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Air Traffic Control, a group that monitors music and politics, and helps artists find ways to become politically engaged, recently released a survey of how music and politics collided in the 2008 election.  Here's a quick snapshot of their findings (pdf), taken over a 12 month period leading up to the election:

  • Total Activities Documented: 1,895

  • Participating Artists: 1091+  
  • Participating Organizations: 72
  • Swing State Activities: 532 (CO, FL, MI, MN, MO, NV, NH, OH, VA, PA)
  • Songs Written For Candidates: 62

As in 2004, one organization did the vast majority of the organizing within the music industry.  ATC notes that in 2004 that organization was Music for America.  In 2008, that organization was HeadCount, which accounted for 82% of all music related activities during the 2008 election cycle.  Rock the Vote came in a distant second with 7% of all activities, and no other organization accounted for more than 2% of all other music and politics events.

Music Politics 2008

Other observations:

  • As in 2004, approximately 1/3 of all events were held in swing states, and the majority of events occurred in September and October, the final two months of the election cycle.  
  • Many of the organizations (Punk Voter, Music for America, Bands Against Bush, Concerts for Kerry/Change) that worked in this field in 2004 had disappeared by 2008.
  • Unlike 2004, there were far fewer events held in 2008 (well over 1,000 fewer).  
  • Despite the fewer number of events, there was a far greater number of unique artists participating in events, but in many instances they participated in new ways (meaning other than by allowing an organization to table at one of their concerts).
  • One very cool difference between 2004 and 2008: most concerts organized in swing states were put together by local organizations utilizing local bands.  As a huge proponent of local, peer to peer organizing, I see this as welcome news indicative of the further potential for young people organizing themselves in politically powerful states.

The report offers a few potential explanations for these differences:

These changes may be the result of a number of different factors including: artists and organizations focusing their efforts online instead of at concerts, fewer effective nonpartisan or partisan organizations working directly with the music community, fewer organizations going on a full length tour with artists but focusing their resources on local shows or festivals, lack of reporting back by the organizations, engaged artists turning to the campaigns directly to offer their support and/or more self-produced events and locally organized activities using local artists.

Based on my observations, I would agree that most of these played at least some part in the different role that musicians played in 2008.  Far fewer of the organizations listed above had any capacity for field operations - HeadCount being the notable exception - than did organizations like MFA, Concerts for Change and Punk Voter in 2004.  And while those now defunct organizations certainly used the web to organize in 2004 (via online volunteer/event coordination), alternative forms of engagement via social networks, YouTube, Eventful, and other platforms just weren't an option four years ago.  

What I would also add to the mix is that a number of organizations likely made a conscious choice to focus on large-scale events or paid/earned media that cashed in on celebrity culture rather than make a determined effort to organize in the field via a concert-based model.  What I would love to see is a dollar for dollar analysis on which model is more effective.  For instance, Rock the Vote raise and spent $X million dollars this year and registered X number of voters.  HeadCount raised $X hundred thousand dollars and registered X number of voters.

While such an analysis would be the easiest basis for comparison, it would hardly be comprehensive.  There are a wide range of other measures - both qualitative and quantitative - that any side by side analysis would also need to take into account.  Here are other questions I would love to see answered:

  • How "real" (as in, can they be moved to action) are names on lists built via celebrity media and stadium events (Rock the Vote) vs. those built via a peer to peer field model (Head Count)?
  • Is there a saturation point at which it becomes less effective to pump organizational dollars into paid/earned media via celebrity events, and after which dollars would be more effectively spent on field operations?
  • How scalable is HeadCount's field-based model?  

The Air Traffic Control report offers one final qualitative difference between music activism in the 2004 election cycle and that in the 2008 cycle.  They sum it up quite succinctly with this quote:

However, the most inspiring change we noticed was not in the volume of support but in the content of that support. We often explain the shift in artist activism around this election as the difference between dedicating a song to Kerry in 2004, and writing a song about Obama in 2008.

As I've written in the past, getting artists to become politically engaged in 2004 was like pulling teeth.  It speaks volumes for how far the industry and culture has come that in 2008 the Democratic candidate literally become a pop culture and music phenomenon.  While there's still a lot of work to be done (pdf) to make artists and activists work together more effectively, kudos to everyone for all their work - in 2004 and 2008 - getting us this far.

Cross-posted from Future Majority.

Originally posted to Michael Connery on Tue Feb 17, 2009 at 01:26 PM PST.

