Across ages, locations and genres, live music is one of the most high-impact forms of entertainment out there. When you mix amazing musicians, a pumped up crowd and a solid venue, a live concert really earns the title of an “event”—the sort of experience that will be recounted, relayed, and remembered for years. It’s no surprise that the artists who bring such energy to the stage often double as activists and outspoken advocates on a broad range of social and environmental issues. Willie Nelson’s Farm Aid, Bonnie Raitt’s Green Highway Tour, Pear Jam’s support of renewable energy— music moves people, and when that happens, art can truly make a difference.
So why do some concerts leave such a mess behind? That’s a question that Guster guitarist and passionate environmentalist Adam Gardner asked, when he saw the footprint that his band’s tours left. Teaming up with his wife Lauren Sullivan, the pair founded REVERB to help grow the concept of green music tours, promote sustainable practices in the live music industry, and reach out to fans about today’s biggest issues. Looking at the numbers, it’s clear that Reverb has been successful in turning music events into a winning platform for change. So far, Reverb has helped reduce the impact of over 150 music tours, reached over 17 million fans at concerts, and reduced over 112,000 tons of CO2. Their Eco-Village has supported over 3,000 non-profits, and their outreach has yielded 40,000 volunteer hours from fans. With concert and festival season still in full swing, we talked with Gardner about his philosophy as an artist and environmentalist, and about how Reverb does its good work behind the scenes.
What kick started your interest in environmental issues? Did living in Maine play a role in that?
My views started from living with my wife, Lauren Sullivan, who has been an environmentalist for as long as I’ve been in music. I’d live the way environmentalists do at home and then go out on the road with my band which was the complete opposite of everything I was doing at home— plastic trash everywhere, gas guzzling tour busses (we shamefully nick-named the Guster bus the “Earth-eater”), and venues that were doing very little to help reduce this disposable world.
What about when your band started to take off and play larger venues? What were the sustainability concerns at that point in terms of your band’s impact?
Once we started touring in a bus (around 1998), we started collecting recyclables in the bus and wondering where they could be recycled. Recycling at venues was spotty at best. Once I started looking through this lens of being less wasteful, it all cracked open.
What sort of activism or outreach were you engaged in at the time?
In the beginning, very little—it was more about our own impact. The first big step was the 2006 Campus Consciousness Tour (www.campusconsciousness.org), which I created through REVERB and launched with Guster as the first band (we’re about to launch our 14th CCT). Ben & Jerry’s was an early partner of the Campus Consciousness Tour and they even made a video game of B&J cartoon-type character versions of our band trying to get to gigs in the most sustainable way possible. It was great! And of course handing out free ice cream never hurts to get college kids’ attention about an issue. At the time it was the “Lick Global Warming Campaign.”
Were there other bands and musicians with similar concerns? Who were they?
I remember talking to Jon Butler, John Mayer, Barenaked Ladies, and The Dave Matthews Band when we toured together and all lamenting the fact that our tours had such a negative impact on the planet, when we were trying to put on positive and fun shows.
How did you and Lauren come up with the concept for REVERB?
That was all Lauren. I complained one too many times after coming home from the road about the mess we were creating. She came up with the name and the concept. Then we discovered that Bonnie Raitt had done something similar to this idea a year before, in 2002. Lauren gathered up the courage to call Bonnie’s manager, Kathy Kane, and within minutes of explaining what we wanted to do, Kathy shipped us all of Bonnie’s Eco-Village infrastructure and they took REVERB under their foundation (Artistic Resources In Action) as a project until we got our own non-profit status. We enjoyed the relationship and mentorship so much that we stayed an ARA project for three years, even after we qualified to be our own non-profit.
What’s your philosophy on interacting with fans on these sorts of issues? Do musicians have a responsibility to use their positions of influence in a positive way?
I prefer thinking of it as an opportunity as a musician to engage in the things you’re passionate about, particularly if it benefits others. The key to this is not preaching. And not being a buzzkill. The REVERB Eco-Village is all about enhancing the concert experience for fans and igniting their passion with ours. That’s why we call it REVERB in the first place: it starts with the musician who is passionate about the cause or issue, and spreads that passion to their fans who spread it to their households and work places, schools and communities, and it ripples out from there.
What’s your take on the anger and isolation that you sometimes see in rock and punk subcultures, versus the engagement you’re espousing as an activist? Are they at odds, or is the latter an evolution of the former?
I think they are just different paths to the same goals. I’m a more positive person by nature and that’s certainly the vibe of our band and our interactions with fans. So it was natural for me to want to take a positive, solutions-based approach. I felt our fans would respond more to “hey-- did you know we drove here with fuel made from waste-vegetable oil, and you can too?” than “We’re all doomed and I’m pissed at Monsanto.” Don’t get me wrong— I am pissed at Monsanto, but I’d rather talk about the importance of non-GMO food and GMO labeling on food products.
What’s Reverb’s philosophy on education and engagement around sustainability issues? Is it all or nothing, or is it a broader scale, come as you are approach?
Everyone doing a few things adds up to a lot more positive impact than a few hardcore individuals doing everything. We want to make this accessible to everyone and help push everyone further along the spectrum from wherever they are starting. But if you don’t start somewhere you’ll get nowhere. This is true for bands as much as it is for individuals.
Do you have any observations on the number of fans getting involved now, versus when your band started to play nationally? Are people more motivated to get involved now?
When we first started REVERB in 2004 environmentalism was still the realm of “hippies” and “crunchies.” We purposely started with mainstream bands like Alanis Morrisette and Barenaked Ladies to break out of that mold and reach new people. Concepts that we take for granted now like carbon footprinting, biodiesel, and climate change were pretty foreign. This was before An Inconvenient Truth came out.
So it’s a totally different conversation now than it was then with fans. And young people this decade are more interested in doing good than last decade. The merging of business and supporting causes and “triple bottom lines” are relatively new since we started 10 years ago.
Reverb makes some pretty great connections between art, fun, and action. Is that a key part of your approach?
Those very connections are the best part— the fact that you can have fun, be creative, and make a difference all at the same time!
Who are some of the bands that you work with, and what are their own philosophies in terms of greening their tours?
Dave Matthews Band, Maroon 5, Jack Johnson, FUN, Drake, Capital Cities, Linkin Park, Sheryl Crow, John Mayer, Phish, Yo Gabba Gabba, and Jason Mraz are some of the artists and bands we work with.
Generally speaking, these acts want to make sure they are reducing their environmental impact on the tour first and foremost. Then most artists want to seize the opportunity to engage their fans to take small actions that add up to large, measurable change.
How can music fans get involved in taking a stand on important issues?
Really, there are too many to list here! To start, go get involved and volunteer with your local organizations, vote with your dollars for more sustainable food and products, consume less in general if you can, use your voice online and contact your state representatives, and vote for lawmakers who support the environment.
What’s next for Reverb, for you as a musician, and for you as an activist?
REVERB will continue to work with musicians and the music community at large until we are no longer needed to make the industry green and engage the public to make change. I’d love to say that will be in 2 years, but I have a feeling we have a lot more work to do.
As for Guster, we have a new album coming out mid-January and will be touring behind that a bunch—keeping it as earth-friendly as we can, of course!