To be provocative right from the start, I’m going to make this claim right here: I think the most politically important album of all-time is R.E.M.’s “Out of Time.”
And it actually has nothing to do with the music. It has to do with how the CD was originally packaged and how that CD packaging made voter registration more accessible for hundreds of millions of voters in the United States.
This isn’t one of those “Oh it was a soundtrack to a generation and that soundtrack indirectly influenced the culture and in turn…” No. We’re talking an album, a bill being passed in congress, and an actual concrete law.
Let’s go back to 1985. The pop charts are full of Prince and Sheena Easton and the youth of America are being corrupted. Four women, led by Tipper Gore decide to form the “Parents Music Resource Center” or the PMRC for short. Their mission was to put pressure on the creators and distributors of music they find objectionable. Musicians and labels call this censorship, there are Senate hearings about this, and eventually those little black and white Parental Advisory stickers you see on albums come out of this.
In the middle of all this there’s a record executive named Jeff Ayeroff:
Jeff Ayeroff: One day I was watching TV, you know the brewhaha, this is Broward County, Florida. There’s a prosecutor in Broward County with political ambitions and he decided to arrest Luke Skywalker from 2 Live Crew, you know, the “Me So Horny” song. And it was a live performance I believe that they found obscene, with girls doing what would be like, twerking. I think it would be a very early version of twerking. I see on TV them like literally putting his hands behind his back and shackling him, he was in a record store doing a promotion, and arresting Luke Skywalker. And I just, it was so offensive to me and within the next 2 days, my wife can tell the story, the idea came to me fully formed in some way, and I came up with this name “Rock the Vote.” Because i felt like one of the reasons politicians get away with things because there isn’t something to lose and there was never anything to lose by baiting rock and roll because there was this canard that children, kids, young people didn’t vote.
So, Rock the Vote, in the earliest stages it’s a response to this creeping censorship that’s happening over about a 5 year period in the late 80s.
Whitney: And the idea was always to do this through encouraging youth to register to vote?
Jeff Ayeroff: Yeah, it was that simple. It was the idea if you put kids in the game, the game becomes different. Politicians can no longer scapegoat music, they can’t keep using us as an excuse. The idea was, it was very blatant, it was use young culture to scare old culture into voting a particular way.
So, they have a meeting and about 60 people show up. There’s record executives, past and present California Governor Jerry Brown, Frank Zappa was there, so was Jeff’s friend, also named Jeff, Jeff Gold:
Jeff Ayeroff: Jeff, you were there.
Jeff Gold: I was there.
Jeff Ayeroff: Yeah. And Jeff was the head of the creative departments at Warner Brothers. Jeff and I, our relationship is I hired Jeff at A&M where I was the creative director, I left I went to Warner Bros, Jeff became creative director at A&M then when I left Warner Bros to go to Virgin, Jeff became the creative director at Warner Brothers. So there we are, So Rock The Vote exists and Jeff and I are part of this virtuous circle of record executives who have spent a lot of their career being criticized for destroying the youth of America and it was sort of like in a very altruistic way: “I think we can do something positive, we can get kids to vote. We can, you know, it’s cool.”
So, there’s this Rock The Vote stuff happening over here. At the same time Jeff Gold working on the particular problem of early 90’s CD packaging. That sexy topic. Before the jewel case that we all learned to know and love before we ditched CDs for mp3s, there was the CD longbox.
Whitney: I was wondering, Jeff Gold, if you would mind sort of talking, describing what the longbox is, how it came about, why it existed?
Jeff Gold: Sure. When CDs first came out on the market, record retailers were kind of angry about them because their stores were formatted to display 12 1/2 inch or 12 1/4 inch squares (albums). So their reaction in the typical non-visionary way was “Where are we going to put these things? We don’t have bins for them.” So somebody in the record business said, “Well, if we make a box that these CDs can be contained in that’s 6x12 inches then 2 of them can sit side by side in record bins. And the record retailers said “Fine. Perfect.” And so millions of these things, out of nowhere, started getting made.
So the record stores loved these because they didn’t have to do anything. There were also people in the industry who loved these. In Billboard Magazine there’s this opinion piece from late 1989 that’s kind of amazing. It says that: “The next logical space and material to attract the attention of the consumer is the highly versatile 6-by-12 CD carton.”
