Earth Day Turns 50 And It’s Never Been More Critical

– Yeah!
Usher performs at Global Citizen 2015 Earth Day on the National Mall on April 18, 2015, in Washington, D.C.
When Earth Day turns 50 on April 22, it will be markedly different from every previous celebration. There won’t be hundreds of thousands shouting in unison at a concert; there will be no wave of grassroots cleanup and service events; no swell of in-class educational initiatives, as there have been through the past half-century. COVID-19, beyond gut-punching the live industry and the entire U.S. economy, has forced fundamental changes in day-to-day life and disrupted time-honored traditions new and old, and Earth Day has not been spared.

But Earth Day’s birthday will be historic nonetheless, as it is the golden anniversary of not only the day conceived by Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson (with crucial bi-partisan support from Rep. Pete McCloskey), but it helped spark the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the coalescence of a generation of young people into a movement concerned with the protection of the environment. At the heart of Earth Day, since the beginning, have been education, political advocacy, social action, and the arts, notably musical performances, that have seen the support of some of the greatest artists of all time, this includes: everyone from Paul McCartney, Willie Nelson, the Kinks, James Taylor and Don Henley to Roseanne Cash, Carole King, Mavis Staples and Queen Latifah to KRS-One, members of R.E.M. to Jack Johnson, Chris Martin, John Legend, Mary J. Blige and Steve Miller – a huge and varied swath of musicians who have seen the wisdom of sustainability and conservation and put their time, money and support where their mouth is.
“Celebrities and artists have played an important role in publicizing Earth Day and drawing people in. The purpose of Earth Day has always been broad – it’s been much more than simply going out to have a nice day and listen to music,” says Eric A. Goldstein, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council and New York City Environment Director. “At the huge 1990 Central Park concert, NRDC’s founding director, John Adams, spoke. In between the singers, they had activists addressing the crowd. There was great music, of course.  But it was music mixed with environmental information and calls for political activism. And that’s typical of the multiple purposes of Earth Day.” 
Ride Or Die
Denver Post
– Ride Or Die
Bicyclists march on the Colorado state capitol during Earth Day in 1970. Beyond large, centralized concerts and educational events, Earth Day has always promoted political advocacy and action.
Earth Day’s roots go back much further than 50 years with historical conservation figures reaching back more than a century to John Muir, Henry David Thoreau and Theodore Roosevelt among others. In the modern era, Senator Nelson of Wisconsin made clear from his first Senate speech in 1963 that the destruction of the natural environment and declining state of quality of air and water in the U.S. was critical. He caught the ears of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson through the ’60s and in 1969 had the idea mobilize a massive grassroots protest to advocate for greater environmental protections after witnessing an oil spill in Santa Barbara. He enlisted Harvard student Denis Hayes (see Q’s With page 8) to spearhead the work of organizing a national day of protest, in which the New York Times reported more than 20 million Americans participated. 
“At that time, there was the women’s movement, the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement. There was activism in the air. People, particularly young people, were angry and were becoming a potent political force. We wanted to change the world,” Goldstein said. “At the same time, Americans were experiencing gross pollution insults – the Santa Barbara oil spill, the Cuyahoga River periodically catching on fire, frequent smog inversions in places like Los Angeles and New York. Pollution was relatively uncontrolled and people felt that this was a pretty sad state of affairs.”
“There were also these monumental books coming out. Rachel Carson wrote ‘Silent Spring’ about the dangers of pesticides and toxic chemicals. Barry Commoner wrote ‘The Closing Circle’ about the problems arising from the unbridled post-World War II industrial machine and how our economic system was moving away from science and basic ecological principles.”  
“I remember it vaguely – my first year in college – we had these environmental speeches and seminars,” Goldstein recalls of the first Earth Day. “It was designed to be educational and non-partisan and was based on the anti-war teach-ins that had taken place in the 1960s to protest what was going on with the war in Vietnam.”
Participation in Earth Day took many forms in its inaugural year: In New York, Fifth Avenue was closed and a rally in Union Square brought out tens of thousands. In Philadelphia, the Native American band Redbone performed for some 50,000 at Fairmount Park. In a lead-up event, the Chicago cast of “Hair” performed at a teach-in event Crisler Arena. The University of Michigan alone documented 125 events in the weeks leading up to Earth Day. The likes of Leonard Bernstein, Pete Seeger and Judy Collins also commemorated the occasion with performances.
Along with the arts were actions as people around the country cleaned trash out of rivers and streets, planted trees, participated in educational initiatives inside and outside of classrooms and congregated in force demanding political action. As Goldstein put it: “It’s education, part political advocacy, part community engagement, and part celebration.” 
