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HeadCount Co-Founders Marc Brownstein & Andy Bernstein Discuss Effecting Change, One Show At A Time

If you’ve been to any concerts or festivals over the last 12 years, chances are you’ve encountered HeadCount. The non-profit organization, founded in 2004, aims to get young people across the country registered to vote by reaching them where they already are–at concerts and on the Internet. As we head into the home stretch of the highly contentious 2016 election season, HeadCount and its vast network of volunteers and collaborators have ramped up their efforts, implementing a slew of new initiatives and technologies to engage the electorate and get out the vote.

We sat down with HeadCount founders Andy Bernstein (author of The Pharmer’s Almanac) and Marc Brownstein (Disco Biscuits), to talk about HeadCount–from its origins, to its mission, to its past and present initiatives–as well as Brownstein’s upcoming [Br]eaking [Bi]scuits collaboration at Brooklyn Comes Alive.

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L4LM: Can you take me through the beginning of HeadCount—how the idea came about, how you got started?

Andy Bernstein: It was 12 years ago, in 2004. And it was a time when a lot of people were asking themselves ‘what can I do to make a difference?’ It was kind of the height of the Iraq war. This was also at a time where very fresh in everyone’s memory was Florida, and how it was decided by less than 600 votes [in 2000], so there was a real sense that every vote mattered. So I had that moment of asking myself what I could do. I had the idea for HeadCount and emailed Marc about it and he responded with two words: ‘I’m in’.’ So he and I got it started together.

Marc, obviously, is in the Disco Biscuits. I had been a part of the jam community since college, and had written a book about Phish called The Pharmer’s Almanac, so Marc and I both knew a lot about sort of how our community works, and grassroots marketing within the music world. So we just sort of applied that to creating a voter registration group. And we always had a vision—something we really talked about a lot from day one—that voter registration was just the first step. Our goal was to make the world reflect the values of the music community. I think the music community just has certain inherent values—a sense of togetherness, loving thy neighbor—and if the world was more like a music festival, it would be a better place in a lot of ways. It’s a place where people work together, it’s a place of joy, it’s a place of art, it’s a place of respect. So the idea was ‘let’s harness the power of the music scene into something really meaningful, starting with getting everyone out to the polls.’

So we got it started, and we got Bob Weir involved very early on. Al Schnier of moe. was instrumental in making it happen. We put together a board of directors, and I can honestly say we had no idea what we were doing. But we made it work: we registered nearly 50,000 people that year. It’s really become something that is just bigger and grander than we could have ever imagined. Going into this election we have a full time staff of 10 people working on many different projects to get the vote out. And its just been a real adventure.

L4LM: Obviously it’s a fantastic thing that you’re doing, something that everyone really appreciates. Using this music community we have to do something positive for the greater good.

Marc Brownstein: Yea. I think really Andy nailed it. The key element to me was that we had all been employing guerilla street team marketing practices for our businesses, and that that was how this whole scene had been built—with dedicated volunteers, dating back to the days of the tapers taping shows and disseminating the music across the country, all the way into the modern “street team” era we came up in, where there were hundreds of volunteers on the ground taking marketing materials right to where people were at the concerts. Without these strategies (and a few other things like Andy dropping our name in the Pharmer’s Almanac), the Disco Biscuits wouldn’t have been what they were at that time.

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So we took all of these strategies and, just like Andy said, applied them to voter registration. At the time there wasn’t really anyone going to the concerts and registering voters face-to-face in the field, and we were very effective at not only organizing volunteers, but also training people and teaching them how to reach out in the field. And that has become the backbone of what HeadCount is about–the field activities and the thousands and thousands of volunteers organizing themselves, with the help of just Headcount’s small staff. We don’t have a staffer in every town across America, but we have these volunteers who are doing this for the greater good. That was the key—Andy called, and we said what can we do? What are we good at? So we just applied what we were good at to these social causes.

