The business of making the planet greener through music is booming right now.
It’s partly because people have been eager to see concerts after the pandemic shut tours down for a year or more. And more people than ever seem to want to do something to help environmental causes and projects.
This has been great news for Adam Gardner and Lauren Sullivan of Cape Elizabeth, who founded the nonprofit organization Reverb in 2004 to make concert tours more environmentally friendly and to raise money and climate awareness. Since it started, Reverb has raised more than $13 million for environmental groups and projects. More than $990,000 of that was raised during one tour alone, for singer Billie Eilish.
The tour was bigger than most, with more than 80 dates around the world over the last year or so, and was headlined by an artist who has enormous drawing power. Sullivan and Gardner say the tour was an example of how their organization’s work and impact has rebounded and grown since the pandemic. Gardner knows something about the concert tour business, as lead singer of the rock band Guster.
“It’s been gangbusters for us. People are coming back from COVID with sustainability on the brain. They want to get out and do things,” said Sullivan.
Reverb has plans right now to work with at least two dozen concert tours this year, Sullivan and Gardner said. Not all the tours have been announced yet, but some of the artists they will likely work with include Dave Matthews, Phish and My Morning Jacket, plus those performing at the Lollapalooza festival in Chicago in August, which will feature more than 170 artists. Other artists Reverb has worked with over the years include Lorde, The Lumineers, Dead & Co, Harry Styles, The 1975, Pink, Maroon 5, Shawn Mendes and Fleetwood Mac.
Sullivan and Gardner will talk about Reverb’s work and mission during a Maine Voices Live virtual conversation, presented by the Portland Press Herald, at 7 p.m Tuesday. For more information and to register for the free event, go to pressherald.com/mainevoiceslive.
HOW DO CONCERTS GET GREEN?
Staff and volunteers from Reverb work with artists and their tours to become more sustainable in a variety of ways. The tours agree to use less water and reduce or eliminate single-use plastic water bottles. Free water-filling stations are set up and reusable water bottles are sold for a suggested donation. The carbon footprint is reduced by using smart batteries or solar panels to power much if not all of the equipment needed for a show. Systems for recycling and avoiding food waste are put into place.
Environmental or social justice groups are given space at the show to set up tables, pass out information, circulate petitions or get concert-goers to take some other action to support various social and environmental causes. Money is raised during each tour to be donated to a wide range of groups and specific environmental projects, sometimes through a 50 cent or $1 fee per ticket or direct contributions and sponsorships.
Environmental and social actions groups that have worked with Reverb and benefited from money raised through tours say the group is not only making the concert industry greener and providing funds for important work, but it is also reaching a potentially huge audience of new climate and social activists.
“Most climate organizations are really preaching to the choir, but Adam and Lauren are meeting people where they’re at and giving them bold and meaningful ways to get involved,” said Sarah Shanley Hope, managing director of narrative strategies for The Solutions Project, which provides funds for sustainability projects, especially in areas where such projects are underfunded. “They’re bringing joy to the community and to the climate movement, with these concerts and artists. People get to experience activism with their favorite artists, instead of just hearing gloom and doom about the worsening climate crisis.”
One recent project that Reverb worked on with The Solutions Project provided money for solar-powered streetlights in the community of Highland Park, Michigan. The city had its streetlights removed in most neighborhoods by a utility company for failure to pay back bills. Now a local group called Soulardarity is working to install solar-powered and Wi-Fi enabled street lights, with money raised at Reverb shows.
While on tour with Guster in Detroit last November, Gardner went to see the Soulardarity lights for himself.
“They showed me where the street lights that we funded will be going to light the path from the school to the community so the school kids don’t have to walk home in the dark anymore,” Gardner said.
Reverb has worked with thousands of nonprofits, from community groups to international organizations, including World Wildlife Fund, UNICEF, Natural Resources Defense Council, The Nature Conservancy and Oxfam, a global organization that works to end poverty.
“Reverb has a knack for identifying artists who are passionate about environmental issues, which is a bonus for us,” said Bob Ferguson, creative alliances and music outreach project manager for Oxfam America. “Music outreach is a fantastic way to meet people we know could be helpful in our work.”
WHEN A ROCKER MARRIES AN ENVIRONMENTALIST
What Reverb does will be on display when Guster plays its annual Guster’s On the Ocean Maine Weekend in Portland Aug. 11-13. The band will headline a dance that Friday at the State Theatre. Then they’ll play an outdoor show Saturday at Thompson’s Point with Bahamas, Madison Cunningham, The Ballroom Thieves and Brook Annibale. On Sunday, they’ll play Thompson’s Point again with Shakey Graves, Lucius and Oshima Brothers.
Gardner, a New Jersey native, met the other founding members of Guster – Ryan Miller and Brian Rosenworcel – while they were all students at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, in 1991. The alt-rock band started releasing albums in the mid-’90s and got its first mainstream radio success with the song “Fa Fa” in 1999. They went on to release albums that made the Billboard 200 album chart and have their songs used in TV shows, movies and in a commercial for The Weather Channel. They’ve also built up a large and loyal fan base after years of frequent touring.
It was also at Tufts that Gardner met Sullivan, who is originally from Wells. Besides playing rock music, Gardner sang in Tuft’s a cappella group, the Beelzebubs, and majored in psychology. Sullivan studied social psychology and Spanish at Tufts then got a master’s in environmental education from the Audubon Expedition Institute at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
While Gardner was on the road with Guster in the ’90s a lot, Sullivan worked on environmental issues, with the Rainforest Action Network and the Partnership for Parks. The couple, both 49, have been married since 2003 and live in Cape Elizabeth with their two children.
Gardner said that, while he was touring, he started noticing the waste generated by big concerts, the needless electricity and energy used, and the lack of a plan to do things in sustainable and renewable ways.
“I was living with an environmentalist, and I didn’t want her to think I was a horrible person. Then I’d go on tour and see all that was going on,” said Gardner. “I was in a circle with other musicians like John Mayer and Dave Matthews, and we were all nodding yes and saying, ‘It’s too bad things are such a mess out here, we wish something could be done.’ ”
In 2004, the couple started Reverb, based in Maine, and have had an office in Portland since 2007. The organization has a staff of about 10 in the Portland office and a few more working remotely, organizing tour specifics, working with venues and other organizations. Usually one or two staffers go on the tours; the rest of the Reverb representatives there are volunteers. Gardner does more work with artists while Sullivan handles a lot of the legal and financial issues. The group has worked with more than 300 tours.
Some of the logistics of the actual tours include getting everyone to use reusable coffee cups and water bottles, recycling batteries, composting, recycling guitar strings, prohibiting all trucks and buses on site from idling and donating hotel toiletries that don’t get used to homeless shelters.
On the Billie Eilish tour, the artist agreed to have her merchandise made with “up-cycled” materials, and there were vegan concession options. Both Sullivan and Gardner say a big part of Reverb’s success comes from partnering with artists who really want to make their tours greener and use their popularity to help spread climate change and sustainability awareness.
Also on the Eilish tour, Reverb says more than 117,000 single-use plastic bottles were eliminated, 8.8 million gallons of water were saved and more than 133,000 fans took some sort of action to help the environment. Those included signing up to volunteer with environmental groups, pledging to eat one plant-based meal a day for 30 days, or using refillable water bottles.
“Music is one of the most powerful mediums and the connection between artist and fans today is unprecedented,” said Sullivan. “Musicians are wearing their hearts on their sleeves, with their songs, so their tour can be a living, breathing example to others of how to take action and why.”
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