“The reason Earth Day worked,” the New York Times quoted Senator Nelson saying in his obituary, “is that it organized itself. The idea was out there and everybody grabbed it. I wanted a demonstration by so many people that politicians would say, ‘Holy cow, people care about this.’”
The Times reported 42 states passed Earth Day resolutions to commemorate the original date, and several months later the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was formed and the Clean Air Act passed. Soon, after the Clean Water and the Endangered Species Acts passed and the Natural Resources Defense Council formed. 
Earth Day continued to be celebrated with activism, community service, education and, very often, music (including a low-fi Phish 1986 concert at University of Vermont in Burlington) throughout the ’70s and ’80s. At the end of the decade, though, a confluence of factors created fertile ground for Earth Day to blow-up globally.
Cover of Pollstar
– Cover of Pollstar

Tom Sellars, a Minneapolis-based investment executive received an odd inquiry from a client, Jim Brandenburg, a National Geographic wildlife photographer. Brandenburg knew Sellars organized concerts at the University of Wisconsin  while in college and asked him to promote a benefit concert for wolves with James Taylor. “I said,  ‘Look, if you can get James Taylor to agree to play for free, I will help you.’ So I get a phone call a few days later, my assistant gets me off the line and says, ‘Jim Brandenburg and James Taylor are holding for you.’”
And thus, with that 1989 benefit show at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, the non-profit Concerts For The Environment (CFE) was unceremoniously born. That event brought in production specialist Tim O’Connor, who previously worked with Willie Nelson and Farm Aid. After the success of the Minneapolis show, a CFE Board member suggested the organization should focus on helping to revitalize Earth Day, as Denis Hayes was once again trying to make things happen for the 20th anniversary.
Sellars enlisted the aid of his best friend, Michael Martin, and the two began exploring opportunities, soon realizing the oversight organization putting on the 1990 Earth Day was not handling funding or talent for a planned event on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. 
“Mike was my best friend. He was working as an investment banker living in Chicago and commuting to New York, making a lot of money. So it’s very logical that he would decide to leave that and become executive director for a fledgling, little nonprofit to save the world,” Sellars joked. And yet, that is what happened. 
Martin moved to Minneapolis where CFE was based after the initial Taylor concert and begam working on the 20th anniversary of Earth Day celebration planned for the National Mall. Martin worked for free as executive director while Sellars volunteered as chair, while still working full time as an investment executive. 
The earliest days of CFE were … slow. “We were not aware of the Pollstar management directory in those days, so we were looking in the white pages, calling record labels, cold calling everyone we could think of, but not getting much traction.”
One day Martin randomly sent a fax to manager Peter Leak. Natalie Merchant of 10,000 Maniacs was in the room, noticed it, and read it. Remembering her own experiences with Earth Day in grade school, Merchant gave her support and reached out to Michael Stipe. Soon CFE connected with agent Steve Martin (then with the William Morris Agency now Co-Head of Worldwide Music at APA).
“Receiving that call, my first reaction was ‘Jesus Christ, another guy with a free show somewhere?’” Martin says. “But they were very sincere, had a bit of a track record, and a good idea. I represented, not by coincidence, a lot of very politically and socially aware artists like Bruce Cockburn, Billy Bragg, Ziggy Marley and Michelle Shocked. So it was easy to pitch them on it and once you have their credibility, it helped a lot to get other people on board.” 
The 1990 lineup that finally came together, before the age of multi-format radio festivals or Lollapalooza, was intentionally eclectic, featuring Michael Stipe and Peter Buck of R.E.M., Bruce Hornsby, 10,000 Maniacs, Indigo Girls, Billy Bragg, Michelle Shocked and Ziggy Marley.  
“During our youth in Jamaica the plants were important,” Marley tells Pollstar of his support for the cause, “that’s where you get food from. It was the earth, the bushes, whether we got a scorpion sting, chicken pox, it was earth, we used bushes to remedy it. We had understanding that the earth was a giving entity, that if we care for the earth, it gives us everything we need. That’s my relationship with earth, gratitude, and we help each other out.”
To meet the financial demands for a free rally on the Mall, a ticketed event was held at Merriweather Post Pavilion the night before. In addition to ticketing revenue, artists waived fees, board members put up money, sponsorships with companies like Aveda and Ben & Jerrys were secured and, between all of this, funding was cobbled together. 

