The story of HeadCount has always been the story of an organization looking for new and better ways to keep the music community engaged in politics. While 2009 saw expansion into the world of blogging and issue advocacy, 2010 was the year that HeadCount really got creative. The year was marked by two highly successful projects that had little to do with elections—The “Bisco Power Mission” solar panel installation, and the “Music For Action” climate initiative. It finished with two others that got the vote out in high-profile ways, with board member Bob Weir personally calling hundreds of fans to coax them to the polls, and Jay-Z appearing on a HeadCount-produced television commercial.
Bisco Power Mission (BPM) was a totally unique event for HeadCount. The idea came out of a conversation between executive director Andy Bernstein and Disco Biscuits guitarist Jon “Barber” Gutwillig, who said that he had always wanted to raise money for the purpose of installing solar panels somewhere. Before anyone knew it, Gutwillig’s bandmate and HeadCount co-founder Marc Brownstein was on board and a benefit show was in the works.
On March 21, 2010, The Disco Biscuits took the stage at the Brooklyn Bowl in front of a sold out house for the Bisco Power Mission. It was fitting that the band would perform at the then relatively new venue, which was also the first-ever bowling alley to be LEED certified for sustainable and environmentally friendly practices. The show raised a whopping $30,000, with half the money going to HeadCount and the other half going to install solar panels at Albert M. Greenfield Elementary School in the Biscuits’ hometown of Philadelphia. A fan of the band who worked at a solar panel installation company even did the job on the cheap, helping to make the Greenfield the first public school in the city to utilize the technology.
Later that year, the Disco Biscuits visited the school to see the fruits of labor. The band talked to kids about the importance of sustainability and even checked out an amp meter in the lobby that was installed to show the students exactly how much energy was being generated by the panels.
“The whole experience, from the concert to when the solar panels went in to when we went to the school to do a presentation with the students, was a big highlight for me,” recalls Brownstein. “I was looking at pictures just yesterday of me in the classroom with these students. For me that was one of the most rewarding things that we did because it was something tangible. So many of the things we do at HeadCount are hard to quantify, but with that we accomplished something that was there. It was real, there was no denying it. There is a school out there that has reduced their dependence on the grid because of us and that really means a lot to me.”
Almost simultaneous to Bisco Power Mission, HeadCount ran a campaign called “Music for Action.” The idea was that if people spoke out on an issue, they’d get free music. And not just any free music – an 18-track digital compilation called “The Best of Bonnaroo,” with exclusive tracks by Pearl Jam, Wilco Death Cab for Cutie, My Morning Jacket Phish and Ani Difranco.
The “Action” was to send an email to Senators urging action on climate change. HeadCount made a point to stay non-partisan by never advocating for a particular policy or taking a position on the debate. The campaign just called for Congress to address the issue one way or another. And, people were not actually required to send the email to get the free music, it was just suggested. Still, nearly 100,000 emails made their way to U.S. Senators.
However it was something else at Bonnaroo 2010 that really got things going for HeadCount that year.
“I gotta say this might be thing I’m most proud of from my time at HeadCount,” exclaims Bernstein. “I was at Jay-Z’s Bonnaroo set in 2010. He was addressing the crowd about how the younger generation had made history and I turned to my girlfriend to said ‘this is our next PSA.’ Four months later it was on network TV.”
Well, things weren’t exactly that simple. Jay Z told the crowd that they made history by electing the first black President. had said a few things in support of Barack Obama, so first HeadCount had to edit his speech in a non-partisan way. Then they had to get the rights to the official video of the show from Bonnaroo and Fuse. Next, HeadCount boardmember (and Relix publisher) Peter Shapiro needed to make a few phone calls to get approval for the PSA from Jay Z’s manager and, finally, Jay Z himself.
It was a whole lot of work, but everything was worth it the moment the PSA debuted during an episode of The Late Show with David Letterman in early October (See the PSA below).
The last month leading up to the Midterm Elections was an exciting one.
Throughout the year, HeadCount had been collecting “Pledge to Vote” postcards from fans at shows across the country that asked them to select an artist that they liked. When the night before the election (let’s call it Election Eve) finally came, those that had signed Pledge to Vote cards received automated phone calls from the artist of their choice reminding them to go to the polls the following day.
Well, not all the calls were automated. Weir and Brownstein actually made live calls themselves to over one hundred fans. It was just another imaginative way for HeadCount to make civic engagement fun and on the cutting edge.