Behind The Scene: Mollie Farrell on HeadCount’s Artist Initiatives and Online Voting Hub

Dean Budnick on October 30, 2020
Behind The Scene: Mollie Farrell on HeadCount’s Artist Initiatives and Online Voting Hub

By early October 2020, HeadCount—the nonpartisan organization that facilitates participation in the democratic process—had registered over 400,000 voters for the upcoming election. These numbers have far exceeded the 16-year-old organization’s prior efforts and are likely to have a tangible impact at the ballot box.

Mollie Farrell, HeadCount’s director of artist relations, has played a major role in this success. During her tenure, the organization has fostered relationships with a variety of notable musicians and other public figures, who, in turn, have encouraged their supporters to engage with HeadCount.

While the pandemic could have presented a problem for an organization that has historically placed an emphasis on registering voters at concerts, Farrell explains, “Unbeknownst to us, we were ready for COVID because we had started to focus on digital. The HeadCount team has always been really small and mighty but we’ve scaled our organization in such spectacular ways. While our impact work with different artists remains important, we’ve also been strategic with our talent partnerships. We are continuing to focus on artist diversity in order to make sure that we’re reaching all fans, of any style of music.”

Can you talk about your initial connection to music and how you found your way to HeadCount?

I loved music growing up. I wasn’t necessarily raised in a musical household, so it was definitely self-discovery with some help from my brother who taught me about the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Radiohead. I’ve got friends who are like, “Oh, my parents are Deadheads,” but my parents learned about the Grateful Dead from me. [Laughs.]

When I was 14, I had one of those life-changing concert moments when I saw the band Brand New, who were touring behind The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me, which is still one of my favorite albums. That was when I first knew that I wanted figure out a way to work within the space.

While in college [at Queens University of Charlotte], I got an internship with a small booking and management company called Blue Mountain Artists, who worked with a lot of roots acts and jambands. They had Perpetual Groove at the time, which was very exciting, as well as a lot of New Orleans musicians. I learned the ins and outs of booking bands, putting together performance contracts, making door deals and all of that. One of the agents, Micah Davidson, took me under his wing. On the side, he had started producing some events—local craft beer events and music festivals, things like that. I would work on whatever needed to be done onsite. Some days, I was just selling merch; other days, I was driving around in a golf cart picking up trash.

Then, after I graduated, I took a small gig with a talent buyer in Charlotte. We were booking this room called The Chop Shop. That was fun for a little while, but I also started volunteering at music festivals on the weekends, working in different production departments. I did a bunch of events at the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park. I got my first paid gig at the Cannabis Cup in Denver in 2015. I was Jon Dindas’ production assistant, and he offered me a full-time job in New York [at G4D Productions]. So I went from being an intern, who had no idea how to use a radio in 2014, to being the production coordinator at LOCKN’ in 2015. There was a learning curve there, but it was a wonderful experience.

About two years later, a position opened up at HeadCount. I loved the work they were doing and, by then, I had worked on the Jam the Vote event at The Capitol Theatre with [Executive Director] Andy Bernstein and [current Board Chair] Peter Shapiro. It felt like a perfect fit.

Although HeadCount’s roots are in the jam scene—the Disco Biscuits’ Marc Brownstein is a co-founder and Bob Weir was one of the pivotal founding board members—the organization has always worked with a wide range of artists. However, you’ve certainly stepped that up in recent years.

HeadCount came out of the jamband community, but even during those early years, they still sought partnerships with Jay-Z and all sorts of folks. In the last few years, we’ve worked with such an interesting variety [of entertainers] and it’s very cool. We’ve worked with everyone from top pop stars like Ariana Grande and Billie Eilish to more underground, experimental hip-hop groups like EarthGang. Flatbush Zombies have been great supporters. In the Americana scene, Jason Isbell just did a rerelease of the John Prine/ Jason Isbell campaign team T-shirt, and the proceeds are going to HeadCount, which is a wonderful thing to see. On our most recent National Voter Registration Day, which we’ve been doing since 2012, Lil Dicky and Weird Al were popular. Then we’ve expanded our reach into the influencer space, which isn’t music, but these people are rock stars for so many of Gen Z.