Capitol Steps
– Capitol Steps
Toad The Wet Sprocket, Kathy Mattea, Kenny Loggins, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Shawn Colvin sing “Conviction of the Heart” at the close of an Earth Day rally on the Capitol in Washington, D.C., in 1995
The 1990 rally drew an estimated 350,000 to 400,000 and thrusted Earth Day into the National spotlight once more. That year, under the leadership of Denis Hayes, Earth Day made a huge push internationally, boasting the participation of 200 million people in 141 countries, elevating it into the global consciousness. But after the 1990 event, there was no organization to continue the concerts. Still executive director of CFE, Martin soon received a cold call from an interested party with an array of resources at his disposal.
“I was playing pickup basketball and the guy I was guarding was wearing a t-shirt from the 1990 Earth Day concert. It tagged an organization in Minneapolis called Concerts for the Environment. I was a kid in my mid-20’s,  we were in the recycling business and I was aware of some of the sustainability issues of the time. We had just bought Foxboro Stadium,” Jonathan Kraft said. “So I got the number off the T-shirt and called. I said, ‘Our family very much believes in this issue. We own a stadium and if you decide to do another event, we are willing to host the thing for free.”
Kraft, whose family was in manufacturing and recycling before owning the New England Patriots and Gillette Stadium, was serious on his offer and in 1991 and 1992, despite somewhat miserable weather, Foxboro Stadium hosted two Earth Day celebrations with lineups including Willie Nelson, Roseanne Cash,  KRS-One and Boogie Down Productions, Bruce Hornsby, Midnight Oil, Steve Miller, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Joan Baez, Violent Femmes and The Kinks. 
The events were televised nationally on MTV and VH1 and inspired a range of community events.
 “Remember, 29 years ago this issue was viewed as an outside the mainstream issue, but we felt that a mainstream business like a football stadium and a family in manufacturing could broaden the conversation,” Kraft told Pollstar. “We were building a paper mill that was 100 percent post-consumer waste. We used water from a waste water treatment plant that we pumped back. We underwent an environmental audit at the stadium and  changed a lot of the ways we did business. Some of them saved us money, some of them cost us money, but we let people know there were ways you could take  action that would have positive environmental impact and could benefit your bottom line.”
Indeed, for every event Concerts For the Environment executed, the organization conducted a venue sustainability audit and gave artists suggestions on how to green their tours, Martin told Pollstar. 1992 was also the year that Concerts For The Environment formed its advisory board, which included Monterey Peninsula Artists’ Fred Bohlander and Chip Hooper, then Senator Al Gore, Herbie Herbert (former manager for Journey, Steve Miller Band, and the Storm and Bill Graham mentee), the Reverend Joan Campbell, Bruce Hornsby, then-senator John Kerry, CAA’s Rob Light, Natalie Merchant, Steve Miller, High Road’s Frank Riley (then also of Monterey), Marian Wright Edelman and Senator Nelson. 
In 1993, CFE decided to organize an event somewhere warmer, specifically at the Hollywood Bowl in California, along with events in New York and D.C., the first time the org was putting on multiple concerts in a weekend. It was at the LA show that Sir Paul McCartney decided to volunteer his services. 
“We never had one contract with these artists,” Sellars said. “If Steve said ‘Bruce Cockburn is in,’ that might just be from a fax or a conversation, but it was all just a handshake agreement with people you trust. When Alex Kochan [who then ran Artists And Audience Entertainment] said Paul McCartney was in, that was all on a handshake. What were we going to do if they didn’t show up, sue them? They’re playing for free.”
The shows were a success and CFE began planning a major concert with grunge acts at The Meadowlands outside New York for 1994. Kurt Cobain’s tragic suicide in the spring of 1994, however, led to key artists withdrawing, forcing CFE to cobble together an event in Minneapolis, with only weeks to plan. 1995 would prove to be CFE’s last major Earth Day concert. 
With changing political winds threatening to again decimate environmental regulations, CFE once again planned a rally on the capitol. This time, with a month to go before the event, the producers raised nearly $1 million but were still $100,000 under budget and the event looked increasingly unfeasible, but the decision was taken to go ahead. 
“That rally needed to happen at that moment in the capitol, and it ended up being a really pivotal moment,” Martin said. “I was faced with the decision. ‘Do we do the rally and go into debt, or do we cancel?’ I decided to go ahead, and upon making the announcement, half the board quit, but in hindsight it was the right decision.” 
The rally and concert at Merriweather went ahead with an estimated 400,000 to 500,000 attendees on the Mall and performances from Darius Rucker, They Might Be Giants, Boyz II Men, Kenny Loggins, Toad The Wet Sprocket, and Collective Soul. The event was emceed by a young Jon Stewart (who, Martin noted, was initially uncomfortable with the idea of being political). Martin organized a 30,000 person, multi-format festival for Ben & Jerry’s to pay off the debt accrued from the 1995 Earth Day celebration and CFE merged with the non-profit Environmental Media Association in 1996. 
