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Who Will Rock the Vote in 2008?
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?
|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 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.
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.
Also in Building a Movement
- Top Youth Activism Victories of 2008 by Jamilah King, Kristina Rizga, Tomas Palermo
- Best WireTap Stories of 2008 by The Editors
- (Podcast) When We're Not Working by Gavin Leonard, Matt Ryan
- When We're Not Working: On Awkward Family Conversations by Matt Ryan, Gavin Leonard
- He Absolutely Had To Be A "Community Organizer" by Hakim Bellamy