Hari Srinivasan: Musicians often take stands on political and social issues. Now, climate change is what they are not only talking about, but taking action to address. Despite the industry’s use of gas-guzzling tour buses and concert concession stands—filled with single-use plastic water bottles—there is a movement to make lasting change.
REVERB, a non-profit organization founded in 2004, is on a mission to turn the music industry green. This is the story of Special Correspondent Tom Casciato as part of our ongoing series Peril and Promise: The Challenge of Climate Change.
Tom Casciato: Grammy-nominated band My Morning Jacket is known for Southern-hued, moody rock, but this gig at New York’s Forest Hills Stadium, with frontman Jim James in mind: climate change.
Jim James: I think people are waking up and starting to do more and more things, but certainly not at the pace that we need. So we’re trying to take more stances, trying to partner with people like REVERB and trying to at least like the people who are on our shows, learn more and think more about it. So that we can speed up the process in an attempt to deal with it.
Adam Gardner: There is a one-to-one ratio of recycling and trash…
Tom Casciato: REVERB is the brainchild of Adam Gardner and his wife, Lauren Sullivan.
Lauren Sullivan We met at Tufts University. I was a freshman. He was a somersault. I saw him sing in his acapella group at his dorm orientation. I thought, yes, that boy is cute.
Tom Casciato: Did you immediately think that someday I would start an environmental organization with this guy?
Lauren Sullivan No, not by any means. No.
Tom Casciato: There was other stuff before. Sullivan’s Master’s Degree in Environmental Education. Co-founder of the rock band Guster for Gardner.
Adam Gardner: We were touring heavily with our band, Gaster. So just as I was falling in love with him, through osmosis, I was putting the environmental lens on, you know, put before my eyes and began to see the world of excursions.
Tom Casciato: A look at the wreckage after an outdoor rock concert showed Gardner that the world of touring was not exactly what you’d call sustainable.
Adam Gardner: Just looking at all the plastic on the ground, our tour buses with generators never take off, knowing they don’t make a great deal of profit. All the concessions, everything was just being thrown out and headed to the landfill. And at that point, we just shrugged our shoulders at each other, going, it’s too bad it has to be this way.
Tom Casciato: These two sides of rock and roll have always been there. Throwing trash in the hotel room and throwing the TV into the swimming pool, and the other side was like musicians for safe energy.
Lauren Sullivan: Well, I guess– I think the origin story of REVERB is really very much tied to that legacy.
Tom Casciato: Musicians United for Safe Energy staged the famous 1979 No Nooks concert. The group was formed to oppose nuclear power and promote renewable energy such as solar. One of its founders was singer/songwriter Bonnie Raitt. She will be an inspiration for REVERB.
ILauren Sullivan: When he and I were talking about our desire from an environmentalist’s perspective, trying to talk with people outside the environmental bubble, his sister sends us this flyer in the mail and says, Bonnie Ritt. It’s doing it.
Tom Casciato: Writt’s effort, a nonprofit called Green Highway, was a pioneer of the concept of connecting concertgoers to causes.
ILauren Sullivan: I picked up the phone and called her manager, Cathy Kane, her manager, who actually comes from an active background with Greenpeace and said, “Yeah, I’ll lend you all the gear you can get this out, we’ll do yours. Guide us. We have a non-profit.” And I quit my job and we took all that mentorship and gear from the Bonnie Raitt Screen Highway and brought it on the road. And it has evolved into REVERB.
Tom Casciato: The early days were spent on tour with Alanis Morissette and acts including John Mayer, Maroon 5 and Dave Matthews Band, with REVERB to customize tents and booths for audiences based on the interests of each act and its fan base. . For the band, REVERB will provide access to biodiesel for backstage recycling and composting as well as tour buses. This day Gardner is showing me in Forest Hills.
Adam Gardner: That’s why we’ve been working for many years to make Forest Hill Stadium more sustainable. So we have, for example, these solar-powered phone-charging stations.
Tom Casciato: How do you believe it’s like such a big, famous venue to participate in what you’re doing? They have a lot more to worry about, and a lot more going on.
Adam Gardner: TeaHey now more than ever understand, this is what artists want. That’s what the fans want. They begin to feel that there is a responsibility to the venue, to meet the demands of its audience and its clients, artists.
Tom Casciato: One of REVERB’s features is to ask fans to donate to refillable water bottles, then let them fill up at free water stations instead of buying hordes of single-use bottles that can go straight from the show to the dump. Huh. REVERB says it has eliminated 4 million single-use plastic bottles since 2004.
And through the effort of more than 350 visits, it calculates that it has eliminated more than 180,000 tons of carbon – the equivalent of taking about 39,000 cars off the road for a year.
One of the acts participating with REVERB is Grammy Award winner Brittany Howard.
You have a following, which means you have a voice. Why do you choose climate change as something to use that voice for?
Brittany Howard: You know, I think it just comes from growing up outside of me.
Tom Cassiato: Howard is an enthusiastic outdoorsy woman who grew up in Alabama, lives in Tennessee, and loves to fish. He hopes that working with REVERB will help raise the level of concern about climate change.
Brittany Howard: I think a lot of people don’t take it seriously because we’ve spent generations and generations on this earth and everyone has always been able to handle the heat, you know. We’re down in the southeast, but we have TV and internet and all that, like, we’re watching what’s going on in the world.
Tom Casciato: Has climate change made its way into your writing?
Brittany Howard: This is a good question. When I think about the state of the world today I think it’s something I consider
Tom Casciato: I’m wondering how you would look at this as a writer. Even if you write something on your nose — “climate change is bad, climate change is bad” — nobody wants to hear it.
Brittany Howard: I don’t know, I’d like it (laughs) – if the beat is funky and the music is good. I don’t think there is a need to go anywhere. I guess that kind of rises on you. It is hot everywhere.
Tom Casciato: Do you worry at all about your fan base, that there are people who are climate change denialists who will say, “What is Jacket doing about climate change?”
Jim James: No, I mean, if someone denies climate change, I don’t – I mean, I can’t. I can’t get down with this because it’s not true. We all need to face the fact that climate change is real and we need to tackle it before it is too late.
Tom Casciato: The list of names in the REVERB fold is impressive, including Billie Eilish, Pink, Harry Styles, and dozens more. Still, Forest Hills promoter, Mike Luba, notes that many areas of the business haven’t come on board yet.
Tom Casciato: Do you have to struggle in the music industry to make your point and get what you want in the context of climate change?
Mike Luba: Yes. And it really costs the music industry money to take steps to fix this legacy of giant buses, private planes. And the music business has the opportunity to lead and it really isn’t. And he’s a bummer. And I think it just comes down to, people have to put their money where their mouth is, and that’s what REVERB is trying to do.
Tom Casciato: Last summer, Adam Gardner and Guster played what the band called the first carbon-positive The show was once held at the famous Red Rocks Amphitheater in Colorado. Supported a portion of the ticket price, with normal efforts
A Denver nonprofit taking care of recently planted trees, and a project to sequester carbon in Colorado. It remains to be seen whether the entire music industry can ever be made sustainable, with all the travel, difficult routes, and of course flights taken by many bands.
Lauren Sullivan: There’s some sort of systemic logistical piece that needs to be there on the sustainability front. And I don’t know if we have the answer yet but we can do complicated things, right? I think that’s one of those things that over time, we, as an industry, will need to figure it out.