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L4LM: Moving forward in the HeadCount timeline, can you give me a little background about the initiatives you guys got started with and the early events you threw–like the Katrina Benefit in ‘05–and how you began to broaden the scope of what HeadCount was doing.

MB: One of the things that the Katrina Benefit was symbolic of just was what HeadCount is capable of doing in terms of going beyond voter registration. Even when we get through an election cycle, we still have this great organization—a foundation of thousands of people out there—and we’re often able to collaborate with musicians to throw other types of charity events. There’s been this series of concert events we’ve done surrounding elections, and we’ve had so many great artists play to help raise awareness for the cause, and also to help raise money to run the organization.

For example, all of us in the Disco Biscuits were like ‘we want to help, we want to do something.’ And it’s the easiest thing for us to go to HeadCount or HeadCount to come to us and say hey do you want to do this initiative, like we did with the Bisco Power Mission in 2010. We did a benefit show for them at the Brooklyn Bowl in Brooklyn where we raised money to install solar panels on a school in Philadelphia called the Greenfield School. And that was a benefit where Andy knew what kinds of initiatives and causes would get us in the Disco Biscuits excited, and came up with an initiative specifically directed to us where we could help do something that was tangible.

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AB: One of the really fun things about HeadCount has been that roughly once a year we throw a special event. And we only throw special events. We only do events that we really believe in, and are really unique, and are sort of created out of a magical opportunity that presents itself.

Marc mentioned the Bisco Power Mission. Another one that is a great one to talk about now is, in 2012, we did something called the Bridge Session at Bob Weir’s TRI Studios where we introduced Bob to members of The National, and they played together. They had never met before, never collaborated then, and a Brooklyn musician named Josh Kaufman was brought in by The National to be the musical director.

It was this really magical event at the studio. The music was absolutely phenomenal, it was webcast live on Yahoo. And one of the things that came out of it was that Bobby and Josh started talking about recording cowboy songs. Cut to a little over 4 years later, Weird ends up releasing his first album in over 10 years with Josh and members of The National, and everyone is now hearing the songs that were conceived there. So that’s something, to stop and think that we helped create art. Bobby hadn’t done an album in a decade, and we brought him together with musicians who inspired him in this way. And it all started with this idea of a Bridge Session, a session that was about bringing the parties together. We also did a talk between sets with Bobby and John Perry Barlow and the former governor of Louisiana where we all talked politics. So we’ve just had this very unique run where HeadCount gets to be this creative and personal outlet for a lot of people in our community while also registering voters.

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We’re about to pass our record for events in a year (1,170). We set up tables at more concerts than any nonprofit in the world. No one else has this network that has been built from the ground up by our volunteers. We have 15,000 volunteers in our database, we have over 50 active street teams, and for a lot of people that’s what they know HeadCount to be. But when Marc and I get together to dream up things, it’s a creative outlet, it’s a very deeply personal thing. We’re not necessarily thinking “oh, how many concerts were we at this week,” we’re thinking about the one volunteer who we had an amazing conversation with about how HeadCount has gotten in touch with their abilities as a leader, or we’re thinking about how musicians have supported us in such creative ways. Or we’re thinking about the next thing that we’re gonna do in the tech or the social media space to push things forward. It comes down to movement building, and all the myriad things that can drive change. And it’s art, and it’s organizing, and it’s strategy, and creativity, and even 12 years later we’re in this place where we just get really excited about these crazy ideas and schemes we come up with to get the vote out and make the music community a place where people can really contribute. 

L4LM: This being an election year, you guys were extremely active all summer. I personally saw your big campaigns on Dead & Company tour, at LOCKN’, and a bunch of other places. Can you tell us a little about your efforts this summer as a whole? I was looking at the numbers from your efforts on Dead & Co tour, for example, and it’s pretty incredible the amount of people you were able to engage and get registered.

