Relix 44: HeadCount’s Participation Row
photo by Dave Vann
Welcome to the Relix 44. To commemorate the past 44 years of our existence, we’ve created a list of people, places and things that inspire us today, appearing in our September 2018 issue and rolling out on Relix.com throughout this fall. See all the articles posted so far here.
Collective Uplift: Participation Row
After spending the last few years on tour with Dead & Company, Participation Row supervisor Whitt Bell knows a thing or two about improvising. In July, as Bell and his team set up Participation Row at Albuquerque, N.M.’s Isleta Amphitheater, intense desert winds gusted through the venue, making any type of paperwork impossible and throwing the social action village into chaos.
“We had to make a plan very quickly,” he recalls. “We ended up going mobile with the whole thing. We had groups of volunteers, each with different causes, walk around the venue. It ended up working really well, and we turned a not-so-good situation into a successful night.”
Conceived by the non-profit HeadCount and first held at Lockn’ in 2013, Participation Row has acted as a meeting ground for nonprofits and music fans. Encapsulating charity auctions and grassroots activism, Participation Row has raised millions of dollars and empowered scores of local and national nonprofits during the past five years. Participation Row also counts Bob Weir as one of their adamant supporters. At Lockn’ 2015, Weir played an autographed guitar onstage that was later auctioned off by Participation Row for $65,000. (The money raised was split among the 22 participating charities present on-site.) Weir also played a similar a charity guitar at Fare Thee Well in Chicago. It fetched a staggering $526,000, and Participation Row ensured that it was shared by their 17 Grateful Dead-affiliated charities.
On tour with a band like Dead & Company, Participation Row will set up rows of booths at each venue where fans can learn about worthy causes and engage in positive actions, which can range from signing up for voter alerts to writing a postcard for rainforest preservation. Additionally, Participation Row incentivizes fans by allowing them to trade positive actions for cool, exclusive merch. On Dead & Company tour, if a fan engages with three nonprofits, then they receive a free pin. This model has also been replicated on tour with acts like Lettuce. According to Bell, it’s all about reaching out to music-lovers when they’re already in a good mood.
“Just like the name suggests, what we’re trying to get fans to do is participate,” he says. “We’re trying to bring some good not only into the concert space, but into the world.” HeadCount, steady partners REVERB and new addition March For Our Lives led Participation Row Dead & Company tour this summer, and, in less than two months, enabled 22,000 positive actions and registered 6,396 voters.
“From the band’s perspective, we want it to be more than entertainment,” Dead & Company bassist Oteil Burbridge says. “We want our shows to be a spiritual uplift, an intellectual uplift and an emotional uplift. So when you have that many people packed in there, why not take it all the way?”
Burbridge has even stopped by Participation Row to “give moral support” to volunteers. Discussing the men and women who make Participation Row happen, the bassist notes that they are of “different ages, different races, different everything,” but what they have in common is that they are
all “a certain type of person on the inside.” His wife Jess Burbridge has also been a part of Participation Row through her work with Gorilla Doctors, a wildlife conservation program based out of UC Davis.
“It’s a very unique space and it’s not something you’d usually see at a concert,” Bell admits. “But the ultimate goal is to continue to bring it where it works best.”
This article originally appears in the September 2018 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.