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"Voting is for old people," reads the slogan on a recent, briefly notorious T-shirt sold by Urban Outfitters. The shirt may have caused controversy, but it's hard to argue with the facts: In the last presidential election, a mere 32 percent of adults between the ages of 18 and 24 voted and only 45 percent were even registered, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
To counteract this trend, a number of voter registration groups aimed at young people have emerged. To a list that already includes Rock the Vote, and the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, add HeadCount, a new group dedicated to registering a niche group widely perceived as apathetic: the young and dreadlocked devotees of neo-hippie jam bands.
A nonpartisan, entirely volunteer organization, HeadCount aims to register 100,000 young voters at one place they're likely to be found: the nightclub. "It's important to make it easy for [fans]; that is why we're coming to them," says Marc Brownstein, bassist for the Disco Biscuits, a tirelessly touring band known for merging electronica and psychedelica.
Over the next eight months, HeadCount will travel the country, registering voters at concert halls, festivals, and amphitheaters. On March 16, the organization will hit New York City for the first time, signing up voters at a table at the fourth annual Jammys, a yearly awards show for jam bands that centers on live music rather than statuettes, held at the Theater at Madison Square Garden.
A conversation between two friends, Andy Bernstein, an editor at the Sports Business Journal and Brownstein, started HeadCount rolling. Confident Al Gore would sweep New York, Brownstein skipped the last presidential election. Dismayed over the outcome, Brownstein felt he could influence his cult following to fulfill their civic duty: "It is time for all of us to be counted, whether we are standing up or getting down," he says.
Rock the Vote, formed in 1990, is the best-known organization dedicated to registering concertgoers to vote. HeadCount's mission, on the other hand, is more focused on a particular demographic. Fans of jambands are typically young and intensely passionate about music, but not known for voting. Like the Punk Voter coalition, which has been around since 2000, and Russell Simmons's Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, which hopes to register 2 million voters, HeadCount wants to take that passion for music and turn it towards politics.
At the moment, the nonprofit organization has 150 volunteers and a board of directors that includes Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead. "If every Deadhead in the state of Florida had voted in the last presidential election, it would have been a very different world today," says Weir, echoing his earlier, oft quoted sentiment.
The rest of the board reads like a Who's Who of jamband insiders: Disco Biscuits's Brownstein and Al Schnier of the band Moe. act as artistic liaisons; Government Mule manager Stefani Scamardo, Nadia Prescher, manager of the String Cheese Incident, and well-placed executives like Dave Margulies of the High Sierra Music Festival and Peter Shapiro, producer of the Jammys, have all signed on. "Young people need ways to show they count and stand for something in this world, and voting can have a subtle, but profound, effect on empowering a person in a bigger-picture sense," said Margulies.
On the horizon is the creation of 50 regional street teams to register voters at shows of participating bands and major festivals like Bonnaroo, and high-profile tours like the Dead's. HeadCount also hopes to register voters online at its website.
Though the group is nonpartisan, the musicians hope to register their fans and perhaps change the face of the election. "I'm pretty dismayed, appalled, embarrassed when it comes to our current administration," says Schnier. But voting itself is the main goal: "Fundamentally rock and roll music is made to stir people up, and if [it] can stir them up in an exodus to vote, it seems kind of noble," says Matt Owen, a reggae producer.
Young people already look to musicians for fashion trends. Why not a voting trend? As J.F. Stadelmann, an avid Disco Biscuits fan and a registered voter says, "It is a good thing to get kids to think it's cool to vote."