AB: Absolutely. What we did with Dead & Company this year was one of our real crowning achievements, and it really touches on everything that’s important to us. For the last four years, HeadCount has developed something called “Participation Row” that started at LOCKN’, and its sort of our version of a festival “social action village.” We’ve learned so much over the years about what works that we were able to apply all of it. It works when fans have a reason to visit the nonprofits, when it’s interactive and activity oriented. It works when we can raise money that all the non-profits share.

So we’d been doing this at LOCKN’ and elsewhere for years, and then did it at Fare Thee Well last summer. Fare Thee Well was a real high point for HeadCount: we auctioned a guitar for $526,000, and that money got split by 17 non-profit organizations. So we took that act on the road with Dead & Co this year, teamed up with Reverb and a company called Clean Energy Advisors and also D’Angelico Guitars, and made it so that at every single Dead & Co show, there was a village of non-profits.

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The whole thing kicked off with us hosting the two LGBT equality organizations in NC that were leading the fight agains HB2, and that was very important for the band. The band made a lot of noise about that, they did a $100,000 donation to those groups, and we had those groups fill out over 6,000 postcards to their state assembly rep, and they said it was their most successful event in their history. So we’re able to support causes that are important to the bands, and important to fans.

We gave out these beautiful “vote” pins at the shows that had the Dead & Co logo on them, and to get a pin you had to visit 3 non-profits and do an activity at each one. We registered over 2,000 voters. We raised over $169,000 through the guitar auctions that gets split among the various organizations. So if there’s anything that represents HeadCount, it’s that. I’m so glad that you asked about that, because this was all the creativity, all the moving parts driving the vote, and putting peoples’ votes in context. Not just saying “get out and vote”, but ultimately speaking to why voting matters in the first place: It’s important to protect our planet, it’s important that all these causes that are part of the Grateful Dead community have the support of people of power, and that starts with us voting.

L4LM: Staying on the subject of the importance of getting involved, I want to ask you something that pertains a little more directly to this year’s election and the political and media circus that’s gone on around it. Do you find it difficult to maintain a neutral, non-partisan stance—which is the official stance of HeadCount—in such a polarizing and divisive political time?

MB: Obviously, I have my own personal political views. But it was like two days into this process where it truly became nonpartisan. The first thing we did when we started in 2004 was decide that we had to go non-partisan. It wasn’t about tax status, this is about reaching the most people with the message, this is about engaging people no matter who they are. And I think by day three, I was able to separate my personal views from HeadCount. Over the years we’ve had to maintain that separation between what our personal views and beliefs are and what our mission is, and our mission is to engage as many people in the political process as possible on both sides of the aisle.

AB: You know, I always say we’re too busy to be partisan. We’re so focused on the thing’s we’re trying to get done that we don’t really have room for my political beliefs, or Marc’s. I think that where it gets difficult is just being very careful how we talk about things, especially on social media. Because we might be excited about something, or our community might be excited about something, but somebody views it as having a partisan implication. So we’ve learned to kind of have a very tight filter, so we’re not alienating anybody.

MB: The truth is, the facts make it so that you don’t necessarily have to have such a tight filter on certain topics. And the reason I say that is that there is a swell of energy around a couple of issues that are uniquely non-partisan issues. For example, the issue of getting big money out of politics was driving both the very-right right and the very-left left in both the primaries. But they still have trouble enacting laws in a partisan congress. But there’s a bunch of issues where, when you actually poll the people of the country, most people agree are non-partisan issues. Legalization [of marijuana] I think is one of those issues; the big money in politics is another. And so we’re able to engage people on both sides. You do have to be careful, but it’s possible to engage people on both sides while also addressing very important, hot-button political and social issues.

L4LM: Obviously, we are in the thick of election season. What are the new initiatives you are working on right now to coincide with the election? I read into your “Hello Vote” initiative a little and it seems like a great project. Can you tell me a little about how you got started with that?

