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Marc Brownstein: “Voting Does Matter. You Do Get to Shape the World Around You.”

August 29, 2016


Marc Brownstein, the bass player for The Disco Biscuits, co-founded HeadCount with Andy Bernstein in 2004. The organization aims to translate the power of music into action, largely by registering young people to vote. The nonpartisan group has registered more than 350,000 people so far.

Our G.W. Miller III spoke with Brownstein, the son of a career politician, about the the importance of voting. Images by Chip Frenette.

How did you start HeadCount?

The executive director of HeadCount, Andy Bernstein, was my co-founder. It really just started out of a series of conversations that were a result of feelings of frustration about the lack of engagement and the apathy that we would experience in the music world. And we felt like the power of music, and the power of the fan bases that we had in front of us, and the enormous reach that my band – and a couple of the bands that we were friends with, we felt like we could potentially reach hundreds of thousands, if not millions of kids with a simple message, which was to let their voice be heard.

Were there other people doing similar things at the time?

There were all these protest movements of the 60s that were very closely tied with the musical world, the world of artists and entertainers. John Lennon is a perfect example of a protest artist and there were so many others.

Through the 80s and 90s, there was complacency or general apathy. People used the musical events they were going to as an escape from the real world. That’s the way it was for me when I was going to see music in the90s. There wasn’t really a political tie-in. Occasionally you’d run into the Greenpeace table or the WaterWheel table or other environmental groups that were out there trying to enact social change.

In terms of the political stuff, there wasn’t anybody really out there on the ground, in the field trying to engage people. We were told that Rock The Vote had sort of backed off their field strategy and shifted to an online strategy. Some of the core bands that we were working with told us that there was a real need for what we were doing.

We thought to ourselves: What can we do? How can we engage people? How can we do it in a nonpartisan way that is not going to be divisive and rather, inclusive?

In order to unite people, your platform needs to be nonpartisan, especially in the music world, where you can’t just assume everybody is from one party or the other. There are huge gradations of people that are extremely, extremely diverse geographically and politically.

After consulting with the guys in the Grateful Dead and the Dave Matthews Band and Phish, we agreed that there was a real need for a field team of volunteers registering voters.

What does this look like at shows?

It looks amazing. It’s such a source of pride for me. I went to see Phish at the Mann Center and there was a HeadCount table set up there. I went to see the Dead and Company a few weeks earlier. HeadCount along with Reverb is running Participation Row, which is the nonprofit village of Grateful Dead related charities. They all work together. It’s this gorgeous group or red tents. And this is across the country.

We’re at thousands and thousands of events, regular rock concerts and festivals all over the country. We have days when a thousand people are registered in Tennessee and a thousand people were registered in New York and you start to see the aggregate of the work of actual people with clipboards in the field. It’s incredible.

The volunteers are the backbone of this organization. We’ve had 15,000 different people volunteer for us over the years. Right now, we have 10,000 volunteers working thousands of events across the country.

Right now, we’re over 350,000 registrations.

Are you talking about people going to certain shows, which means you’d likely get people registering a certain way?

We are operating throughout all the different genres of music. We’re targeting music fans.

The Disco Biscuits are a jam band. We started with The Disco Biscuits and moe. and the Dead, Phish, Dave Matthews Band. Theses were our first bands. But we grew out of the jam band scene. Eddie Vedder has been a huge supporter. He’s gotten on stage and talked specifically about HeadCount and how important it is to vote and get involved.

If you go onto, you’ll see how diverse the list of artists is that we’re working with at this point. From Pearl Jam to the Dead to Jay Z and Beyonce.

Your board of directors is an impressive list of music All-Stars.

These are some of the smartest people in the entire music industry and some of the people are also involved in politics.

Like Pete Rouse?

Pete was the White House chief of staff during the Obama administration. You don’t get much higher than chief of staff in terms of influence in Washington and otherwise.

