REVERB’s Journey Toward A More Sustainable Touring Industry

Matt Cosby
– Arm In Arm
REVERB co-founders Adam Gardner and Lauren Sullivan pose with Jack Johnson (center) at Darling’s Waterfront Pavilion in Bangor, Maine, in 2017.

Many in the touring industry have long bemoaned the practices of consumption, pollution and waste that have been business as usual at major events. In 2004, Lauren Sullivan and Adam Gardner decided they would do something about it. 

Step by step, the REVERB co-founders have learned how tours can better understand their consumption habits and carbon footprint, how to educate others, how to impact policy around key issues, and how to raise funds to make a difference. Today, it’s no exaggeration to say REVERB is one of the leaders in the field.
Musician Meets Activist
REVERB was founded by Gardner and Sullivan when the two were living together in New York City. 
Gardner, a guitarist and vocalist for the band Guster, had already spent more than a decade living the musician’s life. Sullivan, by contrast, was doing small-scale community organizing work in Brooklyn after previously working with the Rainforest Action Network. The two were in love and, through osmosis, Gardner began learning more and more about the environmentalist movement and realized that his day-to-day life as a musician was full of the exact kinds of practices Sullivan was trying to educate people about.
“Touring with Dave Matthews Band and John Mayer, we were having similar conversations with these artists, saying, ‘It’s too bad when we play shows there’s always plastic on the ground, our generator is never shut off, we’re rolling around and everything is disposable.’ We were lamenting the tours’ effect on the environment,” Gardner said. “We called the bus the ‘Earth Eater’ because we felt crappy about its impact. I came home one too many times complaining about how touring was not good for the environment. So she asked me: ‘Well, we’ve had these conversations, what are you doing about it?’”
After months of these discussions, Sullivan came across what she referred to as “divine intervention” in the form of a pamphlet for Bonnie Raitt’s Green Highway project. She saw how Raitt was using the platform of music to educate the public about the issue of sustainability, and she later reached out to Raitt’s manager, Kathy Kane, to see how they could be a part of this movement.
Kane provided mentorship in those early days and helped the couple form a project with Raitt’s ARIA Foundation called REVERB. During this period they started the core work of REVERB: helping artists think about their own tours’ impact on the environment and how they can educate their audience about these key issues. 
The main purpose behind REVERB, Gardner said, has always been to help bands and well-intentioned professionals in the music industry bridge the gap between their desire for a more sustainable world, and their practices, as many artists simply did not know how to make any changes or who to ask.
After several years of working with the likes of Dave Matthews Band and John Mayer, REVERB was partnering with other organizations in Maine and by 2007 formed its own 501c3 nonprofit organization. 
In those early days, Sullivan said she – and most other environmental organizations – saw the conversation about sustainability completely change in 2006 after Al Gore released the film “An Inconvenient Truth.”
“That was really one of those dialogue changers,” Sullivan said. “From there we began to have that discourse at shows around what various nonprofits are doing, sustainable fuels, carbon offsets, the whole world of sustainability and green just took a turn after that.”
Sullivan said she sees a parallel with that moment 15 years ago and the current state of the touring industry. 
“I think we are in another key moment now. I think the pandemic strangely has been one of those other giant pivots we’re in connection with the intersectionality of many issues,” Sullivan said. “The murder of George Floyd, Stop Asian Hate, Black Lives Matter, all these BIPOC leaders that have been fighting the good fight for so long in the climate movement as well. This has helped us open our eyes and figure out how to break down some of the walls we have had in the environmental community, to look at how we are affecting each other. And I think music is poised as one of the most diverse spaces with the most united communities of people, and that we are now going through this change where we can break down barriers, join hands and engage in this fight for our lives.”
The Work Of Today

Brian Nevins
– Pitching A Tent
Adam Gardner of Guster and Brad Corrigan of Dispatch review the REVERB Eco-Village at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison, Colo., in 2017.

Today REVERB has several key elements to its work: It helps artists like The 1975, Billie Eilish, Pink, Maroon 5 and more analyze their own sustainable behavior and decisions taken behind the scenes, it helps educate audiences through direct engagement at events, and it helps raise funds to support projects that offset tours’ carbon footprint and address other pressing social issues.