I mean, they’re getting excited about a piece of cardboard here. They’re saying “This is the future of selling compact disks.” That wasn’t the case. It didn’t work out that way.
Jeff Gold: Artists said “Wait a minute! We don’t want you cutting down millions of trees to put our CDs in and then having people throw these things away, it’s an incredibly wasteful thing to do and bad thing to do for the environment.” So artists started pushing back and there became this kind of face off between artists who were saying a very logical things in people like Jeff and my mind and the sales department of record companies who insisted that the longbox needed to live forever because they needed to placate record retailers. So R.E.M. have a record coming out in 1991 and they’re saying to me and to Warner Brothers: “There’s no way our record is coming out in a longbox. We’re sensitive to the environment this is a ridiculous thing. Forget it.” And the Warner Brothers sales department is saying “It absolutely has to come out in a longbox or record retailers are going to penalize you.” So this is something that’s happening in the back of my mind. And coincident to that i’m involved in Rock The Vote and Rock The Vote has an event in Hollywood…
Jeff Ayeroff: …But wait, I’m going to interrupt you here Jeff because this is why I wanted both of us on the phone because i know everybody has a different vision of how things happened. We were sitting there looking for a raison d’être to get us into a political situation. Just it was floating around, I’m reading Newsweek or Time and there’s this column article about the “Motor Voter” bill. So i cut it out and take it, the reason why that conference you’re talking about happened is because we just said “We’re going to help these people from the Motor Voter bill.” This was going to be our first thing we were going to do because for me it was like the biggest deal of my life when I was a kid was getting my driver’s license.
So there’s Motor Voter bill that’s been bouncing around since the 1970’s. By ’91 a few states had already adopted it and it had been tried on the national level a couple times but it never really went anywhere.
Basically, Motor Voter allowed people to register to vote at DMVs when you get a driver’s license, or it allowed you to register by mail, or when you applied for any social services. Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven had been pushing Motor Voter for a number of years and they were two of the speakers at this meeting in Hollywood that Jeff Gold was talking about.
Jeff Gold: Richard Cloward was talking about, you know, if you can motivate people to write to their senators and congresspeople that’s really a good way to let them know you support this thing. So anyway, he gave this speech and I remember there was a cocktail party afterward and I went up and started talking to him and I said, “What amount of letters would a senator or a congressman take note of on a particular issue?”
And he said, “Oh, 150-200, that would really have an impact.”
And I said, “Really! That few?!”
And he said, “Yeah, people don’t write. So getting 150-200 letters about an issue would definitely make them sit up and take notice.”
And I was riding my bike through Santa Monica that weekend and I remember exactly where I was and I had this moment where it rushed into my mind, this fully formed idea that we could take care of R.E.M. by turning their longbox into a positive if we put a petition on the back of the longbox that would go to Rock The Vote saying, “I support the Motor Voter bill” and we could distribute it to their respective senators. And I knew we could generate an unbelievable amount of mail doing that. And so I probably called Jeff and he said, “Great Idea.”
And that Monday I called Bertis Downs who was the manager of R.E.M. and a friend of mine and a friend of Jeff’s and ran the idea by him and he was instantly positive.
And he said, “Let me call the guys and I’ll call you back.”
And I probably heard back from him within an hour and he said, “Great idea, they’re totally into it, let’s do it.”
So, “Out of Time” hits the record stores on March 12th, 1991.
Jeff Gold: And I remember vividly maybe 4-5 days after the record had come out, a very short period of time and they had bags full of these things, it was really incredible. Nobody can seem to put their hand on what the exact number that we got of these were but I remember thinking wow after 3 weeks we’ve got 10,000. That’s, you know, 100 per senator, that’s already half of what Richard Cloward said would make an impact. And these things just kept coming in in droves, there were canvas bags full of them.
About a month after R.E.M. released the album, Steve Barr from Rock The Vote wheels a shopping cart full of these first 10,000 petitions into a senate hearing and he just left them there when he was done for Senators Wendell Ford and very young looking-Mitch McConnell.
In May of 1992, after these petitions, after testifying before the Senate, Motor Voter passes for the first time. President Bush then vetoes it in July. He’s in the middle of a presidential campaign. His opponent Bill Clinton says, “Hey, this guy just vetoed that, I’m going to get on board, that looks like a good piece of legislation.” And the rest is basically history. Clinton wins in ’92. The bill comes back before the House, it’s actually the second bill the House takes up in January of ’93. Passes the House. Passes the Senate. And then Bill Clinton signs it into law as the National Voter Registration Act of 1993.