I still enjoy working with rock bands and jambands, but it’s been fun to work with pop stars. It’s cool to see the fans’ reactions, and feel that energy from a different scene. It’s different when you bridge the gap between artist and celebrity, working with Camila Cabello, Billie Eilish and Ariana Grande, who are household names. They’re not just musicians.

With Ariana last year, I had the pleasure of hitting a bunch of tour dates and so many fans shared with us that they had never really thought about voter registration before. However, thanks to the sheer influence of someone they look up to, they now know that it’s important. Some people who had never previously considered voting in an election are now among our top volunteers. Either they came and volunteered at other Ariana shows or other HeadCount events, or they’re online with us doing peer-to-peer texting with their fellow Ariana fans and Americans all across the country, ensuring they have everything they need to vote.

When an artist like Ariana endorses HeadCount and integrates our message into the branding of their tour or speaks about voter registration through stage shout-outs—letting people know that it’s important—we see the long-term effects. These 18 and 19 year olds are going to be voters for life, up and down the ballot, in every election. Not only that, but they’ll go a step further with their civic participation and recruit others to do so. That’s such a fruitful endeavor for us and it’s been beautiful to experience.

So much of HeadCount’s focus has been on the road with performers. Can you describe your response to COVID-19?

We were preparing for the biggest election of my lifetime, and the biggest election in modern American history. The core of HeadCount’s work over the last 16 years has been our field program, registering voters at concerts, music festivals, and most recently community events. This year we had 50 tours on the books at the beginning of the year, starting in January. Normally, we go dark from election day until about March, but, this year, we were going hard right out of the gate on January 1.

And then the world stopped turning for a little bit. In March, we went to our last music festival of the year, which was Okeechobee in Florida. We had also sent a staffer out on the road with Billie Eilish for a massive tour that only got three shows in before they pulled the plug.

We were monitoring things closely and stopped field operations around March 15. We came to a complete halt and started brainstorming on what we could do to stay active. Though we were over seven months away from the election, we quickly recognized that we needed to pivot. However, we had already been thinking about the fact that it’s important to prioritize registering all Americans, and not just those who have a disposable income and can go to shows. We recognized that concerts are a place of privilege, and we wanted to expand our reach. We’ve been able to do that with initiatives like our online Vote Ready program.

It’s been an education. When you’re in the field and you can do peer-to-peer voter registration, people are willing to hear what you have to say. It’s a lot easier to reel people in face to face. But when you’re online, it’s so easy to just scroll, swipe or ignore a post. So there has to be something else behind the message that brings people in and catches their attention.

So we’ve been working on the messaging and we’ve also found that having the ability to win something has been helpful. We just did that with [content creator] David Dobrik, where over 100,000 people registered to vote in 24 hours [while 250,000 others confirmed their registration status to qualify for an opportunity to win one of five Teslas].

How did your connection with David Dobrik come about?

We’ve had digital exposure in new spaces, and we’re also getting emails from folks that we would have never been connected to otherwise. For years, it felt like we were begging bands: “Can we please set up in the corner? Can your tour manager add one more thing to the advance?” But now we have folks knocking on our digital door saying, “Hey, we would love to partner with you. So we work with people like Ninja, who is the number-one streamed gamer in the world, and David Dobrik, who is a phenomenal YouTube/TikTok content creator and influencer. Metro, this amazing PR firm, hit us up and said that they had a great roster of clients and were looking for a voter-registration partner. They saw what we had done with a lot of our folks, and they wanted to get the conversation started. So Tess [Finkle], the founder of Metro PR, emailed us and the rest is history. David is a unique situation because he is a DACA recipient. [Dobrik was born in Slovakia before immigrating to the U.S. at age six.]. He cannot actually vote, but a lot of the messaging is like, “Please go do it on my behalf,” which is pretty cool.

