Connecting Music and the Environment with Reverb’s Lauren Sullivan

April 4, 2014

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re so honored and so excited to have with us today, Lauren Sullivan. She’s the Co-Founder and Co-Director of Reverb. Welcome to Green is Good, Lauren. LAUREN SULLIVAN: Hello there. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Lauren, before we get talking about the great work you’re doing at Reverb, can you please share a little bit about the journey? I want our listeners and I want myself to hear about life prior to Reverb. LAUREN SULLIVAN: Well, the quick story is that I was born and raised in Maine, up here in the northeast and basically grew up in a very kind of rural environment and I think that was sort of the beginning. The seeds were planted for my connection to the natural world just by way of growing up in a rural setting and then went to Tuft University outside of Boston, where I met my husband, who I co-founded Reverb with and after Tuft, I did this wacky wonderful graduate school program called the Audubon Expedition Institute and it’s a field school for the Audubon Society that is through Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I traveled on a bus with other students and professors and studied environmental issues, cultural issues, where they intersect, and then lived outside for about a year and a half, camping all over the country so that experience really solidified my pledge to myself to work on behalf of the natural world and the environment and then after grad school I moved to San Francisco to work for the Rainforest Action Network and did their campaigning for indigenous communities in Colombia and South America against oil interests in their ancestral homeland so did that for a couple of years and then moved east to New York City, where I lived in Brooklyn and worked for Partnerships for National Parks, where I did community organizing around parks, gardens, and green spaces on behalf of some of the citizens of Brooklyn and got to work with really terrific people there and during that time, sort of weaved into the Reverb story, my husband, who’s a musician with a band called Guster, was lamenting the fact that they were leaving this effluence of plastic bottles and diesel fumes behind them at every tour stop and I was really curious about kind of bringing that piece to light and then also, bringing the opportunity to nonprofits. I interacted with so many terrific nonprofits that I wanted to kind of shine a light all the great work that they were doing and give them sort of a megaphone and so Reverb was born from that and personally, it was also born from the fact that I love pop culture myself and I love music. I love film, all of that, and I’m also a hippy at heart so those two things didn’t necessarily go together. I would be ridiculed by all friends from all walks of life about enjoying concerts and pop music and I would also be ribbed for heading into the back country for weeks at a time so Reverb sort of brought together those two pieces and using the music platform, we were able to share with music fans the work of those nonprofits that are out there. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners out there, I’m on your website right now and for our listeners who want to follow along on their mobile device or on their laptop or on their desktop right now, it’s reverb.org. I’m on your website. It’s gorgeous and there’s so much information here. Please share with our listeners first. Lay the platform out. What is Reverb and what do you guys do? LAUREN SULLIVAN: Sure. We are a nonprofit, again, based in Maine, and we work within two realms. We work within the music industry and the environmental nonprofit world and what we do is behind the scenes backstage, we will quote, end quote, “green up a tour,” and so that means that we may set up recycling bins. We may connect local farmers to the catering company to offer local organic food, get rid of plastic water bottles and provide the band and crew with reusable water bottles and coffee mugs, source biodiesel at every stop along a tour so that a tour can be using less petroleum diesel. We’re doing those sorts of things behind the scenes and then in the front of house, where the fans are in an amphitheater, we will often times set up what we call an eco-village and that means we bring together local nonprofits to share information about what they’re doing in that backyard so they can plug in to what’s happening in their community and get activated, get educated, have fun and it adds a new dynamic to the concert experience and often times what we’re doing is drawing from the artists that we’re working with, drawing from them and their passion and sharing that with their fans so it really is connected to what the artist is interested in and what their kind of passion place is around environmentalism. