Streaming To The Polls: Inside #iVoted’s Historic Election Day Virtual Concert
Courtesy #iVoted – Go Vote Now!
Artists and industry leaders have united for #iVoted, a historic Election Night streaming concert featuring several hundred performers. From top left: Kevin Lyman Group’s Kevin Lyman, Thao & The Get Down Stay Down’s Thao Nguyen, Young The Giant’s Sameer Gadhia, Amanda Palmer, Mandolin’s Mary Kay Huse, W. Kamau Bell, Drive-By Truckers’ Patterson Hood, Brian Courtney Wilson and #iVoted co-founder Emily White.
As crisis after crisis has roiled America and its increasingly polarized electorate in 2020, one refrain has united even the country’s staunchest partisans: The Nov. 3 presidential election, and the scores of down-ballot races accompanying it, may be the most important in a generation, if not ever.
The live industry has responded in kind, relentlessly registering and engaging voters – all during a once-in-a-century pandemic. Social media photos of musicians wearing “VOTE” masks have become omnipresent. In October, enduring organization HeadCount registered its millionth voter since its 2004 inception; more than half of the tally came in 2020.
And, come Election Day, #iVoted, the comparably young organization launched in 2018, will stage the largest single-day digital concert ever, joining more than 450 eclectic artists to celebrate democracy’s most hallowed duty. All fans have to do to access the free, 14-hour stream is provide a selfie with their blank ballot or outside their polling place – or, if underage, when they’re eligible to vote and why they’re excited.
“We don’t care who you vote for,” says #iVoted co-founder Emily White. “We just want people thinking about voting.”
Marquee talent booked for #iVoted’s Election Day bonanza, set to be hosted across 17 virtual stages on nascent streaming platform Mandolin, includes My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy, Julien Baker, Drive-By Truckers, Living Colour and W. Kamau Bell in conversation, The Disco Biscuits and a litany of smaller acts chosen based on regional streaming data in swing states. Afterward, performances will stream on demand for 24 hours.
But – and sorry if you’ve heard this one before – White envisioned #iVoted’s 2020 differently at the year’s outset. An industry vet who has logged time at companies such as Madison House and Live Nation and co-founded management company Collective Entertainment, White was inspired to create #iVoted after observing the narrow margins that decided the 2016 presidential election in multiple states, including her native Wisconsin.
“The whole idea started because my home state was decided by 22,000 votes, and the state next door, Michigan, was decided by 10,000 votes,” she says. “My tour manager brain was like, ‘Those are venues.’”
Adrian Buckmaster – Masked Maestro
#iVoted co-founder Emily White has orchestrated the initiative’s transition to the digital sphere amid the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.
For the 2018 midterm election, #iVoted activated more than 150 venues across 37 states, giving fans free entry to Election Night concerts by the likes of Drive-By Truckers and Good Charlotte, provided they showed selfies they’d taken at polling places earlier that day.
“We were planning to throw big shows this year,” White says. “I was holding arenas in Wisconsin.”
With the live industry paused, and millions voting by mail, White and her team had to rethink #iVoted for the virtual space. Weeks into the pandemic, #iVoted was already contacting artists about an Election Day streaming event.
“It was still kind of a weird time for artists,” White says. “Yes, they were enthusiastic about the concept, but I think they were also excited about an opportunity. When everything’s being canceled and they don’t know what’s going on in their career, it’s like, ‘Well, someone’s proactively booking an event, and this is a cool concept.’”
In May, #iVoted partnered with music data analytics company Chartmetric to find and target regionally popular artists in swing states.
“It’s just so fascinating to see what people are listening to where,” she says. “Milwaukee is all jam bands and rap. Madison is so hip, because that’s where the University of Wisconsin is. Grand Rapids is all contemporary Christian. It’s a total experiment, but we just thought it was really compelling to bring artists to fans based on what they’re listening to, as opposed to guessing.”
Tim Mosenfelder / Getty Images – Fantastic Politico
Xavier Amin Dphrepaulezz, better known as Fantastic Negrito, performs at the A Future To Believe In GOTV Concert in San Francisco on June 6, 2016.
#iVoted also pursued better-known artists; by July, rockers Young the Giant, gospel singer Brian Courtney Wilson and more had signed on.
“Voting is a tool that we have, and can employ to achieve things and make our voices be heard,” the Grammy-nominated Wilson says. “Especially if you consider the Civil Rights Movement and its roots in the Black church and [gospel singer] Mahalia Jackson whispering to Martin Luther King, ‘Tell them about the dream,’ at the March on Washington, there’s always been some relationship” between gospel music and civic engagement.
