How to Integrate Activism And Community Organizing Into Music Events

After publishing our article last month, “Is It Time For a DJ Union’ Attack Magazine was contacted by Peter Marks who, as a dance music promoter and professional political organizer felt compelled to share his experience and to offer how this important conversation can be continued.

I spent most of my free time from 2014 to 2019 deejaying and throwing dance parties in my home town of Portland, Oregon. During that time, in the rapid rise of the Me Too and Black Lives Matter movements, political discussions increasingly overlapped with dancefloors.

As the world struggled through the 45th administration, I found myself focusing more on pushing politics than music. On a whim, I applied for a position to work full-time for the Bernie Sanders 2020 presidential primary campaign in Washington DC, and had the good fortune to be hired.

My experience over the last couple of years working on digital community organizing aspects of that campaign, and others since has shown me the vast possibilities music events possess for community organizing. While no one has quite figured out the secret formula to creating a just and progressive utopia through raves or festivals, I wanted to share some attempts and ideas on the subject in hopes that others might be inspired to help figure it out.

Let’s start with what community organizing is. It’s the process by which people who live in proximity to each other come together in some organized fashion to act in their shared self-interest. It involves listening to the change people around you want to see and finding a way to make it happen. It’s how unions are formed or thwarted. It’s how elections are won or lost. In practice, it’s something that conservatives and community-oriented folks who go to church tend to do more naturally than most of the progressive, individualist ravers I know. I believe we can and must change this. 

While I’ve been attending raves since age 15, it wasn’t until last year at age 35 that I saw promoting music events as a form of community organizing. You’re talking at an after party and mention “wouldn’t it be cool to book such and such artist?” and your friend says “wait, we should totally do that. All my friends would come”. Next thing you know you’re passing out flyers and trying to drum up some buzz online. Then at the event you’re getting to know the folks you can tell are really feeling it, hearing what they’re into and plotting the next event around what they want to see. This is textbook community organizing! It’s just not in a political context. 

Now is the time for promoters to fully embrace their roles as community organizers. Here are five examples of what that would look like.

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1. Integrate organizing into your event

One of my Bernie campaign colleagues, Misty Rebik, who led the national organizing program and is now Chief of Staff for the Senator, told me on my podcast that the best kind of community organizing brings a diverse mix of people together over a joyous shared experience like music. Bernie himself understands this and, according to my friend running his streams, regularly asks “what’s the music going to be?” before every event of his. Dance parties are a community organizing best practice. It’s what inspires movements. You generally want to do the organizing at the start of an event before there’s too much intoxication. Daytime and week night events are also good times for organizing events. This also gives people a reason to show up early and get the party started sooner! 

2. Elevate local initiatives and leaders

Even people who consider themselves politically aware miss the local stuff. I saw this firsthand in the fall of 2020. Folks in my community were so focused on the national politics shitshow that they were mostly unaware of the generation-defining measures on our Oregon ballots that made us the first state to decriminalize all drug possession and reinvest in rehabilitation and also a separate measure that created a universal preschool program in Portland. Local initiatives like these often impact us more than national politics and we often have far more leverage to influence the outcome. You are doing everyone a favor by giving these local issues a the time of day by talking about them at your events.  Organizing around local issues is the most tried and true gateway to get people to take action, which is how wider national movements develop. 

If talking about local issues with your community is not something you are ready for, start by using your platform to elevate local leaders and let them organize your community for you. Reach out to a local organization or leader, especially if they’re a member of a historically marginalized group, who’s work you admire. You are doing them a favor by letting them take the reins and speaking to your audience. You’ll also have just recruited another person to help promote your event, so it’s win win! Putting together a panel with a few groups or leaders is a nice way to make a community forum feel more natural and conversational rather than putting one person on the spot. 

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3. Organize outside of your event

In the world of community organizing, events are the primary way you inspire people who are merely posting about activism to their echo chamber to start actively engaging with their wider communities. That said, you can to some degree organize your community outside of it as well. Use your event platform (email list, social media accounts, etc) to invite your community to a volunteer event. This can be something you host yourself, or something hosted by another organization. It’s great making friends at the club, but you can only go so deep there. Getting your community to engage with each other doing something constructive outside a club setting helps everyone. 

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4. Fundraise for a cause

This can be a little tricky as most promoters I know who are doing it for the love of music are barely breaking even, but hear me out! Say you average $3,000 in ticket sales for events. If you position this as a fundraiser and make a case for your cause, it’s reasonable to expect to raise at least an extra 10% or $300 for that cause. $300 isn’t a ton for an established national org, but it can be huge for a local organization or candidate trying to get off the ground. All the more reason to keep it local. 

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5. Bring your sound to a political event or protest

Organizers running their own political events often need help with amplification and are in need of music to keep the positive energy up. If you can rig up a mobile PA and DJ set up, you can help! At a protest, this can help attendees stay engaged and focused on the organizer’s intent and not get swept up in a potentially productive mob mentality. Just make sure to be receptive to the organizer’s needs around music or the DJ themself as this is their event, not yours. 

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You can do this!

You already know how to get people to events. So what’s stopping you from making a huge impact on your community and the wider world by fully embracing your role as a community organizer? I’ve been experimenting with all of these tactics with an event series called Rhythm Nation here in Portland. Currently, we’re live-streaming panel discussions with community leaders followed by music, but we plan to transition to in-person events as things open up. Combining music and activism has deepened my relationship to both music and my community and I know it can do the same for you. If you have any questions about activism or have a wild idea for an event, please feel free to reach out to me! 

Peter Marks (@petermarks) is the host of the @RhythmNationPDX podcast and event series, which explores the intersection of music and activism. He is also the co-promoter and a resident DJ of a dance music party called Occasion Vibration in his hometown of Portland, Oregon. 

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