AB: Not a lot of people know this, but our website is the best hub for voter information out there. There’s all this cool tech on there to make getting voter registration information easier. And a few weeks ago somebody brought us this technology that lets you register to vote via text message. It’s called “Hello Vote” and I started using it, and they had me at “hello.” Such good tech, its so well-done. And what’s really cool about it is with twenty states, it’s hooked up directly to the state’s online voter registration, so you really can truly register by text, you don’t have to sign anything and mail it in. And that’s a big deal.

And then for National Voter Registration Day, which you may have seen already, we had hundreds of artists in our network post photos with themselves holding up our “Register to Vote” clipboard with a link that brought people to this Hello Vote platform and let them register. So everyone that posted a photo helped us get this new technology out there and get more people involved.

L4LM: So speaking of voter registration day, can you tell me a little about what else you guys had going on for that big push? 

AB: Sure. One facet was that we had teams in 50 cities going out and registering voters away from concerts. The biggest example of that is we worked with MTV registering voters in Times Square while TRL was on live—they brought TRL back for one day. But we had people out all over the country registering people to vote. Marc, do you want to talk about the origins of that?

MB: Yea. In 2004 we started something called Community Outreach Day, and it was an attempt to take our volunteer base and stretch it out of the comfort zone of concerts. For me—I was telling this story the other day—it was one of the most exiting days for me in the whole entire existence of HeadCount. Just picking up a clipboard and going into the inner-city, into Oakland, and standing outside of a grocery store there, spending the whole day meeting people who were not registered to vote and engaging them and getting them registered. It was a totally different demographic than we had been targeting, and there were moments in the day where I had chills. I was almost brought to tears an interaction I had between a mother and the soon-to-be 18 year old kid that she had with her, going grocery shopping. I just said “are you registered to vote?” and she got really, really excited about it, and got her son registered to vote. And there was that moment where we felt like we’re really making an impact in peoples’ lives, on a one-person-at-a-time basis. When you boil it down, each an every one of the almost 400,000 people that we have registered were individual moments, individual interactions. It’s not easy to walk up to someone on the street, interrupt whatever it is they’re doing, engage them, and convince them that this is the time to do it and take action. And that’s been done now hundreds of thousands of times over the last decade. And it’s moving that we’re able to do this.

So if Live For Live Music thinks the Dead & Co registration numbers are staggering, the voter registration day numbers are beyond anything that you can imagine. The amount of engagement we got from hundreds of artists reaching out to millions of fans all at the same time–you’re getting hundreds of millions of impressions, and it turns into tens of thousands of voter registrations all in the course of 24 hours. 

[Note: On this year’s National Voter Registration Day, HeadCount registered 953 people in the field and 20,000 more from their social media campaign (with 12,000 coming on the day itself and the remaining 8,000 in the 2-3 days that followed)]

AB: The other thing we rolled out on Voter Registration Day is that we’re working with Pandora. They made it available that there are ads running on Pandora where you can just click through and register to vote. And there’s also specific ads from artists. So if you’re listening to the Phish or Grateful Dead channel, or Dispatch, or Guster, or Amanda Palmer, you’re gonna hear that artist’s voice inviting you to register to vote. Youre gonna see their clipboard photo, and then if you click, you can register to vote by text message. So it just kind of brings together all the things that we’ve worked on to make it so easy and inescapable to register to vote. It makes it native to the music experience. And this will run through the election, getting people not only to register but to come out and vote on Election Day. We’re very excited about this. Pandora really stepped up and is supporting us in a unique way.

L4LM: Speaking of getting involved in the political system as a whole, this year, with two relatively unpopular candidates vying for the Presidency, there’s been a lot of push from both sides to get involved and vote not just on the executive race, but all the way down the ticket, down to local elections. What are your feelings on how people can and should get engaged down to the local level?