Mother Nature on the run:
– Mother Nature on the run:
An unidentified woman picks trash out of the Potomac River during Earth Week in Washington D.C, April 22, 1970. Grassroots community service and education have been core parts of Earth Day celebrations since its inception.
After CFE, Martin continued in his efforts to make the live entertainment industry more sustainable via Effect Partners and r.Cup. Over the years he has greened tours and festivals for many including Jack Johnson, Dave Matthews Band and U2, while supporting Live Nation and AEG’s greening efforts.
Peter Shapiro – now known as the founder of Lockn’ Festival and owner of Brooklyn Bowl and the Capitol Theatre, took on the mantle of Earth Day promoter-in-chief when he started organizing the Green Apple festival in 2006. By 2008, the festival was staging concurrently in 10 cities in one day. 
“I first experienced the power of environmental activism when I owned the rock club Wetlands, it opened in 1989 and I owned it from 1996 to 9/11,” Shapiro told Pollstar. “We would host activist meetings at the rock club and put out various kind of information, Wetlands was famous for that. The combination of music with activism can be powerful. That’s why music that started in the ’60s in the midst of all that counterculture was imbued with ethos, it had meaning.”
In 2008, Green Apple played at 110 venues with 220 shows in total. The venues hosting major events included Fair Park Dallas; Bicentennial Park in Miami; Golden Gate Park in San Francisco; Santa Monica Pier in Los Angeles; Central Park in New York; City Park in Denver; Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, and The National Mall in Washington, D.C. Shapiro programmed all the content in some way. Performers through the years included Blues Traveler, Guster, Peter Frampton, Martin Sexton, Béla Fleck and The Flecktones. Additionally, venues hosting indoor shows adopted the use sustainable paper, lighting and cleaning products. 
“I don’t think we’re going to transform the world simply by putting on an Earth Day concert, but we have to do our best to be a part of the transformation, each of us,” Shapiro said. “I have felt a need to do what I can to bring my relationships to help the cause, which is what I was able to do for Earth Day on the National Mall in the past, with The Roots, Sting, Bob Weir, The Flaming Lips.”
Shapiro kept the torch burning, putting on major Earth Day concerts on the National Mall in 2010 and 2015 (with assistance from Martin), the latter of which was done in partnership with Global Citizen (which is now organizing a major streaming campaign to raise funds for charity). This year, there was to be a star-studded 50th anniversary concert again on the National Mall, but COVID-19 has made it so that the A-list lineup wasn’t even announced. That event is being replaced with a livestream titled Earth Day Live, running April 22-24, featuring Jack Johnson, Jason Mraz, Aimee Mann, Questlove, and Talib Kweli. Another event is now being planned prior to the presidential election in November, to keep the spirit of political advocacy, social action, and celebration of the environment that Earth Day encapsulates alive. 
“Earth Day has always been about humans’ relationships with the natural world, but also about our relationship with each other,” Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, the conservation organization founded by John Muir in 1892, said. “It has always asked: ‘How do we live our lives in ways that respect and celebrate nature and also recognize the ways we rely on each other?’ Given the COVID-19 is spreading around the world, the way we need each other has never been more timely or prescient. Earth day is changing this year, but it’s themes have remained consistent throughout all this time.”
As the music industry sits in COVID-prompted stasis, now may be a good time to reflect and plan for when and how the business resumes (see Leadoff on Page 7). Whatever the future holds for the economy, our society, and the music industry after the pandemic, many agree artists and the concert industry, when it comes back, will play a central role in shaping public thought and action.
“We artists bring entertainment to the people, but beyond that … it is very important that the artist who feels responsibility, follows that, because not every artist is gonna feel that calling,” Ziggy Marley said. “I wish more artists would and that popular music would be of more benefit to society, because people memorize music and dance to it. It would definitely benefit the people if more artists promoted being aware of each other, caring for each other and the environment. Art is very important in society.”
But it’s not just artists leading the movement. “For me, the most important part of the Earth Day story, which was true at its birth and remains true today, is that individual action matters,” says Tia Nelson, daughter of Gaylord Nelson and managing director for climate at Outrider. “Just as Earth Day was successful beyond my father’s wildest dreams because the way youth and grown-ups responded to my father’s calls for action, I want people to feel a sense of agency and empowerment today.”
“We’re facing such enormous challenges, all of these actions matter,” Nelson continues. “Some matter more than others. … Today, in the context of COVID-19, the big question when we come out of this is ‘Do we have the resiliency to think about what we have to do differently to build a bright future? Are there other ways we have to do things – as individuals and as a society – that are more sustainable?’ Whether we can make meaning of this as we come out the crisis is an unanswered question, but I certainly hope so.”