers?

No, so the beauty is that we are truly a grassroots organization. I would say the HeadCount model is closest to the street team model that bands have. We did what Marc and Andy know best which is street teams like reaching out to people in this grassroots way. We have about 70 team leaders in 50-60 metro areas. Some festivals where we will send staff. Summer Camp, Bonnaroo, Electric Forest, are massive festivals. However, something like Dark Star Jubilee is run by local volunteers who said: “I want to do this.” We are empowering our volunteers to say “This is where I want to go” and “This is why I want to do it.” Occasionally, we’ll partner with bands. We do a bunch of Phish shows, Warp Tour, but outside of that, we let our volunteers pick which shows they want to do and which venues they want residencies at. We have six people in an office in New York but really we have a network of 10,000 volunteers across the country.

HeadCount partners with many musicians and festivals. Are there any other organizations HeadCount pairs with for others to learn and register?

For some festivals, we do activations with Rock The Vote. Right now on the Dead & Company tour, we’re partnering with Reverb. Reverb green, so we have this thing, participation row, where it’s like, make a difference. It’s a row of nonprofits. It’s how can we help other organizations that might not table at festivals come to a festival to table and interact with people they may have not without our help. There are a lot of organizations where we see everywhere.

For people wanting to become a part of the organization, how do they go about that? Go there, click volunteer and sign up to do these events with us. There are so many ways you can go out and give back to get connected to HeadCount. It’s volunteer at a show. It’s volunteer at a festival and an event.