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Comment Preferences

    •  I'm trying to remember Dem Pres nominees of (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      previous decades drawing the kind of support from bands that we got in 2008. I can't think of any. It's truly remarkable.

      i can't watch [Obama] speak on tv for more than 5 minutes or else what he's saying starts to make sense to me. It's very scary.

      by Kimball Cross on Tue Feb 17, 2009 at 01:35:20 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Interesting (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      blueyedace2, boofdah, Michael Connery

      I tracked specifically involvement by music acts in both 2004 and 2008. Getting artists to become involved in general was NOT like pulling teeth in 2004: They were BEGGING to become involved. You may be referring to some specific initiative here, but I have never seen the level of political activism among musicians I saw in 2004. In factor, I tracked double the number of significant music acts who got behind Kerry in 2004 than got behind Obama. There was a reason, though. Many of those were energized by targeting Bush or the war in Iraq, and there was less urgency about that in 2008. I particularly noticed this in the punk community which was enraged by Bush in 2004, but not so much in 2008. PUnkVoter in particular really focused a lot of rage at the administration.

      As for songs written about the candidates, that was clearly an advantage to Obama, who personally struck a chord more with musicians than Kerry personally did. The efforts in 2004 were much more focused on replacing Bush with someone intelligent, compassionate and responsive, whoever  that might be.

      There was a ton of local-band activity here in Ohio in both years (probably more in 2004) but that is hard to track in any case. There was a lot of focus by independent groups on registering voters in the music clubs here, which started earlier since the primary ended earlier. The Obama campaign did some of this themselves; I wasn't aware of any independent groups this time.

      On a side note. I also tracked music acts supporting Bush and McCain. McCain's middle name must have been "I am going to break your instrument" because I was able to locate less than a dozen such acts. I did stretch my parameters for Bush (including, for instance, a singing New York policeman who sang the Star-Spangled Banner at ballgames and a girl champion surfer who had done a few demos and hoped to be the next Britney Spears) and came up with slightly more than 30. However, I had almost 400 acts on my Kerry list, and upwards of 200, I think, on the Obama list.

      Rob Portman: He sent your job to China.

      by anastasia p on Tue Feb 17, 2009 at 01:41:58 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  2004 Stats (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        I was one of the founders of Music for America, the organization which put together the most events in 2004 (and actually we did more events in 2004 than did all groups put together in 2008).  We began that initiative in 2003 (specifically around August/September).  At that point in time, mosts artists were INCREDIBLY reluctant to get involved.  This continued well after the primary season.  The reason?  No one wanted to be the next Dixie Chicks, OR, they didn't believe in the electoral process as a vehicle of change (there were many other reasons as well, but these were the biggest).

        It was thanks to word of mouth among artists who had good experiences with organizing, and the work of people like Fat Mike, that over time this viewpoint changed.

        Yes, by August of 2004 lots of artists wanted to get involved, but that was not the default starting point for most of them at the beginning of the cycle.  That's what I'm talking about.  It took a huge amount of work to convince artists to become involved in the electoral process. . . (and even then, for many artists, getting them to actually message about voter registration and the election from on stage was itself another huge challenge).

        Vote For Change - the big MoveOn concert series that got about 90% of the music/poltics media in 2004 - and other acts that peaked in Sept./Oct. were the result of a long wave of growing support and engagement that was very difficult and took almost a year to build.

  •'s influence... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    maggiejean, Anne933

    I knew it was pretty much over by the time I found my mom watching the "Yes We Can" you tube video. She's in her 60's and a fairly conservative "Navy Wife".

    The lesson of that history is that you must not despair, that if you are right, and you persist, things will change. -Howard Zinn

    by blueyedace2 on Tue Feb 17, 2009 at 03:30:53 PM PST

  •  The Democrats should take more advantage (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    of the support they get from musicians. Considering that the GOP has hardly any notable artists, the Democrats have a near-monopoly. A little more outreach, especially among acts that appeal to the young, would go a long way.

  •  In addition to positive participation... (0+ / 0-)

    ...of artists in politics, there was also some adversarial activity.

    During the 2008 campaign, I tracked artists who affirmatively opposed the use of their work by John McCain's campaign:

    • Bon Jovi - Who Says You Can’t Go Home
    • Foo Fighters - My Hero
    • Heart - Barracuda
    • Jackson Browne - Running on Empty
    • Frankie Valli - Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You
    • Owners of the Rocky Theme
    • Van Halen - Right Now
    • Orleans - Still the One
    • Tom Petty - I Won’t Back Down
    • John Mellencamp - Pink House and Our Country
    • Chuck Berry - Johnny B. Goode

    ••• CELEBRATE with America's BAraCK Stickers And T-Shirts •••

    by KingOneEye on Tue Feb 17, 2009 at 09:44:36 PM PST

  •  Thanks, Rescue Rangers! (0+ / 0-)

    I wouldn't be surprised if they missed this local effort in Northern New Mexico.  I think it's delightful:

    "The river always wins" - Mark Twain

    by Land of Enchantment on Tue Feb 17, 2009 at 11:24:22 PM PST

  •  Dave Matthews (0+ / 0-)

    He did a free concert for Obama in primary season.  All it cost to get in was your info to the Obama database.  I bet that helped win the state in November.

    "The river always wins" - Mark Twain

    by Land of Enchantment on Tue Feb 17, 2009 at 11:28:23 PM PST

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