Artist Activism Helped Get Biden Elected, But We Must Keep It Going (Guest Column)

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This year saw artists and the music industry band together in unprecedented ways to get out the vote. And it worked. Voter turnout was the highest in this country’s modern history, with nearly 160 million people casting ballots. Even more encouraging is the increase in votes cast by the demographic where we have the most impact — 18- to 29-year-olds. According to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, voter turnout from this age range surged by roughly 10% over 2016.

Now it’s time to take the lessons learned from the 2020 general election and apply them toward the two U.S. Senate race runoffs in Georgia on Jan. 5. The state is now ground zero in the battle for American democracy.

Wide Platform of Engagement

Artists across the country (and the world) from Taylor Swift to Cardi B, Billie Eilish, Bruce Springsteen, Ariana Grande and Nine Inch Nails used their virtual platforms to convey the significance of the presidential election. The issues were personal to musicians, which made it feel personal to their fans. Thousands of independent, artist-led campaigns that were authentic to each artist’s image fostered increased intimacy with their audience. Since young voters tend to get information from nontraditional sources, this approach was an effective one.

Musicians hosted their own online fundraisers and auctions, shared ideas on how to support candidates and causes, promoted vetted sources of information about voting deadlines, guidelines, and locations, hosted phone and text banking parties, filmed themselves writing postcards to voters or casting ballots and posted photos wearing “I Voted” stickers.

Alongside the artists, major labels and other industry-aligned companies implemented voting initiatives. Headcount, which came in as a partner on many of these initiatives, saw its voter registration nearly triple from the previous election. In total, according to founder Andy Bernstein, Headcount registered 431,000 new voters this cycle. The No. 1 source of voter registration was people coming to the site via artists’ posts.

Educating the Artists

Behind the scenes, managers, labels and publicists ensured that musicians had access to accurate and up-to-date talking points. Plus1, an organization that works alongside artists and activists on fundraising initiatives, hosted virtual salons where artists were able to learn about and discuss issues. These non-public facing initiatives provided musicians with a safe space to gain the confidence they needed to speak up and interpret messages in ways that felt relevant to their fans.

President-elect Joe Biden’s campaign employed tried-and-true methods of working with musicians, albeit in the virtual space, as well as new tactics, such as rapid response messaging. By notifying artists when a major announcement was being made, the campaign was able to amplify its messaging through influencers and surrogates. On the afternoon of election day, for example, the campaign communicated that turnout was low in Minnesota, which led to a flurry of tweets encouraging voters to go to the polls.

Battling Election Fatigue

Many of us are, understandably, contending with political fatigue these days. But we can’t let up as we approach the Georgia election (the registration deadline is Dec. 7), we need to utilize this collective momentum to make sure people stay engaged. Major issues such as racial justice, health care, climate change, mental health and rights — to name only a few — require both immediate and long-term attention.

 

A quick overview: Georgia election law requires a candidate to procure over 50% of the vote in order to be elected. Since this did not happen for either of Georgia’s Senate seats, we now have a runoff between the Republican incumbents, Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, and the Democratic challengers, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock. The Senate currently stands at 50 seats for Republicans and 48 for Democrats. If both Ossoff and Warnock win, each party then holds the same number and the decisive vote is cast by Vice President-elect, Kamala Harris. This, in essence, would give Democrats control of both the Senate and the House.

Artists Are Rallying

We are already seeing many artists coalesce around the race, including my client, Death Cab for Cutie, releasing an EP via Bandcamp to benefit the voter’s rights organization Fair Fight Action based in Georgia and led by the fearless Stacey Abrams.

Of utmost urgency to our industry, in particular, is the Save Our Stages Act. Tied to the next stimulus package, it will provide essential support to many factors of the live music sector: venues, promoters, agents and other music-related businesses. Two organizations founded in the wake of COVID-19, the National Independent Venue Association and the National Independent Talent Organization, worked tirelessly to get this on to the bill. We need to keep pressure on representatives to make sure it remains there.

Elections are inflection points, not ends or beginnings. We have witnessed our collective ability to shape public discourse, policy, hold our politicians accountable, shine a light on social issues and activate fanbases towards social change. How an artist chooses to do this is their prerogative, of course, but we, as an industry, now have a much better sense of the tools needed — and perhaps more importantly, we now have the proof that we can help to enact significant, sustainable change.

Jordan Kurland is a founding partner of Brilliant Corners Artist Management. The company’s roster includes Death Cab for Cutie, Postal Service, Toro Y Moi, Best Coast, She & Him, Soccer Mommy and Real Estate. He served on the entertainment advisory committee for Barark Obama in 2012 and Hillary Clinton in 2016. During the 2020 presidential race, Kurland quarterbacked the digital compilation albums, Good Music to Avert the Collapse of American Democracy, Volumes 1 and 2, which raised more than $550,000 for voter’s rights organizations.

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