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Let’s step back. In 2004, when you created this with your husband, was this paradigm even existing or is this a brand new paradigm intersecting nonprofits and sustainability with music artists? LAUREN SULLIVAN: Yeah, I’d definitely say we’re earlier adopters for sure but really the people I can point to are Bonnie Raitt and her manager, Kathy Kane. They were the folks that, when I was at the Rainforest Action Network out in San Francisco, Bonnie Raitt did a lot of work on behalf of our old growth forest campaign when I was at RAN and I just took note of the fact that adding her celebrity voice to that campaign really elevated what was happening and took it to another level, introduced it to a whole other demographic of folks. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Give us a mix. Who were your artists last year that you partnered with? Who are the artists this year that you’re partnering with? LAUREN SULLIVAN: Last year, we worked with a diversity of folks; Maroon Five, Dave Matthews Band, .fun, Barenaked Ladies, Ben Fold Five, Guster, John Mayer, Phish, Jack Johnson, Brandi Carlile, Gregory Allen Isakov, all sorts of folks. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Do you have to travel when this happens? Do you have a group that travels with them? How do you make this all reality both back of the house and front of the house? LAUREN SULLIVAN: Sure, yeah. The reality is this is a lot of logistics so what we do is we have our home office here in Portland, Maine and we connect with an artist and their management and find out what they’re interested in doing. They may approach us. We may connect with them by way of other folks in the industry. We talk about what they’re interested in and create a program, create a budget, figure out how to fund it, how to make it happened, and then what we’ll often do on a larger tour, kind of a bigger scope project, is we will send out a tour coordinator on the tour so they’ll be just like your guitar tech or your drum tech, your lighting guy. They’ll sleep on the tour bus with folks from the crew and they’ll roll along from stop to stop and they’ll roll out every morning, set up the catering area with bio-compostable products, meet with the farmers, do a walkthrough of the venue to set up the eco village, meet with the volunteers and the nonprofits, connect with fans at the show over the course of the evening, and then pack it all up and do it all again the next day. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow. Then I’m on your website. For our listeners out there that want to go to the website, it’s reverb.org, and then you have a massive list of nonprofits. How do you choose which nonprofits get plugged into which shows and how do you vet out these nonprofits to start with? This is a massive undertaking that you’ve done here, Lauren. LAUREN SULLIVAN: This is. We have an incredible team here that coordinates all the logistics and really, on the nonprofit front, it’s about folks that come to us saying, ‘Hey, I heard you’re coming to town and that you’re working with this artist. Can we come out and table at your show? There is an important campaign coming up and we’d like to be out there.’ We work with someone like that or often times, and less so now because we already have so many relationships with nonprofits, but in the past, it used to be, okay we’re heading to Tulsa, Oklahoma. Let’s get online. Let’s bust out our rolodex to see who we can connect with. Who’s already out there? Who’s doing the good work? What are the campaigns? Then , first and foremost, our relationship with the artist, kind of the artist as client, it’s really about what their passion is. If they’re interested in tree planting and urban gardening, we’ll seek out groups that have that thematic thrust so that’s really how we do it. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Getting prepped for this show this morning, I was listening to Bruce Springsteen’s shows fro Australia, the live taped shows and he was mentioning at the end of the show that he was working with a nonprofit in Australia that collected food at the end and gave out food to people who were having trouble getting by. Is this a similar type of thing that you would do for a show here in terms of working with an artist and finding their soft spot in their heart and the community that had needs and matching up needs with the artist’s heart? Is that how it works? LAUREN SULLIVAN: Yeah, I mean it really is. For instance, we’ve worked with Jason Mraz and I used the example before but he was very passionate about tree planting and urban trees and sustainability and so what we’ve been doing more and more now is connecting these issue areas to service projects. Along the course of his tour, we had some marquee service projects where Jason came out and different volunteers came out and folks from the community and a local tree organization would come out and do the tree work that needed to be done, planting trees, fertilizing them, just working on all those pieces so it’s been great. The Dave Matthews Band folks have come out and done some great urban gardening and then compost bin construction and then we just recently finished up a couple of service projects, one