That historic day also looms large for #iVoted act Xavier Amin Dphrepaulezz, better known as Grammy-winning blues artist Fantastic Negrito.
Tim Mosenfelder / Getty Images – Not Staying Down
Thao Nguyen plays at Oakland’s Fox Theater on Feb. 23, 2018. Beyond #iVoted, the indie-rocker has partnered with Downtown For Democracy and Pivot to get out the vote in 2020.
“I first always want to give it up to my grandmother,” he says. “She’s from the South, and she marched on D.C. in 1963 and really worked as an advocate, as someone who was fighting on the right side of history for civil rights so that I could vote. That’s how I first got interested in the idea of voting – because of my grandma.”
Working with #iVoted was a no-brainer.
“It’s such an important part of being an American in 2020,” he says. “You get involved and you get active and you vote. If you’ve got a platform, then you let people know that you’re involved and that you care and that you’re gonna get up and say ‘Do the right thing’ while you’ve got the mic, because you might not always have the mic.”
Wilson and Negrito hesitate to pressure other artists to speak out – “I’ve got a hard enough time controlling Fantastic Negrito,” Negrito says – but musicians have generally embraced wielding their platforms to spur engagement.
“I don’t find it an obligation,” says Thao & The Get Down Stay Down’s Thao Nguyen, who will perform solo on #iVoted’s stream. “I find it to be one of the privileges of having a platform. The obligatory aspect of it is that, if you are lucky enough to have a platform, there is no more runway to avoid using it. We’ve very clearly exceeded the point of being able to remain passive.”
The daughter of Vietnamese refugees, Nguyen began addressing politics with her 2013 album We The Common, which grappled with mass incarceration, and this cycle has worked with Downtown For Democracy, a PAC to leverage cultural influence into political power, and PIVOT, an organization to increase political engagement among Vietnamese-Americans.
“It’s cool to care, and it’s cool to be involved,” Nguyen says. “The younger generations of music fans want to know that the people whose music they appreciate, that they stand for things.”
Though #iVoted sports a lineup that could plausibly appeal to most music fans, engaging younger voters has been a central objective since the project’s inception. In the 2016 election, the 18-to-29-year-old demographic had 46.1% turnout – about 25% less than the over-65 cohort, according to U.S. Census data.
Paul Hawthorne / Getty Images – Rockin’ For A Free World In A Freer World
Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder perform during a nonpartisan Vote For Change concert at Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, N.J., on Oct. 13, 2004.
“We were both concerned after the last presidential election about the lack of involvement among young potential voters,” says Wilco multi-instrumentalist Pat Sansone, who along with veteran promoter Mike Luba co-founded #iVoted with White.
White puts it more bluntly: “The turnout numbers amongst young people are just awful,” she says.
Crucially, #iVoted is nonpartisan. Artists may voice their beliefs – and many plan to – but the platform revolves around maximizing turnout, regardless of ideology or affiliation.
“The mission of this initiative is to get people to the polls, get people to vote,” Sansone says. “This is a vital part of our democracy, and as much as I have my political beliefs and passions and wish for a particular outcome, #iVoted’s initiative is not about making a specific thing happen.”
Some artists remain concerned about alienating fans by expressing partisan beliefs, and #iVoted’s nonpartisan status was the deciding factor in convincing some artists – albeit only a fraction of those who are booked, according to White – to participate. Importantly, focusing on voter turnout, rather than specific candidates or causes, also helped #iVoted garner support from major live industry figures.
“It made sense from a strategy standpoint,” White says. “That’s what allowed us to partner with all these AEG and Live Nation rooms in 2018. Those are public-facing companies, and those promoters could never get behind us if we were partisan.”
#iVoted’s scope even attracted acts with partisan ties, like left-leaning Young The Giant.
“Galvanizing people to utilize their American rights, that was something that was important, regardless of affiliation,” says the band’s singer Sameer Gadhia. Drummer François Comtois agrees.
David A. Smith / Getty Images – Giant Steps
Francois Comtois (left) and Sameer Gadhia (right) of Young The Giant perform at Alabama’s Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center on Sept. 26, 2017.
“If people have different beliefs or views than us, we’re absolutely not trying to ostracize them,” he says. “#iVoted has this holistic view of activating a lot of voters and getting people out there. It seemed like a perfect fit.”
As fall approached, #iVoted faced a partnership question of its own: What platform in the crowded livestreaming sector could best host an event far larger than any others this year?
