Jack White had never formally endorsed a presidential candidate before this past October, when he performed at a rally for Bernie Sanders. “I’m not really politically affiliated too much,” White said during the performance at his high school alma mater in Detroit. “I just listen to the issues.”
White was just one of dozens of artists and entertainers who helped boost the Vermont senator’s campaign over the past year. A-list acts from Cardi B to Halsey have showed their support for Bernie through a mix of endorsements, social media posts, and other campaign appearances. And for months, live events across key early primary states from New Hampshire to California drew large crowds to see Vampire Weekend, Bon Iver, Chuck D, the Strokes, Soccer Mommy, and many more play concerts for Bernie.
By March 10th, when the Sanders campaign began canceling all public rallies due to the coronavirus pandemic, the race had shifted. While a sequence of primary losses have made it much less likely that the senator will become the Democratic nominee, he’s remained in the running to advocate for signature policies like universal healthcare and a true social safety net — and artists like Neil Young and Jim James have kept joining him for “digital rallies.”
Those rallies, and the live events that have helped boost Sanders over the past year, came together thanks to a team that included Caleb Wilson, the national director of talent outreach for the 2020 campaign. Sanders “made it a mandate that all of [his] events have to incorporate music, arts, and culture,” Wilson tells Rolling Stone. “The senator is extremely aware that throughout history, political movements and their success can absolutely be attributed to the artists of the day championing them. It’s crystal clear why music is so important to us.”
Wilson, who worked as a TV and film talent agent prior to joining the campaign in 2016, says the Sanders campaign’s strategy on artist outreach is unprecedented. “Traditionally, campaigns for presidents have [thought], ‘The artist will come to me,’” Wilson says. “What makes our campaign truly unique is that we actually have an outreach program.”
The Sanders campaign worked diligently to get the music industry on board for the past year-plus, building relationships with artist managers, labels, booking agencies, and publicists. “We spent a good amount of time running around L.A. meeting face-to-face with these companies, and then doing outreach on a regular basis,” says Wilson. That way, he explains, when an artist who supports Sanders wanted to get involved, their team knew exactly who to put them in touch with.
White’s performance in Detroit was a prime example of the ways that outreach paid off. “I cold-called Andrew Friedman, who is Jack’s manager at Monotone, and basically said, ‘Hey, we’re going to be here doing this, and we would love nothing more than for Jack to join us,’” Wilson says.
One of the most difficult elements of recruiting famous talent is negotiating how much of the artist’s typical show (sound, lights, stage production) the campaign is able to afford. While the Sanders campaign has covered production costs for any performer playing at a rally, it has not compensated the artists for their time.
“Sometimes artists want the lighting package, and we’re just not going to do it. We can’t. It’s not within our means,” says Wilson. “If you’re adamant about being full-electric, well, there’s a time and place for that. Sometimes we’re going to have to emphasize the full-acoustic.”
All of the artists who perform at Sanders rallies have volunteered their own time in service of the senator’s message. “We do not want an artist on our stage that isn’t sympathetic to the senator and the Bernie 2020 campaign,” says Wilson. “For that reason alone, that’s why we’re not offering paydays.” This, Wilson says, is in contrast to other campaigns like Tom Steyer’s, who paid artists like Juvenile and TLC to perform at his campaign events. (In an email, a representative for Tom Steyer confirmed that those two artists were “compensated for their performances.”)
Wilson spoke with Rolling Stone in early March, shortly before Sanders was swept by Joe Biden in the Illinois, Florida, and Arizona primaries. He acknowledges that the campaign, which attracted a roster of artist endorsements that at times could read like a who’s who of young indie darlings, struggled to find artists who could speak to older voters.
“We’re constantly reaching out to artists that maybe would be seen [as]… more attractive to the boomers,” says Wilson.
Asked if the campaign had reached out to prominent mainstream Democrats like Bruce Springsteen, who has endorsed and performed at rallies for many past Democratic presidential candidates, Wilson says that, generally speaking, the campaign never wants to pressure any celebrity to endorse a candidate.
“There’s a whole coalition of recruiters, so I haven’t had those conversations and I’m not sure if someone else has,” he says. “I think there’s definitely been artists that are choosing to hold out for the general.”
On a practical level, the Sanders campaign has seen music as serving dual functions. One effect is increasing the campaign’s exposure through media outlets that cover music and celebrities, like Rolling Stone. “It’s the earned media,” says Wilson. “The association with these major national recording artists, if that gets… platforms that wouldn’t normally be covering a political rally to cover a political rally, well, that’s looked at as a huge win.”
More importantly, big-name musicians can help expose the campaign’s message to voters who might not otherwise be engaged in electoral politics. The campaign has done that, in part, by shaking up the structure of a typical political rally: if a bigger artist has signed on to be part of a Sanders 2020 rally, the band, and not the senator, will often serve as the headlining event.
“We like to deviate from your traditional run of show which is music, speaker, senator headlining,” says Wilson.
That’s what the campaign did when the Strokes joined Sanders, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Dr. Cornel West and others for a rally in New Hampshire earlier this year, an event that typified the campaign’s attempts to reach out to young voters.
“You had people in the crowd that had never before been to a political rally,” says Wilson, who admits that it’s hard to quantify the ability of artists to translate interest and excitement into actual political constituents. “Now, does that mean that that night in New Hampshire we got thousands of more voters? I wish we could tell.” (According to Vanity Fair, the Strokes’ concert helped the campaign raise over $100,000).
The campaign has also understood that the Sanders 2020 campaign has offered a big platform for artists, particularly smaller acts. “It’s certainly a ‘You scratch our back, and we scratch your back,’” says Wilson. “The Bernie base is so massive that you’re exposing this artist to a whole new demographic of people.”
“We would be lying if we didn’t think that our engagement went up after our first Bernie rally,” says Hector Flores of the band Las Cafeteras, a Chicano Los Angeles group that has performed at several Sanders rallies. “Immediately after our performances in Iowa, we had Bernie supporters at every show. But the performances with Tio Bernie were beyond algorithms and Instagram ‘likes’…The love from our base was reciprocal. Our fans came out in the thousands to publicly pledge support for Bernie after we did, because they knew that if Bernie was down with an independent band from East L.A., then Bernie would be for them too.”
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