New Campaign Aims to Unseat Donald Trump With a Coordinated Music Effort

Matthew Baker/Getty Images; Steve Jennings/WireImage; Scott Legato/Getty Images
From left: Bon Iver, Sylvan Esso, Dashboard Confessional

Started by former music manager Kyle Frenette, the '46 for 46' campaign has already attracted the likes of Bon Iver, Sylvan Esso and Dashboard Confessional.

The 2020 election is about to get a whole new sound.

With the Democratic campaign to unseat President Donald Trump already well underway, a pair of music industry veterans turned activists are announcing a new initiative titled 46 for 46, described as a "strategically planned series of 46 unique concerts in 46 different cities in the states that matter most during the lead up to the 2020 election." The goal: to help launch the Democratic presidential nominee into the White House using the inspirational power of music.

The minds behind the campaign are Kyle Frenette and Christopher Moon, longtime artist managers who felt compelled to use their considerable Rolodexes in service of the Democratic campaign for president. For Frenette — who owns the artist management firm Middle West and represented Bon Iver and its frontman Justin Vernon between 2007 and 2018 — the project is part of a larger pivot toward politics that began in February 2018, when he announced his bid to represent Wisconsin's 7th district in Congress. Frenette had never held or run for political office before, making his headlong leap into the political fray nothing if not a bold move. But as with so many others, Trump’s shocking win in 2016 had shattered the sense of complacency he had built up over the previous eight years.

"I voted for [Barack Obama], he was elected, he seemed like a very good leader, and I thought everything would be taken care of," Frenette tells Billboard. “It almost seems like that was this country's M.O. in a way. Meanwhile, you've got the GOP sweeping in on the state level and putting all of these things in place and taking advantage of the political divide."

While Frenette ultimately withdrew his candidacy in that Congressional race ("I realized pretty quickly that I work better behind the curtain," he says now), his newfound drive towards the political arena had built up a considerable head of steam. He went on to project-manage a "small but impactful" Rock the Vote voter turnout campaign during the 2018 midterms and additionally enlisted Vernon to headline a rally concert for Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin, whose seat was then being challenged by Republican state senator Leah Vukmir. It was the latter event that spawned the idea for 46 for 46.

"The concert sold out and we raised the most money in a single evening [of Tammy's] entire political career," says Frenette of the show, which raised an estimated $146,000 from more than 2,000 attendees. "And we didn't even try. It was astounding."

In the aftermath of Baldwin’s reelection, Frenette set out to do more of what he calls "bridging the gap between music, activism and politics." While he has other initiatives in the works, including an Aug. 16 concert to benefit the campaign to save the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Northern Minnesota, 46 for 46 stands as his first nationwide initiative.

Primarily designed to target voters in the swing states that went to Trump in 2016, 46 for 46 entails recruiting artists who either hail from or live in those states — or who at least have some association with them — to play one or more concerts on their home turf in the critical months leading up to the election. In an effort to reach those who live outside the major cities, Frenette is also committed to putting on shows in rural areas and tertiary touring markets, "where we can draw people in who don't have [normally] access to this kind of thing," he says.

Still, Frenette is careful not to characterize 46 for 46 as a concert tour in its own right. "The best way to look at it is as a marketing campaign that works in tandem with the concerts," he says, noting that artists who participate will retain autonomy even as each show (which could theoretically include stops on an existing tour) is branded and promoted under the 46 for 46 banner. Still, the goal is to have each artist mention the campaign "at least twice" from the stage, as well as to promote it via media appearances and social posts.

Other potential outreach components include voter registration efforts; guest speakers including local politicians, activists and community leaders; partnerships with community organizations; and fundraising efforts to benefit the Democratic presidential nominee, as well as state and local Democratic candidates. As Frenette envisions it, the participating artists will each exercise a heavy hand in informing what the concerts look like and what kind of partnerships are formed. 

"If they were to go to their hometown and book a show, we say, 'Who would you partner with? Where would you play? Who would the promoter be? How would this work?’” he says. “And we'll just help you market it in this way that showcases a unified front."