with Maroon Five in L.A., working with this organization called Freehab and we helped them put together this eco sustainable suite for kids that are coming out of rehabilitation and are kind of starting a new life and then we also worked with a band called Fruition in a space for at-risk youth and it’s a music space as well, where they offer music classes so we went in and did a bunch of cleaning, got some instruments donated and so it’s something that we’re trying to do more and more of because you and I and I think a lot of your listeners know that sustainability and the word green, some people have been kind of oversaturated by the word, ‘green’ and so for us, we want to stay as innovative as we can and kind of be reinventing ourselves to connect with people’s lives and make sustainability connect with people and connect with their hearts and become meaningful again and so we’re really feeling like the most powerful way to do that is through these service projects where we leave a legacy where we’re doing something hands on, working side by side with the artist, and it’s just a really gratifying experience for everyone so we’re excited to do more of that. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners that just joined us, we’ve got Lauren Sullivan with us today. She’s the Co-Founder and Co-Director of Reverb and to check out what Reverb does, it’s fascinating and it’s important, it’s www.reverb.org. I’m on your site and just all the things that you touch and you interrelate with regards to these artists in terms of waste reduction, travel, backstage, front stage, catering, lodging, carbon footprint reduction, it’s amazing but let’s talk about the fans for a second. What is your secret sauce for engaging fans and the millennials out there and those that are older than the millennials like me? How do you engage the fans to get involved and to take action and to be part of the solution? LAUREN SULLIVAN: I think, first and foremost, it’s really about that any fan that is there is there because they want to see their favorite artist perform that night. It’s about that feeling. It’s about that connection with the artist so really, what we do is kind of highlight that relationship and really use that relationship in the best of ways to say, ‘Hey, did you know that Dave Matthews and the entire band are really passionate about farming and sustainable agriculture? And hey, you can donate five bucks and get a basil seed pack and then that money actually goes to a local food pantry to help them purchase a community agriculture share to get farm fresh food to families that are dealing with food insecurity in your community,’ so through the Dave Matthews Band and through some of our other programs, last year alone we helped bring in and get donations from fans over 84,000 dollars that were going towards CSA farm donations to community food banks. Also bringing in money and helping support local farms by way of getting those farmers to source food and then bring food to the caterers, over 100,000 dollars in local farm food so it’s really about that connection to the artist and engaging them in fun ways. We’ve got multimedia displays and different actions that people can take, photo booths, contests and prizes that folks can win so it’s really an exciting environment and what we aim to do is to not preach, not be up on our soapbox, but just have a dialogue with folks. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Lauren, prior to going on the air, you and I were talking about your Campus Consciousness Tour, talking about engaging fans and doing fun things. What is that about? Explain to our listeners what the Campus Consciousness Tour will do. LAUREN SULLIVAN: Sure. The Campus Consciousness Tour, basically the way you describe it is half music tour, half environmental campaign and so we go on to college campuses across the country with one artist so this upcoming tour, we’re heading to with a band called Capital Cities. They’re terrific and so actually what happens on a tour is that we connect with environmental groups and sustainability groups and nonprofit groups on campus that are making change in their campus community. We’ll connect with them. We’ll often have a national sponsor that will come on board to help fund the programming that we’re doing and we’ll also bring some daytime activities to life, depending on the artist, so it’s really kind of a dynamic all day event on campus where we work the students and shine a light on what’s happening on campus, bring some new issues to the table, and then have a fun village experience at night with a concert on campus. JOHN SHEGERIAN: How many campuses will you be touching this year? LAUREN SULLIVAN: Well, this spring at least, we’ll probably be doing about a dozen. