HeadCount at Ten: 2009, What’s Your Issue?

After a wildly successful 2008 voter registration campaign came to a close, the question on everyone’s mind at HeadCount was: What next?

Record youth voter turnout had came to the polls for the showdown between Barack Obama and John McCain. But that was now the past. If HeadCount was going to become a sustainable organization that it is today, branching out beyond voter registration was essential.

It wasn’t just about keeping busy or attracting funding. It was a question that got down to HeadCount’s reason for existence. The very first action plan written in 2004 called for HeadCount to become “the community organizing arm for the live music scene.”

But how?

Everyone involved believed that democratic participation doesn’t end with voting. So after months of soul-searching,  an entirely new campaign was hatched that would keep the music world politically engaged after the polls had closed.

It was called "What’s Your Issue?" and it was aimed at keeping people informed about the things that mattered to them most, and encourage them to speak out.

09 blog photo 2 - vol with banner“We started talking about how to be issue-based,” recalls HeadCount co-chair and Disco Biscuits bassist Marc Brownstein. “We had to tread lightly , because if you’re issue-based then things can get partisan and we didn’t want to do that. Everything had to fall within the bounds of making sense for us.”

After surveying the ever-growing HeadCount email list as to what issues mattered to live music fans the most, six core issues were identified—Healthcare, Personal Liberty, Food and Farm Policy, Human Rights, Sustainability and Climate Change and Gulf Coast Recovery.

While voter registration continued at shows and festivals across the country, HeadCount field representatives also began asking fans to choose the  issue they were most passionate about. HeadCount would then send weekly email updates regarding the most important developments in their chosen fields. Each “issue update,” as the emails were called, was written by a volunteer that was particularly committed and knowledgable.

The organization had always told music fans to “Make Your Voice Heard,” but focusing on the some of the most pressing issues of the day shifted the message to “Make Your Voice Heard Everyday.”

In addition to the emails, HeadCount also hired veteran music journalist Richard Gehr to edit a new blog that would focus on the six issues they had settled on, plus a whole lot more. Everything from music piracy to Michael Jackson and Indonesian reggae was covered on the the new blog, which became a resource for fans that wanted non-partisan information about the crossover between the musical and political worlds.

"I was delighted to have a bully pulpit at a site devoted to ‘Music, Politics, and Everything In Between,’ where I enjoyed the help of several bright and enthusiastic volunteer bloggers,”  says Gehr. “It also gave me an excuse to interview many of my favorite musicians – people like Jim Lauderdale, John Bell, Nellie McKay, and Stew – as well as cultural heroes like mycologist Paul Stamets and guerilla posterer Robbie Conal.”

09 blog photo 3 - adPlenty of folks were working hard on the What’s Your Issue? campaign, but getting people to view HeadCount as more than just that voter registration organization was something of a challenge.  Volunteers spread the word about the What’s Your Issue campaign at all kinds of shows, even passing out custom bumper stickers with the slogan, “We’ve Got Issues.”

“I was the editor for the sustainability and climate change issue. I wrote the newsletter on that topic and helped create a page on the website for it,” remembers HeadCount volunteer Nicole Parisi-Smith. “We were working really hard, but I don't think as many people were aware of what we were doing. It was more of a strategy-oriented year, we were branching out and trying something new. We were trying to expand our reach to inform people about the issuesto go beyond voter registration, to engage people in more civic participation.”

Nevertheless, HeadCount kept going strong, eventually building up their email list and getting the updates out to people that wanted to stay informed. The blogs also helped volunteers hone their writing skills and gave them an outlet to deal with topics that others were shying away from.

“I wrote about a wide range of issues that weren't really being covered at the time: marijuana legalization, internet privacy and government spying, the war on drugs, second amendment issues,” says HeadCount volunteer Jonathan Perri. “Writing for HeadCount's blog and monthly newsletter about personal liberty issues really helped me become a better writer and gave me a chance to learn more about that issue. I was able to transfer a lot of those skills into the daily work I now do as a Campaigns Director at Change.org."

“What’s Your Issue? ended up being one of the most longstanding activations in our history. We did it every week for three years,” recalls HeadCount Executive Director Andy Bernstein. “It took years to figure out, but 2009 was the first real foray into it. It was the year we went beyond voter registration.”

Sam D’Arcangelo is a Staff Writer for Relix Magazine and a former HeadCount intern.