The ability to reach young people and encourage them to register, then follow through and vote, is so important because, historically, they’ve had the lowest turnout.

This is an area where we’ve learned so much. These kids are digital natives. They grew up with a screen in their hand, or right next to them, and their brains are primed to cut out the noise because they’re constantly bombarded with online messages. So we have to be very unique in the way that we grasp their attention. You have to make a splash to reach young people because they have been so primed to scroll past something that feels promotional. But we know that, when it’s done right, digital is the strongest tool that we have.

So this past year has been phenomenal. It’s helped us better understand the key things that we need to do in order to be successful with an online campaign: It has to feel authentic and it has to be in the voice of the talent that’s sharing the message. It can’t be a reshare, a quote or someone else’s graphic. It has to be in the words of the artist, the talent, the influencer, or whoever is posting. If it feels like an advertisement, a gimmick or a promotional thing, fans know it inherently and they’re going to pass over it because it’s just not important to them.

The field program is still going to be a part of HeadCount because, at the end of the day, it’s fun to register people to vote at concerts. You feel like you’re doing a good thing, and then you get to go dance your ass off afterward. But the future of HeadCount also will include everything we’ve learned this year about digital.

During your time at HeadCount, has there been a particularly gratifying moment or accomplishment?

There have been a few that have been remarkable. On Super Tuesday this year [March 3], right before COVID-19—when we still had dreams of what this year could be—we were about to go out on tour with Billie Eilish [the first date was March 9], which had taken a while to finalize but was going to be worth it, as her influence is remarkable. Before Super Tuesday, Billie had not been present on social media for several weeks; she was taking a break. But she came back on March 3 and did an Instagram story in which she said, “Like a lot of people, I’m going to be voting for the first time—and so are you. You’ve got to make sure you’re registered to vote already, pre-registered to vote, whatever it is.” That was the date of the California primary—she’s a resident of California and this is the first election that she is voting in.

This was the most incredible thing— a young voter talking to other young voters. She told them: “We have to make our voices heard. Swipe up to become a voter.” And, in a 24-hour period, we added thousands of new voters to our system just from that one post. It was a hell of a way to kick off the year, and it felt really good.

I think her doing that really helped me put together my strategy; it really helped me realize what I could present to other artists throughout the rest of the year. It’s been a scary, difficult, treacherous year for this country. So many individuals have lost loved ones and lost jobs. But there have been beautiful moments of hope and inspiration. And I feel lucky that I get to experience those moments through the talent that we work with, as well as through their fans.

When people approach you for advice and say, “I want to make sure my vote counts,” what do you tell them?

To begin with, they need to make their voting plan now. We’re encouraging folks who feel comfortable putting on a mask and going to the grocery store to put on a mask and vote early. That’s due to a lot of the voter suppression we’re seeing. And there also just a lot of anxiety around the election in general.

I understand not everyone can do that due to work or family responsibilities, so if you are voting on election day, go with a friend. Pack food and water. Get ready for long lines, wear your tennis shoes. Clear your schedule— anticipate you need more time than you actually do. We suggest going early in the day, if you can.

If you’re choosing to vote by mail, get that ballot in now. Do not wait. If you’re reading this, and there is still a mail-in ballot sitting on your coffee table, then grab your pen, fill it out, run down to the post office or to your ballot drop off area, and get it in. Mail-in ballots that are received late in the day on election day, or after election day, may be contested.

We have a brand new website. It is full of great resources, and it’s very intuitive to use. So if you haven’t checked your voter registration in a while, or you want to look up early voting options and ballot drop-off locations in your area, then you can go to [Beyond voter registration, also provides information regarding polling places, deadlines, election rules and other pertinent details.]

We have everything you need right there; it’s easy to digest. We don’t need any more confusion this year—you need to get your ballot in and make sure your vote is counted.