“What REVERB brings to the table, with Adam being in a band, we come from the industry side of things. We know how to work with a tour without getting in their way,” Lara Seaver, REVERB’s Director of Projects, told Pollstar. “We design and execute our plans with management and get them running on the ground in a really exciting way. We have continued to develop and hone the number of backstage programs we offer over the years.”
For its major tour partners REVERB sends a representative on the road with the band that works with staff in its Maine office to do everything from working with a chef to coordinating the arrival of locally sourced, organic produce, dairy and other food at every stop; to helping analyze tour emissions by looking at bus routing, fuel consumption, hotel rooms, fan travel, and plane rides; to working with volunteers at every tour stop to discuss sustainability and other issues important to the artist with fans at the REVERB Action Village before the show.
One recent success story was The Lumineers’s 2019-20 tour, which REVERB has designated as “Climate Positive,” meaning 150% of the tour’s CO2 emissions were neutralized through reductions in consumption and the addition of a $1 fee onto every ticket. 
That $1 minimum fee on every ticket raised a total of $280,000 to support multiple causes, including Shatterproof, a national organization working to reverse the addiction crisis in the U.S., and a local partner addressing homelessness in every market they visited. Notably, in each market they donated at least $5,000 to a local partner addressing the issue of homelessness.  
In terms of its carbon offsets, the tour raised funds to support the Big Smile Wind Farm at Dempsey Ridge in Oklahoma, and Jagers Ranch Grasslands Conservation in Colorado. These projects’ positive impact on the environment, through their elimination of carbon emissions, offsets the emissions from things like fan travel, venue energy and other elements of the tour.
But The Lumineers also made every effort to reduce their own consumption, as many REVERB partners do. They eliminated the use of 10,063 single-use plastic bottles, partnered with 24 nonprofit organizations in its REVERB Action Village and supported 18,275 fan actions, including voter registration and purchase of reusable water bottles.
Gardner said reducing consumption on tours is critical and, while it is true that if every tour simply added a 50 cent fee onto its ticket price to support sustainable energy projects, and that would make much of the industry “climate positive,” much more has to be done, particularly since REVERB has only worked with several hundred tours out of the thousands that have staged during its existence. 
Bernie Cahill of Activist Artist Management said REVERB has been an incredible partner for Activist clients like The Lumineers and Dead & Co.   
“Broadly speaking, they were the first to make it easy for artists whose hearts and minds were in the right place and wanted to make a difference but didn’t know how,” Cahill said. “If you as an artist are serious about it and are willing to make sacrifices to make a difference, REVERB can really help focus that energy and that intention and manifest incredible results through their infrastructure, practices and partners.”
In addition to funds donated, The Lumineers also worked with Musically Fed and DEGA Catering to donate leftover catering to local homeless shelters, totaling 1,492 meals through the tour. The band also ensured 200 pounds of excess hotel toiletries were donated to local shelters and got more than 750 fans to connect with local organizations to continue volunteering after the tour left town.
Seaver said one crucial aspect of REVERB’s is the network of local farms and nonprofits they now work with around the country. REVERB can now comfortably connect tours to healthy, locally sourced produce and can, through its existing network of contacts, help leftover produce go to grateful bellies. 
The band and REVERB also got 29% of the venues hosting the tour to actively compost, 95% to recycle and 29% to avoid the use of plastic straws. 
“I’ve learned way more about compost than I ever needed to,” Cahill said. “All the iterations of what that really means and how you can turn around waste. REVERB has been an incredible resource and educator and helped make it all consumable and relatable. 
“Being ‘Climate Positive’ is something I learned from REVERB,” Cahill continued. “The idea of a ‘carbon neutral’ tour is a bit of a misnomer and can be confusing. Climate Positive is an example of REVERB innovating and staying ahead of the narrative while keeping artists in an elevated space. We don’t want to be claiming things that are not accurate or true, but this is a great example of REVERB continuing their work, being a thought leader and keeping us abreast of the evolution of this space.”
Of note, REVERB continues to work with all of its original touring partners and Gardner said he has been incredibly proud of how they have developed those relationships over the years. But REVERB doesn’t just work with the same stable of artists, as they have expanded to include The 1975, Billie Eilish, Tame Impala, Sturgill Simpson, Zac Brown Band, P!nk, and many others into its growing group of partners. And REVERB doesn’t just partner with artists, it also works with venues like Forest Hills Stadium in New York and festivals like California Roots Festival and Levitate Music And Arts Festival.
Amy Sheehan, operations manager for California Roots Presents, told Pollstar she and her husband started working with the festival in 2015 and the morning after the event they saw water bottles strewn throughout the grounds, and decided the following year they would partner with REVERB. “We saw that and thought ‘Holy shit, this looks awful,’ and we just couldn’t do it,” Sheehan said. “We started making decisions that sounded crazy. Deciding not to have single-use water bottles onsite was a huge deal. Vendors made money on them, artists expected them in dressing rooms and onstage. But that is how our whole greening program started.”
Carly Hoskins
– Break It Down
REVERB on-site coordinator Emilio Roberts trains volunteers at a John Mayer show at Jones Beach Amphitheatre in Wantagh, N.Y., in 2017. REVERB has developed a volunteer system that allows some volunteers to be trained on the same day of their service after going through a screening process.

