Reverb Greens Rock Concert Scene
If you’ve been to a rock concert — or any kind of outdoor music venue, for that matter — you know that a lot of waste is generated in the process putting on the event. Most visible is the waste the fans leave behind — plastic drink cups, paper napkins, nacho trays, cardboard carriers — all sorts of trash that could be composted or recycled, if handled properly.
But what most of us will never see is the amount of waste generated by the band and their crew. Lauren Sullivan and her husband, Adam Gardner, have a solution for that. Their nonprofit company, Reverb, works to green concerts for each band while also educating fans about local nonprofits — a definite winning combination.
Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) recently spoke with Sullivan to find out how Reverb works and what motivated the couple to start it. — Julia Wasson, Publisher
SULLIVAN: Adam and I began Reverb back in 2004. It emanated from both of us being part of two distinct worlds. Adam was and is a touring musician by trade. He’s in a band called Guster, which has a pop, rock, indie sort of vibe that is very accessible. He still writes, records and tours with the band.
I come from the environmental nonprofit world. I worked at the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) as an anti-oil campaigner, then subsequently worked at Partnerships for Parks in New York, helping folks to reclaim their parks, gardens, and green spaces. When I was at RAN, I had my foot in the environmental-activist, “hippie” world, which is where my heart is. But I also had an interest in pop culture, music, movies, and things in that vein. It felt a bit schizophrenic in some ways.
Some campaigns at RAN started partnering with the Dave Matthews Band, and Bonnie Raitt, and other famous singers to add their powerful voice to RAN’s campaign message. It really helped to shine a light on RAN’s campaigns and helped make them a bit more mainstream, visible, and sexy.
I took note and squirreled that away in the back of my head. I said, This is nice, bringing these two worlds together — ones that I personally am interested in and that speak to me. That’s where that concept came from.
BPGL: You had a good model, then, of combining lead players in the music industry with nonprofit work. But what prompted you to make the leap into starting a venture of your own?
SULLIVAN: Adam and I were in New York City, trying to figure out how we could spend more time together. I had a 9-to-5 job doing community-organizing work. When he came home from tour, I would still be working my 9-to-5 job, while he’d be off 24/7. We wanted to work together and bring our two worlds together.
As luck would have it, I was washing dishes (after many, many months of writing, brainstorming and trying to figure out a new way forward), and thought, How about this idea of helping nonprofits get access to more people? To share their message with music fans? So we started chewing on this idea.
As luck would have it again, Adam’s sister had attended a Bonnie Raitt show in Berkeley at the Greek Theatre and sent us a pamphlet about Bonnie Raitt’s “Green Highway.” That was Bonnie’s green touring program, which incorporated an eco-village, biodiesel use, and carbon offsets. It was the best version of what I had thought about and could ever have imagined.
After a lot of hemming and hawing and procrastinating, I finally called Bonnie Raitt’s manager and said, “Hi, this is who I am and where I come from, and who my husband is and where he comes from. This is what we’re interested in creating, and we want to talk to you about all the work you’ve been doing.”
Kathy Kane, Bonnie’s manager, immediately said, “Are you guys going to be in L.A.? Can we meet? Let’s talk.” So when we were in L.A. shortly thereafter, we sat down and talked some more. And she said, “Well, I manage a foundation. We can act as your fiscal sponsor. We also have all of these tents and banners and flags in storage. You’re welcome to use them and take the “Green Highway” idea and run with it.”
That’s what happened. It was incredibly fortuitous, and we had great mentors in both Kathy Kane and Bonnie Raitt.
BPGL: Once you got the idea from Kathy and Bonnie, what was your next step? Did you have bands ready to work with?
SULLIVAN: Adam said, “I know a lot of artists that I’ve worked with have been lamenting the fact that they’re in these tour busses that are gobbling all this fuel when they’re criss-crossing the country.” It felt like a disposable industry to them, and they were frustrated with that.
He said, “What band have I worked with that could really help us launch this thing?” He thought of the Barenaked Ladies, because they’re environmentally minded folks, and Stephen Page was on the board of the World Wildlife Fund up in Canada. He had the first Prius in Canada. We knew his heart was in it, so we approached them.