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow, that’s awesome. LAUREN SULLIVAN: It’s something that we’re really excited about and it keeps kind of growing and shifting and changing each year and we just feel grateful to do it and honestly be a part of the dialogue that’s happening on campuses. College students are where it’s at in terms of learning and they’re really at the forefront of what’s happening in the sustainability movement so we learn a lot from them. JOHN SHEGERIAN: They’ll be taking the torch from us in continuing the journey so it’s so great that you get to work with them and interrelate with them. I think that’s so amazing. You know, we’ve got about five minutes left and there’s so much I want to get to but you know, as you talked about at the top of the show, Lauren, you’ve been, for lack of a better term, a greenie and a treehugger and someone who’s been doing great things from the heart long before it was cool to be green, cool to be sustainable and so you’ve seen the evolution of the revolution. Where are we at now? You started Reverb in ‘04. How has the dialogue changed since when you started working with these great nonprofits prior to even founding Reverb in 2014. What have you seen and where do you feel the whole revolution is going here, the Sustainability Revolution, that is? LAUREN SULLIVAN: It’s been a sea change. It’s just been massive. We started out kind of getting our feet underneath us in 2003 and then launched our first Reverb tour in 2004 and so you know, this is our tenth year in action and honestly, it’s been a dramatic shift. I mean, folks didn’t know what ‘green’ meant or sustainability, climate change and all these terms were very new to all of us. I do think it’s one of those things where it was kind of a marginalized movement even ten years ago so it was more of a kid sitting with a cardboard sign and it’s kind of wild and the flaky nonprofits and all that kind of reputational stuff that we had to kind of rally against initially and we went to the artist and said there are these great groups doing this great work and initially, we had to run interference and help the nonprofits get their message out and help the musicians and all of their fans to see that this is some incredibly worthy stuff. That wasn’t too difficult because a lot of musicians are activists in rock star clothing so lucky for us that that’s the case but now what we’re seeing is that it’s fully integrated into everyone’s everyday life. Sustainability is key. Climate change and the concerns about that are on everyone’s mind and so now I think, as I mentioned before, I think the real challenge for all of us as a movement is the innovation piece. How can we talk about these things in a different way? How can we make them connect to us and to our everyday, to our own communities? It’s exciting. JOHN SHEGERIAN: It is exciting. We’re down to the last two minutes or so. Talk a little bit about this upcoming year. Besides this Campus Consciousness Tour, what are you going to be doing? And talk about the future, the next couple years of Reverb. What’s you and your husband’s dream? What’s going to go and how are you going to stay relevant and innovative? Because you’re on top of it, way on top of it. Where is this thing going to go? LAUREN SULLIVAN: This year, we’ve got a lot of great tours coming up that I can talk about. We’re definitely in conversations with lots of folks in terms of the Capital Cities Campus Consciousness Tour rolling out. In the next few weeks, we’re also working with the Dave Matthews Band again. They’ve been wonderful allies in this whole movement and we’re working again with Jack Johnson and then we have a few other tours in the hopper that we’re also talking about but until they’re totally locked down, I will hesitate to say them but some just terrific artists and we feel grateful and lucky that we’re able to work with people like Jack Johnson and the Dave Matthews Band again and again because they really are the prow of the ship and this movement. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s awesome, and where is Reverb going to be? When I have you back on the show a year or two from now, where are you guys going to be? LAUREN SULLIVAN: I think for us, we’re always talking about being a mom and pop nonprofit, literally and figuratively. We don’t want to be the biggest. We want to be the best at what we do and for us it’s about continuing to kind of dig deep into what can we do within the space that we’re working in. This is our, we use the term, spirit influence in the nonprofit world and the music world and how can we dig deep? Working with more venues, I think, will be on the docket and more radio stations, working with more labels, working with hotel peeps around the music industry and travel, so I think there’s so many things to be done within this space that can have an affect, to use our name to reverberate out and have an impact but the service project piece is huge for us and I really do see us growing that more and more. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Thank you and thank you, Lauren, for your time today, for listeners that want to get involved and want to be a part of the solution and be a part of Reverb, check out their great work at www.reverb.org. Thank you, Lauren Sullivan. You’re a sustainability rock star and truly living proof that green is good.