Already, Frenette has tapped into a network cultivated over a decade in the music industry to secure the participation of a crop of notable artists. They are: pop duo Sylvan Esso (North Carolina), singer-songwriter Lissie (Iowa), emo pioneers Dashboard Confessional (Florida), singer-songwriter Patty Griffin (Maine), folk-rocker Nathaniel Rateliff (Colorado) and Bon Iver (Wisconsin). But with a mandate to book 46 concerts by next September (shows will likely take place between August and October), the campaign still has a long way to go — and Frenette and Moon are now looking to extend beyond their indie-rock connections to pull in a wider variety of artists and genres, from hip-hop acts to artists with more right-leaning fan bases (think: country stars).

Frenette is realistic about the limits of his network. "I’m a white guy, my partner’s a white guy," he says. "We need to diversify here."

Inevitably with a campaign that leverages celebrity, naysayers will scoff at the idea that musicians could hold enough sway to affect the outcome of an election. After all, the closest modern antecedent to 46 for 46 is Vote for Change, the (officially non-partisan) 2004 star-studded concert tour that came out hard for the candidate who ultimately lost the presidential race: then-Democratic nominee John Kerry. 

Frenette well understands the roots of this kind of cynicism; he just doesn’t agree. In addition to he and Vernon’s fruitful contribution to Baldwin’s successful Senate reelection campaign, he cites the uptick in voter registration among young people in Tennessee after Taylor Swift endorsed two Democrats running in the state during last year’s midterms — Phil Bredesen for Senate and Jim Cooper for the House of Representatives — as well as Chance the Rapper’s elevation of Chicago mayoral candidate Amara Enyia earlier this year.

"Instead of just endorsing her, [he] partnered with her," says Frenette of the Chicago campaign. Though Enyia’s run was ultimately unsuccessful, Frenette believes the candidate would never have reached the top tier in a race of 14 candidates (she ultimately finished in fifth place with about 8 percent of the vote) without the hip-hop star’s intervention. "Before that [she] was just considered an underdog unknown," he points out.

The 46 for 46 initiative is nothing less than a statement of optimism amid a political discourse that continues reaching new levels of toxicity. It's reflected in the ambitious scope of Frenette’s campaign, which he says is open to any and all states, including those that aren’t particularly crucial to winning a presidential election.

"Honestly, we've got 46 concerts to put on, and so we're not gonna pick and choose,” he says. “If a prominent artist from California would really like to play California, then great, that's awesome. ... We're not gonna be picky, so long as we hit those crucial swing states."

And if they manage to book more than 46, even better; the number of shows will not be capped.

As far-reaching as Frenette's mission is, on a personal level the 46 for 46 initiative has reinvigorated his sense of purpose. After more than 10 years spent working as an artist manager and running Middle West, he concluded the work was no longer making him happy. "I just didn't really feel fulfilled and didn't really want to be doing it anymore," he says. While Frenette retains ownership of the company, he has since consolidated it and handed over the reins to his colleagues Molly Beahenand Josh Sundquist, who now manage the day-to-day careers of the company’s remaining roster (including Bon Iver, Vernon’s various side projects, S. Carey and others) so he can focus on 46 for 46 full-time. "They took over for me when I decided to run for Congress and have continued to do outstanding work for [our] artists," he says.

Though his new path was clear, Frenette’s political affinity with Vernon — the artist who brought him his greatest career success to date — made his decision to refocus his energies that much easier.

"As soon as I made the decision to run for Congress, it just seemed to make sense to both of us,” he says. "I remember him saying [when I told him], 'Well, one of us had to so something, and I'm glad you're doing it.'"

Frenette is adamant that 46 for 46 is partisan, and reiterates that his main goal with the campaign is to get people out to vote for the Democratic candidate, whoever that ends up being. As part of this push to boost turnout, the campaign will have fans "Pledge 46" in 2020 — whether that means chatting with 46 people in their social circle about the Democratic nominee, donating money to the party or the candidate’s campaign ($4, $6 or $46 are the suggested amounts) or volunteering 46 hours of their time to canvassing, phone banking and other get out the vote efforts. The pledge additionally includes a commitment to keep working for progressive Democratic candidates up and down the ballot in future elections.

"Even if the [Democratic] nominee doesn't win, we have plans to maintain the 46 for 46 campaign in various ways," says Frenette. "Democracy can only work if we all participate. That's the overarching message we believe in and hope to promote."

You can find more information on the 46 for 46 campaign here

This story first appeared on Billboard.com.