They were about to do a summer tour with Alanis Morrisette, and they said, “Sure. Come on tour. Chase the tour and you can set up this Eco Village and bring in different nonprofits, and we’ll do carbon offsets for the footprint of the tour.” We then worked on calculating the carbon footprint of the tour as well as other waste reduction elements.”
That’s where it started. I hopped in a van with a bunch of different friends at various points along the tour and chased the tour back and forth across the country. I met with lots of great nonprofits, got them set up in our Eco Village, and that’s where it all began.
BPGL: Are you still supported by Bonnie Raitt’s foundation?
SULLIVAN: No. As we grew, and grew — and because we’re in Maine and they’re in California — we decided it was time to step out on our own. We had grown this project to the point where it made much more sense to get our own two feet firmly planted on the ground with our own office here in Portland, Maine. We’ve had it for a little over two years now. We hired a bookkeeper and accountant and so on. We have our Board. We branched off and are now Reverb, a 501c3 standing on our own two feet.
We do definitely still look to Bonnie Raitt as the prow of the ship in terms of this sort of work. She’s incredible.
BPGL: It costs a lot to do what you do, and what you do is important. Who funds you? And how would people be able to help you?
SULLIVAN: There are so many ways that we get funded. Some artists say, “We want to pay for this outright.” Some artists say, “Maybe we can find a green-minded company who is willing to partner with us.”
So we actually work with some great companies who are leading the way in their industry — Stonyfield Farm, Silk soy milk, Clif Bar, Honest Tea, and folks like that. As you know, food is a wonderful thing to bring folks into an Eco Village area. So folks can go sample a product from companies that are leading the way in their field and showing it’s not just about profit; it’s not just about the bottom line. It’s the environment that’s also important.
Some artists also choose to do an eco fund, where they add from 25 cents to a dollar to each of their tickets. They take that money and put it toward the greening program in order to purchase offsets, biodiesel, bio-compostable products and cover having somebody from our organization out on the road with them to execute these programs.
We also do guitar auctions and ticket auctions. You name it. There are so many different ways that we can fund the work to make it happen. We’re pretty flexible and creative and can shrink and expand a program to fit an artist’s needs and interests. We work with folks wherever they’re at and try to figure out how to make it happen.
BPGL: What’s the smallest group you’ve ever worked with? Would small touring bands have any chance of getting connected with Reverb? Or do you only work with the headliners?
SULLIVAN: Primarily, we do mid-level to the bigger folks that are doing the shed tours. But more and more, we are trying to connect with smaller artists, because there are all these artists who are doing phenomenal work and have a real interest in having a more environmentally friendly tour. We have worked with artists like Andrew Byrd, with some solo artists like Brandi Carlile, Serj Tankian, Jose Gonzalez, and other solo artists. We are trying to partner with more up-and-coming and diverse artists.
BPGL: Are you working on any new projects that haven’t launched yet?
SULLIVAN: In the very near term, we plan to launch a new website that will be more of a clearinghouse of information. It will help point artists to different resources on our site — small artists, big artists, whoever feels moved to do it on their own. They can look for the recycling centers in the towns that they’re hitting and get some quick links so that they can do this more easily on the road, and get our help when needed.
And we’re also looking to do what we call a green-grants mentoring program. Some of the bigger artists who are funding very large programs on these tours, where they’re hitting 25,000 people a night, will help to fund some of the greening programs on the smaller artists’ tours.
For example, the Fray actually helped fund a green tour for a band called Stars. We’re trying to work on a lot more of that kind of connectivity between the larger artists and the smaller artists, so that everyone — from the moment they step into their van or their first tour bus, or whatever the case may be — they can have a green tour.
BPGL: Maybe it was not intended to be, but it seems in some ways, it would be good mentoring for the bands, not just on the green side. If you were a small band and would hook up with Dave Matthews Band — wow!
SULLIVAN: It’s about bringing ideas, best practices, resources, and so on. We’re trying to create that Venn diagram a bit more with not only the artists but nonprofits and the like. We’re trying to create more overlap.
