"Be the Change" Aims to Get Out the Music Vote

Graham Nash and other big name music acts get out the vote with Election Day phone calls to their fans.

Hip-hop stars Chingy, Q and MC Lyte have joined forces with two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Fame singer-songwriter Graham Nash in an innovative get-out-the-vote effort that aims to mobilize young voters for election 2008 by leveraging the power of social networks. On November 4, music fans who sign up for "Be the Change" will receive an automated call from the musician of their choice to remind them to go to the polls. A selected number of voters will receive calls from the musicians themselves.

Los Lobos, Chris Walla of Death Cab for Cutie, jam bands String Cheese Incident and Hot Buttered Rum, and rising R&B stars Montell Jordan and Chilli have also lent their voices to the project, launched by a political action committee called Music for Democracy. Founded by a group of young veterans of Democratic fundraising efforts in New York City this summer, the PAC employs emerging technology to engage a new pool of eligible voters -- the Facebook/Gmail/Twitter/iPhone generation -- in the electoral process. Be the Change "has the capacity to revolutionize the power of musicians and music fans to make a quantifiable impact on the outcome of this election," says MFD's national director, Bear Kittay.

The musical purview of the organization is multi-generational. Its website at features in-depth interviews about politics with long-established musicians like David Crosby and Bruce Hornsby, as well as younger progressive voices like Spearhead's Michael Franti and Will Oldham. MFD also talks to politicians like Howard Dean and Mark Begich -- the Alaskan Democrat running for a Senate seat against Sen. Ted Stevens, recently convicted on corruption charges -- about the influence music has had on their lives and careers.

"There's so much at stake in the next election, and it's not just obvious things like getting the hell out of a war we shouldn't be in," says Crosby, who wrote a book about music and politics called Stand and Be Counted and has played dozens of benefits for progressive causes as a founding member of the Byrds and Crosby, Stills and Nash. "The current administration has messed with the balance of power in the United States. They've tried to amass all the power in the executive branch, taking it away from the legislative branch and stacking the courts. They abrogated our civil rights with the so-called Patriot Act and took away habeas corpus and our right to privacy -- things that were basic building blocks of this country." On October 12, he and Nash sang their hit "Teach Your Children," joined by members of indie favorites Vampire Weekend, at a concert for Be the Change in New York City.

The technological core of the GOTV operation is a simple online application (known as a "widget") that can be embedded on nearly any Web site, enabling voters to sign up for calls, emails and other contact from participating artists. "Young voters rightfully demand more than a smiling celebrity with good talking points," says MFD's executive director, Mitch Manzella. "This is not merely linking a candidate to a popular musician's name. Be the Change gives fans a chance to hear the reasoning behind a thoughtful endorsement, and as a result, respect the position as more than merely a photo op." MFD is also hosting a contest in which fans earn points by recruiting others to join. "Rockstar" fans who earn the most points will win a live phone call from their favorite artist on Election Day. The contest will expand MFD's ability to target and engage young voters by capturing their contact and demographic information.

MFD's efforts will target swing states like New Mexico, Ohio, Michigan, Colorado, Virginia and Florida. Kittay points out that funding for groups to provide outreach to young voters is only a fraction of what it was during the 2004 election, and those efforts often overlook voters who are not attending college. MFD aims to fill this void by targeting 18-to-29 year olds through online music communities and social networks like Facebook and MySpace. "This project is using new technologies to break down the barriers between Democratic musicians and their fans and make a strong statement on Election Day," he says.

Steve Silberman is a senior writer for Wired magazine.
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