Grassroots Organizing with the Music Community and Fans: An Interview with HeadCount Director Andy Bernstein

HighRes_Logo_20120814_94734Ask someone who goes to a lot of concerts what the organization HeadCount is, or what it does, and they’ll probably say it’s a voter registration organization. Ask HeadCount co-Founder and Executive Director Andy Bernstein the same question, and you’ll get a very different answer.  He’ll also tell you about voter registration, of course, but in almost in the same breath he’ll make sure you understand that’s not all they do.

He’s understandably very proud of HeadCount’s success with voter registration, registering over 250,000 people in their short history. That’s an incredible accomplishment, but it is only part of their mission.  He’s equally very proud of the organization’s role as the “grassroots organizing arm of the live music community.”  He believes passionately in the potential of music to affect positive change through grassroots efforts and effective use of the political system.  That, to my mind, is the new and innovative aspect of HeadCount’s vision.

Head Count volunteers at Bonnaroo.  Photo by Jane Henderson

Head Count volunteers at Bonnaroo. Photo by Jane Henderson

The belief that music and the artists who make it can be agents of social and political change is not new.  The political role of music in the civil rights and anti-war movements is well documented. Indeed, it seems every counter-culture and anti-establishment movement has had its own soundtrack. The philosophy behind HeadCount doesn’t give up the great music or the belief that it can be an agent for change, but rather than assuming it must be accomplished from outside the system, HeadCount aims to enfranchise and empower in the political system.

I had the chance to interview Andy Bernstein by phone from his offices in New York City on July 24.  A summary of the interview is below.  Click below to listen to the the 17 min. interview. Pardon the rough cuts.  . (17 min).


The interview began with an introducution to HeadCount, its mission, where the idea came from, and what led him to approach enthusiastic co-Founder and co-Chair Marc Brownstein of the DiscoBiscuits with the idea.

Sometimes people get HeadCount confused with higher profile organizations like Rock the Vote, which has a larger media presence.   I asked Andy about the difference between HeadCount and Rock the Vote.   He explained in detail differences in structure, funding, and mission, as well as similarities and ways in which they collaborate.   Ultimately HeadCount is strongly based in the music and volunteer communities with greater emphasis on fieldwork.

HeadCount works with over 100 bands, artists, and a handful of venues that they work with on a regular basis.  Andy explained how these are chosen and how the methods are emblematic of the organization’s philosophy.  Not surprisingly,  Andy sees one of HeadCount’s biggest challenges to be one of engagement, specifically in terms of  sustaining a higher level of engagement from a more people.  Nonetheless, their accomplishments are significant.  In addition to a long list of the organization’s accomplishments (click here for a 2012 snapshot), Andy is “personally very proud” of the leadership training aspect of HeadCount, and volunteers who use their volunteer experience with the organization to go on to good jobs.  He’s also very proud of the originality and creativity of Head Count’s work, and the manner in which they’ve turned creative  ideas become reality.

He told me about the Capitol Community program for teachers who want to bring a little Rock N’ Roll to their classrooms; Sound Off, a tool for tweeting at Congress; and a program that uses the stories of musicians to educate the public about health care reform.  Finally he told me what HeadCount has going on now and in the coming months, including running the entire nonprofit village at a music festival for the first time.

HeadCount Introduction from HeadCount on Vimeo.

If you think you might be interested in volunteering with HeadCount, find out more here.  I was a volunteer and a Regional Coordinator.  I probably still would be, had a move to the NRAO Quiet Zone in West Virginia not made the communications necessary for the job very challenging. I recommend the HEadCount experience.  It can be a lot of work, but it’s satisfying and a lot of fun!

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