CSPAN Broadcast [from of NVRA signing ceremony]: At the White House earlier today President Bill Clinton signed into law the Voter Registration Act, commonly referred to as the “Motor Voter” bill.
Vice President Al Gore [from of NVRA signing ceremony]: And it’s a tribute to one group whose voice and organization was absolutely unprecedented: America’s young people. They rocked the vote. They got this done.
Jeff Gold: And we get invited to the White House for the signing ceremony and it’s this totally surreal scene. Jeff and his wife are there and I’m there with my wife and all the people from Rock The Vote. And Clinton at the signing talks about how Rock The Vote really helped make the difference to get this bill passed.
President Bill Clinton [from of NVRA signing ceremony]: I’m pleased to be able to keep the promise today that I made on this Rock The Vote card, which still has my signature back in New Hampshire.
Jeff Gold: Shaking his hands after the bill signing, we identified ourselves as Rock The Vote and he said “You guys got this passed.” And it was really one of the most surreal moments of my life.
I want to stop a minute and point out just how bizarre this scene is. This is basically three years after Rock The Vote had formed in open protest against a censorship group that was started by the new Vice President’s wife, Tipper Gore. This the same Vice President who is praising Rock The Vote while introducing the President at this signing ceremony. So yeah, I think surreal is probably the right word.
Whitney: Yeah, I was going to ask, I didn’t know whether this was something that was pretty much going to pass anyway or what affect the actual petition had, but it sounds like it was fairly significant.
Jeff Ayeroff: Oh, no it was the tipping point.
Jeff Gold: That’s exactly what it was, it was the tipping point. I think they had some traction for it but these guys just got besieged with mail.
The crazy thing is that this petition could only have happened during a very brief period of time, because before Clinton had even signed the Motor Voter bill, Jeff Gold had actually found a way to kill off the longbox for good.
Jeff Gold: So I would go to these meetings and talk until I was blue in the face about how our artists hated this and it was stupid and we’re killing trees and people cared about the environment and the sales and distribution people didn’t want to know about it. So I went to about three of these meetings and then one day I had a little epiphany and I went in to a guy named Murray Gitlin who was the Chief Financial Officer for Warner Brothers Records and said “Murray, how many of these things do we make a year?”
And he said “Oh, I don’t know 90 million between the group,” something like that.
And I said “How much do they cost?”
And he said “25 cents a piece.”
I said, “Ok, so you’re talking about $20-25 million a year Warner Music spends on longboxes?”
And he said “Yeah.”
I said “So, what if we stopped making longboxes and we took that $25 million and gave it in the form of rebates to record retailers? Just to pay for them to reconfigure their bins, and we did it as a one time discount or payment and they got all the money we saved for the first year and then for the rest of time we’re saving $25 million a year?”
And he went “That’s a really good idea.”
So we went to this WEA meeting the next time and I proposed that and by the end of the week Sony and WEA had decided that they were going to get rid of the longbox, pay the money they saved to retailers to reconfigure their stores as a one shot deal and so that’s how it went away. We just figured out a way to save an enormous amount of money and it was gone.”
So longboxes are gone. But the National Voter Registration Act, that’s still very much a thing.
There’s a lot of numbers I could throw at you right here, every two years there is a new report out filled with charts about how the law is working in every state. I’m going to share just two: First, the percentage of the voting age population that is registered to vote, between ’95 when the law went into effect and 2012, it went up 10% from 69.5% to 79.9%. That’s a significant jump. And second, in the time the law has been in effect over 150 million voter registrations have been filled out at the DMV alone. That doesn’t include mail in registration, that doesn’t include any social services.
If that isn’t enough of a legacy for the “Out of Time” longbox petition, there’s the fact that recent state voter ID laws, which regardless of how you feel about them are designed to make registration and voting more difficult, the National Voter Registration Act is partly responsible for judgements overturning those new restrictions in places like Arizona and Florida.
So, that being the case, I’m going to keep arguing that no album in the history of recorded music has had as large an effect on politics in the United States as R.E.M’s “Out of Time.”