As the country tumbles towards Tuesday’s midterm elections, political wonks are in high gear debating demographics in a country as divided as ever in recent memory. But one sect they’re almost certain to miss in their conversations is the Warped Tour crowd.
In the Warped Tour’s final year — which wrapped this summer after 24 annual laps around the country — the nonpartisan nonprofit HeadCount raked in its most successful outreach effort of the past three years, with 3,577 voters registered over 37 dates. Leading this campaign was Katrina Vassallo, a 24-year-old tour manager with the 15-year-old organization, who herself was registered to vote by HeadCount team members as a high school senior and began working with the organization soon after. She rose up the ranks from volunteer to intern and eventually joined on as a team leader for last year’s festival season, traveling from event to event, spending at most a week at home between treks.
From June 21 to Aug. 5, Vassallo was welcomed into the Warped Tour “family,” as she calls it, spanning sweltering parking lots across most the contiguous United States. The experience offered her unique insight into the complicated political issues facing our country, specifically through the lens of pop-punk and alt-rock fans who turned up for sets by All Time Low, Simple Plan, 3OH!3 and dozens more.
“Of course it varied by state and where we worked … but Warped Tour, as a total, cared about human rights,” says Vassallo. “These are people who care about mental health and who really think that it should be a top priority, because there are people out there who are suffering and are feeling very down about themselves and feel very alone. And that’s something that Warped Tour does for them is bring them together and tell them that it’s OK to not be OK, but we’re all here for you and you don’t have to choose a drastic choice.”
Using a megaphone to single out potential voters, Vassallo and her rotating crew of local team members would typically approach people one-on-one to ask if they were old enough to vote and had registered yet. If not, they would try to sign them up — a seemingly simple task that takes intricate knowledge of each state’s election laws, not to mention naturally disarming charisma.
In a good day, for example, in Minnesota, Vassallo and three volunteers registered 209 new voters. “There wasn’t a moment where we weren’t busy at all times,” she says. More commonly, though, Vassallo describes volunteers canvasing the festival and returning to their booth with five or six new registrations at a time, saying, “I got the noes, but I found the people in the shade and they were really hyped to talk.” Or people coming up to the table, saying, “Oh man, I totally have to do this. You’re saving me so much time. Thank you.” Or support from people who are already registered, telling her and her team, “I love what you’re doing. Thank you so much. This is so important.” Vassallo adds, “When you get a couple of those in the day, you feel like a good day.”
In the conversations that transpired, Vassallo says she personally met a divided and often disillusioned electorate. Many would complain that their votes didn’t count and politics are rigged, so why should they bother participating?
“People are angry at big elections,” she says. “They’re angry that they feel like presidents — and just not even this one, but in general with all presidents — are just pawns and that it’s all paid out and stuff like that. And I have to remind them about local elections: Vote for the people that you can meet, the people that you can have a phone call with if you try, that you could write to. And go to those meetings, those Congress halls, your city hall, those places where you could go and meet those people, because those are the people who’re going to really fight for what you believe in, if you vote them in.”
She continues, “I always say, I’m never going to meet the president, you’re never going to meet the president — that’s OK. But you can’t forget about these local votes.”
In representing a nonpartisan organization, Vassallo and her team members would have to check their own political beliefs at the festival gates, while still finding inroads to discuss politics and encourage others’ participation. Some places this was easier than others.
In California, for instance, she says, “people really cared about voting” and her job was easy. There was not such much of the typical “My vote doesn’t count” response she encountered elsewhere, nor did she need to resort to tactics like drawing pot leaves on signs and writing, “Think elections don’t matter?” (Recreational marijuana was legalized in California in 2016.) She says, “There are both right and left out in California, but we got a lot of people who cared about women’s rights, immigration rights, workers rights and things like that.”
Meanwhile, in Kansas, she recalls a different kind of crowd: “This guy had a shirt that said LGBT and L was the Statue of Liberty, G was guns, B was beer and T was Trump,” she says. “And it was interesting because we’re at Warped Tour where you can use whatever pronoun you want to and LGBT is so celebrated, but at the same time there are people who still don’t really get down with it.”
Despite her best efforts to stay impartial, Vassallo was often pegged as a Democrat by conservative concertgoers. That would dissuading conservatives from even speaking with her until she explained the only thing she was advocating for was democracy and her purpose was specifically to register voters, not pick sides. “Once people realized that I wasn’t trying to shove my views down their throat, they opened up to me and felt better about it,” she says. “I was trying to have the conversation that we don’t need to be polarized, I just want everyone to vote.”
Even during such a contentious political era, after traveling the country Vassallo returned optimistic about the country so often discussed as irredeemably split. And she never lost sight of the commonality that brought everyone together to each of those tour stops in the first place.
One thing she learned out there? “Just how amazing America is and how cool the people are,” she says. “And all of this music brings us together and no matter what makes us different — you know, people wearing different shirts and clothes and stuff like that — the music brings us together. It always will.”
Something most people don’t understand is that I don’t see music every second of my work day. A lot of people who do not work in the industry assume that I get to see every second of music when I am working. Although I get to see more music than they do during their work day, sometimes eating, showering and resting take priority over seeing a set. Self care goes a long way on the road and it looks different a lot of times. Some days its seeing a bunch of sets and others it is resting and ensuring I’m fed, clean and asleep early.
It’s good to have a strong support system. Whether on the road or just working an office job, a support system is so important to your mental health. Work can get to you and being able to talk to people outside of work about how you are feeling can make or break you. While I was on the road I talked to my family, friends and to my boss, Tim [Bramlette, director of partnership marketing], everyday and I would not have been able to do it without all of them.
When dealing with musicians you have to remember they are just people too. Even if you just met your favorite artist, you have to think of the golden rule, “Treat others how you would want to be treated.” This will set the tone for the relationship you are going to have with that artist. I make a rule for myself to not take pictures with artists because this puts me at the fan position and not as an equal in business; they are just trying to do their job and so am I.
I’ve learned to trust yourself and be your biggest advocate. You know when something is right vs. wrong and to stand up for yourself to make sure you are being treated correctly. When you are just starting out everyone wants to have their big break and show they are valuable, but you must make sure you aren’t being taken advantage of. I had a lot of support from family and friends to help me navigate this industry and I am always willing to help a peer.