Q’s With Jack And Kim Johnson on Sustainable Concerts Working Group’s BYOBottle Campaign

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– Jack And Kim Johnson

On Earth Day this year, the final day of Bluesfest Byron Bay in Australia, Jack Johnson has formally announced the BYOBottle campaign, the first coordinated campaign of the Sustainable Concerts Working Group to effect change in the industry. 

The campaign was modeled after Green Music Australia’s campaign, which enlisted artist ambassadors to adopt language in their riders to avoid use of disposable/plastic bottles at events and instead to provide jugs, taps or refilling stations and, if desired, to add reusable bottles as tour merchandise. 

Along with helping the venues and promoters try alternate systems, a big goal of the campaign is to promote the use of reusable bottles among audiences, helping make the connection between their favorite artists and this behavior that reduces waste.

The Aussie campaign was comprised almost entirely of Aussie artists (including Paul Kelly, Missy Higgins, and Midnight Oil) but included Jack Johnson as its international ambassador. Now the SCWG – of which Johnson and his wife Kim are a part, along with Live Nation, AEG, C3 Presents, REVERB, Effect Partners, Plastic Pollution Coalition, festival producer Synergy Global Entertainment, and booking agency Partisan Arts  – seeks to bring the same strategy global.

Artists already signed on for the campaign include Pink, Dead & Company, Maroon 5, The Lumineers, Bonnie Raitt, Ben Harper, Lukas Nelson, Jackson Browne, Keb’ Mo’, Wilco, Steven Van Zandt, Steve Earle and Empire Of The Sun. Festivals on board with the campaign include C3 events, (Lollapalooza, ACL Festival, Sea.Hear.Now), Telluride, Splendour In The Grass and Falls Festival.

The Johnsons spoke to Pollstar about some of the goals of the campaign and their experience working with sustainability in the concert industry.

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– Jack and Kim Johnson

Pollstar: What have you seen change after years of working on sustainability in the concert industry?
Kim Johnson: More and more venues, festivals, artists are taking these best practices on. Ten years ago when we were asking for water stations on our rider or carrying them with us on tour and setting them up, it was a new idea, but now it’s kind of commonplace. Reusable water bottles seemed like a new idea 15 years ago, now a majority of bands sell them on tour, fans are carrying them, bringing them to shows. These ideas are becoming behavioral changes that everyone is doing. It’s not something new or different or that we’re asking too much.  It’s not a hinderance, it’s kind of common practice. We can go along the line of all of our greening initiatives and we’ve seen a similar trajectory of change happening. 
Jack Johnson: A lot of times things we were asking for in our rider originally were things they hadn’t tried. We’ve heard time and time again that once they implemented these practices, they figured out it wasn’t too difficult of a change. A lot of times we come back years later and they’ve done it for every show since ours. That’s always a positive thing to hear.