Having guys like that on the team is incredible and they have been really engaged. What we have is an incredible collection of minds. When we have our board meetings, it becomes a think tank on social progress and social engagement. When you have some of the greatest minds in music and politics come together, great things tend to happen.

During the election cycle, we are entirely focused on the election. It’s all about registering voters and getting them out to vote from now until election day. But from then until the mid-terms, there’s time to breath and use the infrastructure to work on other initiatives.

Do you think people are more politically aware or active, or more engaged in what’s happening in the public space?

Right now is a particularly trying time politically. You have more people engaged in the process because this election has become somewhat of a circus, especially this primary season. People are keenly aware of what’s going on but that doesn’t always necessarily translate into people voting.

At the same time, as people are engaged, there’s an incredible amount of apathy. And that’s not from people who don’t know what’s going on. That’s from people who are really intelligent who have great explanations for why they don’t feel represented in the system right now.

At some point in the near future, one of the things that will reach a tipping point is money in politics. People feel like politicians are representing the interests that are funding their reelection campaigns. I don’t know what the solution is. Term limits? That might be a great idea actually. Allow people to make the best decisions possible rather than just gridlocking Washington.

There are a lot of great, nonpartisan issues coming up right now. People agree overwhelmingly that cannabis should be legalized for medical use. People agree overwhelmingly that money should be taken out of politics.

You believe in the system but you think we need people who are more engaged in the actual practices of the system? The system doesn’t need to be thrown out all together?

I mean, 72.6 percent of all people who are eligible to vote in this country did not vote in the primaries. Only 7.3 of the country voted for Hillary; 5.9 percent of the people voted for Trump; 5.3 percent of the people voted for Bernie Sanders; 4 percent voted for Ted Cruz; and about 4 percent voted for everyone else combined.

I had a friend who just yesterday was telling me, “I’m so upset about the state of affairs in politics right now.” I said, “Why don’t you tell me what’s bothering you?” And he said, “I hate both of the candidates running for president.” I said, “Oh, really, who did you vote for in the primary?” He looked at said, “Well, I didn’t vote in the primary.” I said, “I’m not sure this conversation is going the way that it needs to going right now.”

Who represents you and your beliefs the best of all the candidates? Did you research them? Why the hell didn’t you go and vote for that person? I can’t fathom that somebody who cares about politics decided to sit out.

There’s also the option to go into the booth and select neither. Just vote on the down ballot candidates. Vote on the local stuff, the ballot initiatives and issues.

People feel disenfranchised from the system. They feel like they are not represented. But then they agree that pot should be recreationally legal everywhere, as it is in Oregon, Washington state and Colorado. That was voted as ballot initiatives in those states.

People say the system is rigged and that nobody represents their interests. Ok, that may actually even be true. Obviously, the representatives try to redraw district lines to line up with the demographics of their party so they become reelected. In that way, the system is rigged. But there are valuable social issues that are on down ballots, like same-sex marriage, things that people legitimately care about but they haven’t realized that these are things they could go and vote on.

Voting does matter. You do get to shape the world around you in a lot of states.

Do you see a future in politics? Or is this your way of making change and getting involved?

I just started the process of finishing college. I left in my senior year to pursue a career in music.

My father was a career politician. He was elected 17 out of 18 elections that he was in. He was the youngest member of the New York State Assembly in the history of New York state. He was elected when he was 26 years-old. He made his way all the way up to state Supreme Court judge and he served on the appellate division as well. He ran for chief judge of New York state, lost that election and went back to the private sector.

I don’t think that I have the stomach for politics. But I would be lying if I said that I look at some of the people who run and win and I think to myself, “This is ridiculous that these people are running and winning. There have got to be better people out there.”

The bottom line is that I think that I have my voice here. What we have done has made enough progress in the 12 years that we’ve been doing it that if we stick with it and really put our noses to the grindstone, hopefully, we’ll be able to engage millions of people into the political process. That’s the ultimate goal.

Editor’s note: This is the full interview with Marc Brownstein. An edited version appeared in the summer issue of JUMP.

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