MB: I think it’s a great question, and I think it’s been at the core of the conversation, how to engage the electorate right now with this unique situation. I think you put it nicely–you called them “relative unpopular,” but I think the numbers actually indicate that they’re the two least popular candidates we’ve seen. But you have to remember that this isn’t just a presidential election. If anything, the last 8 years have proven that each of the branches of government can obstruct progress in their own way. Just because you get the President you voted for, doesn’t mean you’re going to get everything you want to happen. That’s why for a lot of states, for example, it’s important to get out to the polls for ballot initiatives, local elections, because they matter. Engaging our volunteers and finding out what the most important issues are on a local level helps them get people involved.

Obviously, it’s a circus at the top. The debates are starting, and we’re coming into the home stretch here. I don’t anticipate it’s gonna become any less of a circus. But it is one piece of a bigger puzzle. And when you look at the big picture, the long term picture, I think there’s a much bigger weight put on the presidential elections, when there are elections across the ballot that will end up being deciding factors in how our government legislates over the next four years.

AB: As the election comes up, after the registration deadline has passed, we are going to be as active as ever, and really try to educate people about the issues they’re voting for on their ballots, and try to point it all back to the fact the a lot of the answers are in your hand, on your cell phone. You can go to HeadCount.org and find so much information on candidates, where they stand, what’s on your ballot, different issues. This is new for us, and that will be where we pivot once registration is over. There are still so many great bands out on tour. We won’t stop going to shows. We’re just going to switch the conversation to the issues.

L4LM: Obviously there will be a bunch of events you’re involved in as the election comes up. I know that both of you are involved in Brooklyn Comes Alive later this month—Andy, with HeadCount, talking to voters, and Marc as a performer. Marc, can you tell me a little about your set and how that came about.

MB: Man, I gotta tell you, I get nervous sometimes announcing side projects, because I’ve done it so much over the years, and I know my fanbase is totally focused on the Disco Biscuits–that’s what they really are about. I have so much respect for that, and I understand how that plays when I’m announcing other things. So I’m timid a little when I’m going to do other work, about jamming it down peoples’ throats.

But Kunj [Shah, of L4LM] comes up with this idea, and he gets really excited about it, and is like what about “Disco Science”? And I was like ‘ehh.’ And then he came back with what about [Br]eaking [Bi]scuits?! And again I’m like ‘ehh.’ I said what about something like “Synergy” or something? And then I thought about it, and i was like well, that really sucks. So the next day I came back to Kunj and was like, ‘you know what, lets do [Br]eaking [Bi]scuits.’

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He showed me the Breaking Bad-themed artwork, and I was a little not sure about it, ‘cus I’m never sure about how anything is gonna play. I just want everyone to be happy. Ultimately, we posted the thing, and it went viral—mini-viral—it just blew up, and I could not believe how excited people were for it. And part of that is [Adam] Deitch and Borahm [Lee], everyone loves them. But part of it was just the brilliant name and the brilliant marketing. And it just connected with people. People love Breaking Bad, and it connected. And that’s why I leave the brilliant marketing ideas to the brilliant marketing people, and we worry about the music.

And that’s the next step. Borahm gets off Pretty Lights tour in a couple days and we’re gonna start digging in and figuring out what we’re doing exactly. He said he has a few things to send over to me and Aron [Magner] (Disco Biscuits), and I’m really excited about it. It’s gonna be the bomb. Deitch is the best. You know anytime youre playing with Deitch, whatever it is, it’s gonna be great. With those dudes, it’s like butter.

L4LM: If it goes well, do you guys have plans to take this [Br]eaking [Bi]scuits concept further and do any more shows, or is this just gonna be a Brooklyn Comes Alive thing?

MB: Well, I think it was just too positive of a response to not do it again. So I think there’s been some talks to do something in Colorado, or a couple markets in the northeast.

L4LM: That sounds like some very good news for a lot of our readers. 

Don’t forget to visit the HeadCount table the next time you’re at a show and get registered to vote next month. In a political climate as controversial as today’s, every vote truly does make a difference. And don’t miss Marc Brownstein with [Br]eaking [Bi]scuits at Brooklyn Comes Alive on October 22nd. Get your tickets here.