“We were just about to go with someone else, and took one last meeting with Mandolin,” White says. “They really convinced me on the tech end, as well as passion.”
Unlike competitors that pre-dated the pandemic, Mandolin launched after its arrival, co-founded in the spring by Mary Kay Huse, a respected tech exec coming off six years at software powerhouse Salesforce; entertainment lawyer Robert Meitus; and tech entrepreneur Steve Caldwell.
“We are purpose built for livestreaming,” Huse says. “We’ve built a team that is deliberately a mix of people from the music industry and people from the tech industry. […] The approach that we’ve taken of really balancing music and tech DNA together has been really helpful for addressing the market’s needs.”
Mandolin’s music-affiliated staff includes director of marketing services Larry Murray, who came to the company from Luck Reunion and knew Kate Truscott, Kevin Lyman Group GM and #iVoted’s head of sponsorship. The two connected White and Huse, who hit it off. (Lyman sits on #iVoted’s board alongside other industry figures from Lyte, WYNC, 46 for 46, APA, Walk The Moon and more.)
“It was a crazy week to say the least,” says Huse; her team landed the #iVoted partnership with a custom demo that showed Mandolin’s A/V capabilities and user experience.
Courtesy Mandolin – Virtual Festival Grounds
A sneak peek of Mandolin’s interface for #iVoted’s Election Day stream.
Soon, Mandolin had added #iVoted to a growing roster that includes partnerships with City Winery and Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, and financial backing from Salesforce founder Marc Benioff and tech incubator High Alpha. The same tech cred that has spurred Mandolin’s quick ascent will help come Election Day.
“The team has experience building platforms at scale for millions of users, handling billions of data points in the cloud,” Huse says. “Whether it’s sending billions of emails or managing millions of concurrent Salesforce users, and now it’s millions of concurrent fans watching livestreaming concerts, the strategies and principles are actually very similar.”
Still, #iVoted was more than another account for Mandolin. Like many of #iVoted’s acts, Huse was enticed by the organization’s mission and strategy, as well as White’s zeal.
“One of our values as a company is driving social good, and, at this point in time, I don’t know that there’s anything that’s more relevant than increasing voter turnout to ensure proper representation,” Huse says. “It was about the cause, and I was also impressed with the strategy.”
Plus, #iVoted provides a laboratory for Mandolin, which wants to tap livestreaming’s potential, whether creating new engagement experiences for users or providing analytics that artists can use to optimize things like tour routing when physical concerts return.
For their part, #iVoted’s participating musicians are jazzed about the opportunity. Livestreaming has allowed artists to reach more fans than ever, and #iVoted’s Election Day event will do that on an unprecedented scale.
Rick Kern / Getty Images – Gospel GOTV
#iVoted artist Brian Courtney Wilson performs in Austin, Texas, on July 18, 2019.
“We hope that things are going to go back to normal sooner rather than later,” Comtois says, “but it has opened this new avenue I hope will stay around after the pandemic fades away.”
Nguyen’s set will feature the loop stations she’s dabbled with to bolster solo streams. She’s excited that going forward the medium will “become more of a legitimate avenue for reaching fans,” especially for road-weary artists.
Like some #iVoted artists, Wilson and Negrito pre-recorded their sets – they didn’t want vital messages disrupted if the tech glitched.
“There’s gun violence, police brutality, racism, blame-ism – that’s one of my words, blame-ism, where we blame everybody,” Negrito says. “Healing and accountability, those are my buddies. I love those, because we’re going to get something done when we’re doing some healing and accountability. When we’re doing blaming, we’re getting nowhere.”
Like Negrito, Wilson wants his set, taped at Houston’s Windsor Village United Methodist Church, to inspire folks to unite to enact change.
“These fights are not new,” he says. “People have been fighting this stuff for a long time. It’s easy to look around now and let a sense of despair creep in. It’s so easy to do it. I hope people see this performance and leave it with heads lifted and with at least a little more hope than they did before they came in.”
Regardless of the election’s outcome, White plans to continue #iVoted well into the future, expanding into sports, comedy and gaming, and back into venues, once that’s safe.
“The pandemic has been like making lemonade out of lemons,” she says. “Post-vaccine, we can return to where our hearts are, in venues – but we can have venue shows and then also do #iVoted as a webcast version and activate that many more voters.
“These artists are really passionate about voting and about this election,” she continues. “We’re hoping that has impact on voter turnout – and we’re also hoping that these artists and fans care in 2022 and 2024, and keep caring.”