HeadCount at Ten: 2006 “Midterms Matter” Tour

This year marks HeadCount’s 10th Anniversary. To celebrate, we’re taking a look back at our history on a year-by-year basis. In this installment, we remember 2006, the year HeadCount was reborn.

When the winter of 2006 rolled around, HeadCount wasn’t up to very much.

“The whole thing had been pretty dormant since 2004,” remembers co-founder Andy Bernstein. “ To be honest, I wasn’t thinking about it a whole lot.”

He’d gotten a couple of emails from volunteers asking about the status, but he admits he was ignoring them. 2004, when HeadCount registered nearly 50,000 voters, had stretched the volunteer staff close to the breaking point, and no one really had a desire to take on that much responsibility again.

Then he got an email he just couldn’t put in delete file. It read “You can’t let something this magical die.”

“It struck a chord,” Bernstein says. “So we got back to work.”

Midterms Matter

But 2006 was not going to be a carbon copy of two years before. A decision was made to scale down the operation, with a focus on building a model that would last.

Rather than just throwing themselves into the work at breakneck speed, HeadCount took the classic “less is more” approach.

Instead of having street teams in 50 cities and 2,000 volunteers, HeadCount recruited eight “Leadership Trainees,” hand-picked interns who would represent HeadCount at almost every event. Instead of  registering voters at 500 concerts, the schedule was limited to a few festivals and specific artists – Dave Matthews Band, the Phil Lesh and Friends/Gordon Russo and Benevento (G.R.A.B.), O.A.R., moe. and String Cheese/Ratdog.

It was branded the “Midterms Matter” tour – a reference to the Congressional “Midterm” elections that year.

HeadCount still didn’t have an office or any paid staff. But eight interns joined a few HeadCount veterans and hit those shows hard that summer.

“The Midterm Matters tour in 2006 was my first taste of being involved in music community beyond just being a fan,” remembers Sebastian Freed, one of those eight leadership trainees. “I got to see how things worked behind the scenes at concerts and festivals. I was doing something I believed in and working with people I believed in. It felt good.”

Mike Gordon

With a smaller number of events, HeadCount was able to “go big” at most festivals.  That included scheduling artist appearances at the HeadCount booth – Mike Gordon, Warren Haynes, Tea Leaf Green, Bela Fleck and Umphrey’s McGee signed autographs and even grabbed some clipboards to register voters. Their presence was crucial to the operation, as it got people talking, and sensing that HeadCount wasn’t just a one-year phenomenon.

It all culminated at Vegoose festival in Las Vegas on Halloween. The Leadership Trainees all got to attend on HeadCount’s dime, and dressed as famous presidents. They also planted thousands of “Vote” stickers on the attendees, creating a group statement that was so noticeable it got written up in reviews of the festival.

That year, HeadCount registered over 7,500 voters. It was a far cry from 2008 when the number was more like 48,500. But the point was creating a model to build on.

“The Midterms Matter Tour was more successful than we ever imagined,” says Bernstein. “We took the big step from being a ramshackle group to being a professionally-run organization with a real plan. We wrote down everything. We documented what we did well, what we did wrong, and what we wanted to do in the future. We were growing up.”

Vegoose (7)

The methods developed in 2006 formed the building blocks that ensured HeadCount’s lasting presence. It also had a great impact on the people involved, many of whom continue to work in music and non-profit organizing today.

One Leadership Trainee, Matt Ushkow, now books talent for the world-famous Mercury Lounge in New York City. Another, Bear Kittay, has been involved in several successful technology startups, and recorded an album of his own music produced by Cody Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars. Brian Bavosa became a well-known music columnist.

Freed became one of HeadCount’s first paid employees in early 2008, and served as “Outreach Director” for three years, overseeing all of HeadCount’s efforts at concerts. He then left to make his name promoting concerts, and now works for Bowery Presents – one of the country’s largest and most prestigious regional concert promoters.

“That summer made me realize I wanted to work and live in the music community one way or another for the rest of my life,’ Freed says.

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