Who Will Rock the Vote in 2008?
by Mike Connery, Mon Apr 30, 2007 at 08:01:11 AM EDT
Cross posted at Future Majority
I'm a little embarrassed that I found out about this from the Midday Open Thread over at Daily Kos, but Linkin Park has a new video that's got a political/social edge to it. I loathe Linkin Park, and there's a lot that's not great about this video - there's no coherent thread connecting the various social and political problems it depicts, and there's no "ask" or action item at the end. In short, it's no Mosh, but its encouraging to see nonetheless. At this time in 2003, artists were petrified of getting entangled in politics, and a video like this - as unfocused as it is - would have been unthinkable.
Seeing this video got me thinking, who will Rock the Vote in 2008?
In 2004, music played a huge role in generating excitement and interest around the election, and turning out young voters for the Democrats. At least half a dozen organizations used music events or music communities to organize young voters - Music for America, Punk Voter, Head Count, Concerts for Change/Kerry, Vote for Change, Rock the Vote. I'm sure I'm leaving out a ton of local acts, but these were the big players.
The field has dwindled since then, and not all of these organization were ever particularly successful at "rocking the vote" (if by that you mean turning out and engaging young new voters). Rock the Vote is primarily a media organization and while they were an on-line registration machine in 2004, they were never very good at voter contact and engagement in music communities. It's mostly a misconception about what Rock the Vote does that even gets it put on lists like this.
Vote for Change offered an interesting fundraising model for ACT and MoveOn, but it's doubtful that it turned out new voters - especially give the broadcast nature of the events and the ensuing political backlash. Who's to say whether MoveOn will replicate or tweak this program in 2008? Concerts for Change offered a different kind of fundraising model ($700,000 from about 100 events) that also managed to successfully engage young people face to face in intimate venues, but there is no indication that they will continue in 2008, and no guarantee that someone else will replicate what they did.
Head Count's website is updated and looks like they're gearing up for '08, so at least the jam band community will be registered and organized. Likewise, Punk Voter seems active and ready to get to work this election cycle, but there's a hitch. Punk Voter did great work with their Rock Against Bush CDs, and they created a politically aware punk scene. But their shows were staffed primarily by Music for America volunteers through the MFA website, and MFA is not likely to be around much longer in any form resembling that of 2004. Music for America is no longer a funded operation, which is a big loss for progressive youth outreach. In addition to providing staffing for Punk Voter events, MFA was responsible for 2/3 of all music and politics events in 2004. That translated into about 2,400 concerts in 2004, and over 1,000 in both 2005 and 2006.
2/3 of all music and politics events. That's a huge hole to fill, and to be sure, it's a hole that needs to get filled. In a recent poll be New America Media and Sergio Bendixen, young voters were most likely to identify themselves based on their music of fashion tastes. Not by their race, religion, ethnicity or political ideology, rather, by the cultural communities in which they participate. And numerous studies show that the best way to reach a young voter is through a face to face contact by a peer. That's what makes cultural outreach through music communities so powerful - it allows for face to face voter contact among young people within and through the communities with which they most identify.
I can see a couple ways that this could play out and progressives could fill this gap in our 2008 youth outreach:
- A new organization that does something similar to MFA starts up, learning from the mistakes that MFA made and which caused funders to withdraw support
- New grassroots groups along the lines of Concerts for Change spring up. This will undoubtedly happen no matter what. The question is one of geographic diversity and numerical scale. We would need 25 Concerts for Change in 25 different states to replicate what MFA did.
- Campaigns will add outreach at concerts to their youth field operations. A good strategy that I hope happens, though not as effective. Earnest campaign volunteers with clipboards approaching concert goers outside of venues isn't the same as someone from within the music community working inside the venue in partnership with an artist.
- Local grassroots groups strike deals with venues or local/regional artists and make concert outreach part of their strategy. I'm thinking of groups like Forward Montana and the Oregon Bus Project, who already understand the value of cultural outreach, expanding their work and their membership base through a concert strategy.
- Music communities themselves cut out the political "middle men" and create their own political vehicles just like Head Count did for the Jam Bad community. Maybe this is something that could happen through the work of Air Traffic Control Tower - a group that advises music artists about how to engage in political action.
My preferences run towards #3 and #4. Campaigns clearly need to make the effort to reach out to young voters, and outreach at concerts is a good supplement to traditional canvassing at apartment complexes and dorms. Furthermore, one of the things we learned at MFA is that it's very hard to create a coherent offline communities if your organization jumps venues from night to night, or if the org disappears entirely for a month or more because no artists are playing in a given city. Venue based organizing is a more stable way of organizing music communities, and local grassroots operations with ties to the community, rather than national orgs based in DC, are a better vehicle for forging those connections.
Numbers 2 and 5 intrigue me - it would be very cool to see musicians self organize but I think it's a long shot at best. Undoubtedly there will be grassroots concert operation like Concerts for Change springing up around the candidates either before or after the primaries, but that's not a stable form of youth outreach. I'm looking at how we can build this for the longterm, not just for a single election cycle. Any grassroots effort focuses solely around a campaign will disappear after that campaign is gone. Don't get me wrong, I'll be thrilled to see these pop up in support of Edwards or Obama or any other Democrat, but they are not part of a longterm youth outreach infrastructure.
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 and 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 mentioned in this post, artists are much more comfortable engaging in politics (circling back to the Linkin Park video), and many best practices for organizing volunteer work at hundreds to thousands of concerts across the country are already established. 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?