BPGL: When Dave Matthews Band was in Des Moines, you mobilized a lot of volunteers. How does that work for you?
SULLIVAN: That’s always something we are looking for. We’re looking to connect to great volunteers who care about these issues. We love to get volunteers involved.
We do a fan carbon-offset program, where we help fans offset their drive to and from the show, which is the lion’s share of the carbon footprint for any concert event. We always look for volunteers to don one of our eco-friendly T-shirts and go out there and talk with folks in the crowd about how they can offset their drive and come to the Eco Village and get involved with different groups in their community.
BPGL: Is there a cost for the nonprofits who exhibit at the Eco Village?
SULLIVAN: No. Definitely not. We see ourselves as a grassroots PR mechanism, for lack of a better term, for these nonprofits to get their campaigns out there. We really want to support them, and that’s what it’s all about. We’re a nonprofit helping other nonprofits. They’re the experts. They’re the ones who know what’s happening in their community and with these campaigns. We want to make sure that they have another mouthpiece to get that out there.
We love to connect with folks who are doing good work in their community. It’s inspiring to us.
BPGL: Where do you get the corn-based tableware and so on?
SULLIVAN: We get ours from Eco Products, based out of Colorado. We do it through the Spitfire Agency; the founder is a friend and colleague of ours. Also, shockingly enough, you can get some of these products in Wal-Mart. They actually do carry bio-compostable flatware, plates and bowls.
BPGL: Do you have very little actual trash by the end of a concert? Is most of it recyclable?
SULLIVAN: We primarily focus on the backstage waste. However, we’re working more and more with all the venues on their recycling programs in the front of house — with Live Nation, mainly, who is the biggest concert promoter out there. You will still see trash, without a doubt, but that’s something that we’re working toward improving.
But behind the scenes, with the artists we’re working with and that we’re out on tour with, we do set up recycling stations, and use bio-compostable cutlery. Ideally, we’re not even using bio-compostables but, rather, using real china and flatware, composting, etc.
We also work with the caterers to source local food, source reusable flatware, cutlery, and other dishes. The caterers are reducing a lot of waste behind the scenes. It’s definitely not zero waste by any stretch, but we’re working on it. We’re getting there.
BPGL: Do you find it difficult to change the minds of the people who operate large concert venues?
SULLIVAN: It’s a matter of resources and how full everyone’s plate is at these different venues. Some venues are doing an incredible job already and really leading the way in their own right in terms of doing composting on site and having pesticide-/herbicide-free lawns and ground care, and using recyclable plastics with their concession areas.
There’s a continuum in terms of what venues are doing. Some are doing well, and with others, we’re doing a little more nudging and pushing and having to ask “Where are the recycling bins?” There is a lot more open-mindedness and the expectation that not only the Reverb staff, but the artists and the fans, want to see this stuff.
BPGL: Are you finding more and more bands are interested in participating with you?
SULLIVAN: Definitely. We’re always surprised, excited and honored to be working with so many talented, dedicated artists. There are also a lot of other folks out there on the road who are doing it themselves, or working to do their part in different ways outside of doing a full-blown program. It’s becoming more of the status quo, which is exactly what we’re hoping for.
BPGL: Is there a particular message you, personally, like to share?
SULLIVAN: One of the things that we often talk about is to not be intimidated by the environmental movement or by “going green” or that kind of lingo and those catch phrases. We talk about “Just do one thing.” Try something out. Decrease your consumption or walk to work one day, whatever the case may be. Generally speaking, it’s great for more people to do something than for a few people to do absolutely everything.
It’s not this “We’re holier-than-thou” approach, or that we’re getting up on a soapbox. It’s, rather, everyone trying to do what we can. As long as we’re each trying to move along on the continuum toward sustainability in our own lives, that will have the greatest impact.
For us, we’re excited to be learning ourselves and learning from the nonprofits with whom we work. They are the experts about so many of these issues, and we’re working with artists who are trying to do their best on the road. None of us are purists. We’re all just working to do it a bit better each day.
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