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Guster, My Morning Jacket, other musicians unite to make concert tours more sustainable
Hari Sreenivasan: Musicians often take stands on political and social issues. Now, climate change is one they are not only talking about but also taking action to address. Despite the industry's use of gas-guzzling tour busses and concert concession stands loaded with single-use plastic water bottles-- there's a movement to make lasting changes.
REVERB, a nonprofit founded in 2004, is on a mission to turn the music industry green. Special Correspondent Tom Casciato has the story as part of our ongoing series, 'Peril and Promise: the Challenge of Climate Change.'
Tom Casciato: The Grammy-nominated band My Morning Jacket is known for Southern-tinged, moody rock, but at this gig at New York's Forest Hills Stadium, on frontman Jim James's mind: climate change.
Jim James: I think people are waking up and starting to do more and more stuff, but definitely not at the speed that we need to. That's why we're trying to take more of a stance, partner with people like REVERB to try and get at least the people that are coming to our shows to like, learn more and think more about it so that we can speed up the process of trying to deal with it.
Adam Gardner: There's a one-to-one ratio from 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 sophomore. I saw him singing in his acapella group at my dorm orientation. I thought, Gee, that guy's cute.
Tom Casciato: Did you immediately think someday I will start an environmental organization with this man?
Lauren Sullivan No, by no means no. No.
Tom Casciato: There was other stuff first. A master's degree for Sullivan in environmental education. Co-founding the rock band Guster for Gardner.
Adam Gardner: We were touring heavily with my band Guster. So as I was falling in love with her, through osmosis, I was giving the environmental lens put, you know, put in front of my eyes and started looking at the touring world.
Tom Casciato: One look at the debris following an outdoor rock concert showed Gardner the touring world wasn't exactly what you'd call sustainable.
Adam Gardner: Just looking at all the plastic on the ground, our tour buses with the generators never shutting off, knowing that they don't get very good mileage. All the concessions, everything was just being thrown out and going right to landfill. And at the time, we just shrugged our shoulders at each other, going, it's just too bad it has to be this way.
Tom Casciato: There have always been these two sides of rock and roll. There's trashing 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 think-- I think the origin story of REVERB is actually very much connected to that legacy.
Tom Casciato: Musicians United for Safe Energy staged the famed 1979 No Nukes concerts. The group was formed to oppose nuclear power and promote renewables like solar. One of its founders was singer/songwriter Bonnie Raitt. She would become an inspiration for REVERB.
Lauren Sullivan: After he and I were talking about my desire from the environmentalist perspective to try to talk with folks outside of the environmental bubble, his sister sends us this flier in the mail and says, Bonnie Raitt is doing this.
Tom Casciato: Raitt's effort, a nonprofit called Green Highway, was a pioneer of the concept of connecting concertgoers to causes.
Lauren Sullivan: I picked up the phone and called her manager, Kathy Kane, her manager, actually comes from an activist background with Greenpeace as well and said, "Yeah, I'll lend you all of the gear you can take it out, we'll mentor you. We've got a nonprofit." And I quit my job and we took all of that mentorship and gear from Bonnie Raitt Screen Highway and brought it out on the road. And it's evolved into REVERB.
Tom Casciato: The early days were spent on tour with acts including Alanis Morissette and John Mayer, Maroon 5 and the Dave Matthews Band, with REVERB customizing tents and booths for the audience based on the interests of each act and its fan base. For the bands themselves, REVERB would provide access to biodiesel for tour buses, along with backstage recycling and composting. On this day, Gardner is showing me around at Forest Hills.
Adam Gardner: So we've been working with Forest Hill Stadium for a number of years to make it more sustainable. So we've had, for example, these solar-powered phone-charging stations.
Tom Casciato: How do you convince, like, a big, famous venue like this to take part in what you're doing? They've got so much else to worry about, so much else going on.
Adam Gardner: They're understanding now more than ever, that this is what artists want. This is what fans want. They're starting to get that there's a responsibility here for the venue, that to meet the demand of their audiences and their clients, the artists.
Tom Casciato: One of REVERB's specialties is asking fans to donate for refillable water bottles, then let them fill up at free water stations instead of buying hordes of single-use bottles that might go from the show directly to the dump. REVERB says it has eliminated some four million single-use plastic bottles since 2004.
And through efforts at more than 350 tours, it calculates it has eliminated over 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 for which to use that voice?
Brittany Howard: You know, I think it just comes from me growing up outside.
TOM CASCIATO: Howard's an avid outdoorswoman who grew up in Alabama, lives in Tennessee, and loves to fish. She hopes working with REVERB will help increase the level of concern about climate change.
Brittany Howard: I think a lot of people don't take it seriously enough because we've spent generations and generations on this Earth and everyone's always been able to handle the heat, you know. We're down in the southeast, but we've got TV and internet and everything like that, like, we're watching what's happening to the world.
Tom Casciato: Has climate change found its way into your writing?
Brittany Howard: That's a good question. I guess it's something I consider when I think about the state of the world today
Tom Casciato: I'm wondering how you would approach it as a writer. If you write something too on the nose -- "climate change is bad. climate change is bad" -- nobody wants to hear that.
Brittany Howard: I don't know, I'd like it (laughs) - if the beat's funky and the music is good. I don't think it needs to be that there's nowhere to go. I think that kind of dawns on you. It's hot everywhere.
Tom Casciato: Do you worry at all about your fan base, that there are people who are climate change deniers who would say, "What's the Jacket doing talking about climate change?"
Jim James: No, I mean, if anybody is a climate change denier, I don't - I mean, I just can't. I can't get down with that because it's just not true. We all need to face the fact that climate change is real and that we need to deal with it before it's too late.
Tom Casciato: The list of names in the REVERB fold is impressive, including Billie Eilish, Pink, Harry Styles, and dozens of others. Still, the Forest Hills promoter, Mike Luba, notes that many sectors of the business have not gotten on board yet.
Tom Casciato: Do you have to fight in the music industry to make your point and to get what you want done vis-a-vis climate change?
Mike Luba: Yes. And the music industry has to actually spend money to take the steps to fix this legacy of giant busses, private planes. And the music business has the opportunity to lead and it really hasn't. And that's the bummer. And I think it's just come down to, people have to put their money where their mouth is, and that's what REVERB is trying to do.
Tom Casciato: This past summer, Adam Gardner and Guster played what the band called the first carbon-positive show ever held at Colorado's famed Red Rocks amphitheater. Along with the usual efforts, a portion of the ticket price supported
a Denver nonprofit caring for recently planted trees, and a project in Colorado sequestering carbon. It does remain to be seen whether the whole music industry can ever be made sustainable, given all the travel, the difficult routing, and of course the flights many bands take.
Lauren Sullivan: There is some kind of systemic logistical piece that needs to happen there on the sustainability front. And I don't know if we have the answer to that quite yet But we can do complicated things, right? I think that's one of the things that over time, we will need to, as an industry, figure that out.