By Kevin Cirilli - 09/16/14 06:00 AM EDT
Rock the Vote, which aims to register young voters and make voting easier for young people, has struggled in recent years to regain its cultural status as the destination for candidates to reach voters ages 18 to 29.
Ashley Spillane, an avid music fan who also “keeps tabs with what the Kardashians are doing,” became Rock the Vote president in February. She is a campaign veteran who is tapped into emerging political technologies.
Such frustrations led Spillane, after more than a decade’s work in Washington, to decamp for Bali, where she stayed for six months and considered becoming a yoga instructor.
"I needed a break. I needed a little bit of space from what I think is the typical response of most people in this country — which is the bullsh--t,,” Spillane said during a recent interview inside Rock The Vote's Washington D.C. headquarters.
She said that, when she got back to D.C., the Rock the Vote job simply seemed a natural fit.
“I worked for 11 years in politics, and I’ve done grassroots campaigns and worked at major international organizations,” she said. “I wouldn’t say that I left because I was over D.C. I left because I was feeling like I needed to refocus on what my purpose was and where I could be of most service in this way.”
An alum of The George Washington University, she worked as an Ohio field organizer for the 2004 Kerry-Edwards presidential campaign before landing inside the Beltway.
She developed The Atlas Project, where she was executive director of the online progressive platform that gives candidates access to raw voter data. She helped put it into an online database. Meanwhile, she ran a nonprofit called Democratic GAIN, which recruits and trains young people to work in politics.
Her background in technology and in building political platforms will, she said, help her this midterm cycle.
She hopes to surpass Rock the Vote’s registration numbers from 2012 and 2010. And while Rock the Vote will be on college campuses and at music festivals this fall, Spillane is tapping into a new network of millennials online.
Rock The Vote was born in the early 1990s, when the music industry was fighting back against on-air censorship. One of MTV’s most popular shows, “Yo! MTV Raps,” wasn’t able to sell advertising because rap was so controversial at the time. To build its brand, MTV provided free ad space to “Rock the Vote,” which was started by executives at Virgin Records.
What followed was a political pop-culture phenomenon that has registered millions of young voters while also becoming the destination for candidates who wanted to reach a younger audience.
“We still have a great partnership with MTV,” Spillane said. “As the media landscape has changed, and as the Internet has become a place where young people consume so much information, we’ve just adjusted our tactics.”
That includes pushing back against what Spillane said is a false characterization that the group is liberal. Despite her progressive roots, she has forged political partnerships in her new role aiming to get all of the 86 million U.S. millennials registered to vote — no matter their political affiliation.
Rock the Vote is working with organizations as diverse as the Chamber of Commerce, a largely conservative group, and the Amalgamated Bank, which serves labor unions.
“We’ve amped up our social media, mobile and email programs to make sure that we’re engaging with everyone we can,” Spillane said. “We’re trying to make it cool and culturally resonant to people again.”
But what’s Rock the Vote without music? While looking to tap into new networks, Spillane has been careful to keep the iconic Rock the Vote brand true to its roots.
She’s helped forge partnerships with Pandora, an online streaming music provider, and Gibson Guitars. She’s tapped into the Video Game Voters Network, which will allow her to reach millennials on popular video gaming consoles, and has formed a relationship with Junk Food Clothing, a popular vintage apparel line.
“We’re not looking to add a bunch of nonserious voters to our numbers. We are running a very serious program through partnerships to help us engage people to let them know how important it is to show up.”
Spillane says she’s got a partnership with the Live Nation’s The Voodoo Experience, an annual music festival slated for Oct. 31 through Nov. 2 — just before Election Day — in New Orleans that features performances from bands, including the Foo Fighters and the Arctic Monkeys.
She has a team of about 10 working for her, including Audrey Gelman, who serves as a national spokeswoman and senior adviser for artist engagement. Gelman, who has worked in New York City political circles, has also appeared on HBO’s “Girls.”
Gelman’s blend of political savvy and cultural awareness is what makes her valuable to Spillane’s efforts.
“I’m a millennial; most of our team are millennials,” she said. “The political system is frustrating. The politicians are frustrating. They’re not speaking about issues that matter to young people. The really important role that Rock the Vote can play is to elevate those issues.”
— This story was updated at 11:11 a.m.