The Ballot And The Box Office: How The Concert Industry Is Crossing Into Politics

Tim Bramlette
– HeadCount
Volunteer Shae Parker registers voters with HeadCount at Lockn’ Festival which ran Aug. 23-26 at Oak Ridge Farm in Arrington, Va., this year. HeadCount has seen record numbers of registrations for this year’s Midterm Elections and is enjoying unprecedented support from the music industry.
Whether it be the signing of the Music Modernization Act into law Oct. 11, the foray of several figures into the political arena, or the increasing role of concerts as a point of engagement and registration, 2018 has seen much overlap in the areas of music and politics. 
Undoubtedly the industry’s most significant development this year has been the passage of the Hatch-Goodlatte Music Modernization Act through both the Senate and the House of Representatives and an eventual signature from President Donald Trump. The bill updates antiquated U.S. music copyright laws and systems for royalty payments, and enjoyed unprecedented support across the business spectrum from songwriters to record labels to PROs.
The process was not without obstacles, as various groups broke ranks at different points, but the end result means that artists who recorded music before 1972 can finally get paid for their work, and that there is an acceptable path forward for songwriters, publishers and producers through the establishment of the Mechanical Licensing Collective, an equivalent of the non-profit collective rights management organization SoundExchange.
Industry figures like Middle West Management founder (and Bon Iver’s manager) Kyle Frenette and former AllGood Entertainment CEO/chairman Patrick Allocco both announced candidacy for seats in the House this year, but neither ended up winning in June, with Frenette withdrawing prior to the vote and Allocco losing out to State Assemblyman Jay Webber.
The actions of artists like Kanye West and Taylor Swift have driven a national conversation about the role of artists in public discourse. Swift at last broke her long-standing political silence Oct. 7 (after the North American leg of her “Reputation” tour ended) with a lengthy post on Instagram describing her concern about human rights, LGBTQ rights, gender-based discrimination, and the injustice of racism. She went on to state she could not support Republican congressional candidate Marsha Blackburn in Tennessee and urged her 112 million followers to vote. A week later, on Oct. 17 she penned another post about the merits of early voting.
Indeed, while various artists advocate for diverse issues, one common theme among performers in the leadup to this election has been the promotion of voter registration. 
Artists like Jay-Z and Beyoncé, Panic! At The Disco, G-Eazy, Odesza, and Dead & Company, as well as festivals like Austin City Limits, Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, Outside Lands, Newport Folk, Grandoozy, and Global Citizen all partnered with HeadCount to register and engage young voters.
This week’s cover artist, Jim James, partnered with HeadCount to play in six college towns in what have traditionally been “swing districts” and invited candidates from both sides of the aisle to speak and engage with his audience.
“I approached them because I just wanted to try something different, just make a night that was more of an event,” James told Pollstar. “I guess you’d call it less of a strict concert because I wanted to have different candidates come speak and I wanted it be more of an informational thing, where there was music involved.”
HeadCount’s executive director Andy Bernstein told Pollstar he hopes the organization can branch out into working with more country artists.
“We try to register voters wherever we can. We’ve never sought an invitation or turned down an invitation because of the politics of who we might reach,” Bernstein said. “A lot of country artists are very skittish about having anything politics or voting related at their concerts. Maybe with Taylor Swift speaking out and a few other country musicians getting more active, we’re hoping that can change.”
Swift may have inspired many of her fans, as told The Washington Post more than 169,000 new people registered within 48 hours of her Instagram post.
HeadCount also provides lots of information to counteract potential voter suppression – including required ID, how to find a polling place, and other ways to avoid delays in registration – because, as Bernstein says: “The antidote to people trying to take away your rights is being informed. The thing we can all do is be knowledgeable.”
In order to further inspire concertgoers to vote, #iVoted is offering free concert tickets to fans who take a selfie outside of their polling place.  
“We’re gonna do iVoted for ever and ever and ever,” co-founder Emily White, of Collective Entertainment, Inc., told Pollstar. “The response has been really exciting. Promoters were coming on board before they even knew who would be performing.”
White was very excited about the potential for the concert industry to motivate young voters, as promoters “literally have the word promoter in their job title,” and was greatly heartened by the support she was receiving with #iVoted.
Beyond social media and activism, one of the most significant ways the concert industry continues to intersect with politics is from the stage. Many are participating in political and activism-themed events such as New York’s Global Citizen festival and even performers’ non-partisan messages of gaiety, love and tolerance often touch on much more profound themes. 
“I dare you artists and you leaders of this world, of this nation – including you Mr. President – I dare you to see with your eyes open, as clearly as my eyes are blind, to move the world forward for real, not for fake,” Stevie Wonder said at the Equal Justice Initiative Association’s Concert for Peace & Justice this year, which featured Usher, Dave Matthews, Brittany Howard, The Roots, and Common. “I have and I will, for the rest of my life give … to you, the gift that [God] has given to me: my song, my love, my hope that we will come together as a united people, not only in this country but in the world, before it’s too late.”