So, regarding the campaign, big-name headliners have the ability to make demands on their rider, but what about club-level artists?
Jack: Yeah, a lot of times you kind of earn the ability to ask these things when you get to the bigger venues. People ask ‘What do I do when I’m just starting to play clubs, how do I get the venues to clean up and to implement some of these things?’ That’s exactly where this idea of this BYOBottle comes in, to create a network of people at any level of the industry who can join in on this campaign. It can help out people who are just getting started, providing access resources and being part of a network. 
Kim: We did some theatres on Jack’s 2014 tour in advance of amphitheatres in the summer. It was really cool to try and downsize our tour and do the greening at that size of venue. What we saw at the theatre level was a lot of times these initiatives are easier. Like a reusable cup program: A theater could implement that easier than an amphitheater or stadium. You’re dealing with less concession stands, a lot of times bigger venues bring in [contracted] concessionaires, but theatres tend to do everything in house, sometimes there’s one barman overseeing everything. If they have in-house dishwashing system, they could potentially do a re-usable cup program, there’s a few that we saw in Europe that were doing it. 
And even at the stadium level, Jack opened for the Eagles at Aloha Stadium in Hawaii, the promoter was Live Nation with the local promoter BAMP, we work with them whenever we do our Kokua festival. We got a reusable cup program – and Bob Roux at Live Nation helped make this happen – we did the r.Cup program at a large scale. It was a big learning experience. Large to small, a lot of these initiatives are possible, you just have to deal with some challenges.
What have you learned as you’ve been working on this issue over the years?
Jack: Every time we tour we try new things, we implement new ideas and we learn a lot every time. It’s always a conversation, you’re always gonna get feedback and you’re never gonna get it right the first time or the last time, you just keep trying to improve things. 
The first time we heard about biodiesel from Willie Nelson, for example, we thought “Let’s do that.” We learned not all biodiesel is the same, you might be trying to do something good, but some biodiesel is shipped across the world and it took [lots of] fossil fuel to get the biodiesel from where it was. So we learned about the Sustainable Biodiesel Alliance on that tour. The next tour, we got our biodiesel sourced locally and [we learned] about the byproduct.  
Sometimes you take a step backwards in that effort to get the best version. And you always have to be ready for that conversation, as an artist you have to have thick skin, because as soon as you say we are trying to do something sustainable, you open yourself up and then people try to find all the holes in it. Once you enter that realm [of activism] you are a target and people will more often bring up the mistakes when you are trying to do something good. 
So this is the first time the Sustainable Concerts Working Group has branched beyond providing resources and speaking at conferences like Pollstar Live! to engage in some form of action, right?
Kim: We [at SCWG] had been talking about these ideas for a long time and just said “it’s time for us to actually DO something like a campaign.” This model has been successful in Australia and the concept is starting to gain legs in Europe and North America. 
A lot of people came together and have been instrumental in pushing it out. … Members have reached out through their networks and we put this together rather quickly, we saw the opportunity to get it in time for Bluesfest and Earth Day. We hope that it will gain momentum rolling into the summer touring season, we wanted to get materials together for artists, festivals while they are making their plans. 
We have the suggested language artists can add into their rider about refillable water stations, letting the organizers know the artists travel with reusables and requesting they make water available front of house and allow fans to bring reusables. That’s the big ask of venues and festivals. And of course we can have venues and festivals educate artists, letting those coming know they are a BYOBottle venue and won’t be providing bottled water, encouraging them to bring their own reusable. Both sides can influence and support the other.
And fans and nonprofits have ways to be partners of the campaign as well. There is a fan section on the website, they can make social media posts encouraging festivals and artists to become involved in the campaign. 
Jack: The timing is right, it feels like something that people want do, artists, fans, promoters alike, everybody wants to move in this direction. Really it’s just helping to provide resources and a place for that conversation to continue to happen easily. Timing has a lot to do with it. We’re not asking for something to change overnight, or introduce some fresh idea, it’s something that seems to be happening in the world right now, and the campaign will help facilitate that in the music industry. 
What can you say about the role artists play in bringing about change?
Jack: I think back to myself, even now, first and foremost I’m a music fan. I’m about to play at Bluesfest, and I still get my schedule out and circle all the bands I want to see and make a gameplan for how I’m gonna check out all the music. 
I used to go see Fugazi – they were one of the few bands that toured on that level that would come to Hawaii. As teenagers playing in a punk rock band, my friends and I just idolized them, the things they sang about, the way they carried themselves. When answering the question of “What role do artists play,” especially to younger fans that are still coming and shaping the way they approach the world, they are looking at the artist and the example they provide. 
They can change the venues they are playing, the way they are touring, and their fans will see that. They can promote these ideas with the BYOBottle campaign, and I think they will make lasting change, but it does have to be something you believe in. In this social media world we live in today I am constantly being asked to push this, promote this. If it’s something I believe in, I’d love to get behind it, but the artist has to truly believe in it and I think we can all feel it when it’s just something they are just passing along, as opposed to something they really believe in. 
I think that’s key, for artists to find the thing they are passionate about and promote that. 
Kim: At the end of the day, we’re all just people, trying to live in harmony with this beautiful place we’re lucky enough to call home. The artist is important, but it’s because people relate to them on a personal level.
Jack: I have a song called “Only The Ocean.” It’s a spiritual song, since my dad passed away I feel his presence in the ocean more than any other place now. So a song like that, I hope, reminds people about that love we have of the ocean, because people will protect the thing that they love.