While REVERB’s efforts at that event were initially focused on educating fans about the importance of reusable water bottles, Sheehan said the event organizers continued trying to one-up themselves with their sustainability efforts each year, gradually adding things like package deals for fans to reduce the number of hotel rooms used, providing discounts for steel pints, renaming their VIP pass the Redwood Pass, which now sponsors the planting of redwood seedlings. 

REVERB proved to be an excellent partner in helping Cali Roots figure out what can be done and what is economically sustainable for the organizers, Sheehan said. “We’ve certainly tried to work with other green nonprofits and businesses and they don’t really understand the bottom line,” Sheehan said. “For them it’s all or nothing: You either have to save the earth or you are not doing enough. REVERB really gets that balance of making this approachable and every year we are doing more, but they understand the budget side of things.”
Cahill echoed this statement saying: “None of this is perfect but you have got to start somewhere.  You have to start by changing culture on the ground in the touring apparatus, the crew, the people backstage. It starts there.”
Beyond The Stages

While Gardner says the core of REVERB’s work has always been with artists, who alone have the power to mandate sweeping changes about the machinery of touring, the organization has branched out beyond the live event space over its 17 years. 
One of the most useful ways to track the growth of REVERB have been its different campaigns throughout the years. Partnering with companies like Nalgene, REVERB’s #RockNRefill and #BYOBottle campaigns have helped to eliminate more than 3 million single-use plastic bottles. 
Its Quarantine Kitchen video series highlights different musicians’ favorite sustainable recipes and REVERB’s No More Blood Wood campaign to end illegal environmental destruction and to highlight those abuses’ impact on the music industry brought Gardner before Congress in 2012, where he spoke on behalf of a group of artists who pledged not to purchase any instrument without asking where the wood comes from. 
As a part of the No More Blood Wood campaign REVERB brought Maroon 5 and Guster to Guatemala to learn about illegal logging and members of Dave Matthews Band, Maroon 5, Guster, KT Tunstall and Kanaku Y El Tigre to Peru to live with and learn from indigenous community leaders about how illegal logging is literally leading to death within their communities.
Through its various campaigns REVERB has helped raise more than $2 million for more than 100 other nonprofits. 
“Different campaigns have come to the forefront and helped shift how we do our work and who we do it with,” Sullivan said. “We’re really trying to advance the entire environmental movement together and give voice to these nonprofits. The music platform can be a megaphone to shout from the mountaintops about how people can get engaged. There is an issue for everyone that they can feel connected to. As long as we can all get on the path to sustainability, even if it’s in small ways, we need to do that together, now.”
REVERB keeps eight full-time staff in its Portland, Maine, office and four onsite coordinators that go on the road full time with tours. They have an extensive pool of coordinators to go on the road as needed and Sullivan said REVERB has developed a highly structured volunteer program which allows for more than 3,000 fans annually to volunteer at shows to engage audiences about key issues and later attend shows for free. 
And REVERB’s influence has been acknowledged by far more than its partners. REVERB and Dave Matthews Band were honored by the UN on World Environment Day in 2019, with the latter being designated UN Environment Goodwill Ambassador. REVERB also partnered with the UN Environment programme and attended the programme’s Champions of the Earth award ceremony in 2019. 
But while awards are nice, Gardner said time is of the essence and he feels that musicians and the arts will play a critical role in transforming many key aspects of society as the climate crisis comes to a head in the coming years.
“There is no choice anymore, there is a mandate from science. This issue is going to start affecting our business negatively, it will affect everyone negatively if we don’t respond,” Gardner said. “Musicians hold so much power, especially the top grossing acts, they hold an immense amount of power to change what’s happening. If you stack them all together and they say ‘We all want this to change,’ it doesn’t leave much choice. And we haven’t met that much resistance. It’s more about inertia. It’s not that people don’t want to be better, it just comes down to how can we do it in a way that doesn’t drastically affect our business financially.”
And there is much money to be saved through investment into sustainable practices, Gardner said, giving the examples of venue energy and increasingly practical options like biodiesel and solar energy. 
Chris Spinato
– UN Awards
Dave Matthews accepts the designation of UN Environment Programme Goodwill Ambassador on behalf of Dave Matthews Band from Ambassador Barbara Hendrie in 2019. Adam Gardner of REVERB/Guster also accepts the designation of UN Environment Programme North America Music and Public Engagement Partner on behalf of REVERB.

“You can’t just throw money at the problem, you have to look at your footprint and shrink it,” Gardner said. “We don’t want funding these projects to mean people have a license to do business as usual. It needs to be both.”

And culture can change in every part of the industry, as Gardner noted it was one of his own bandmates in Guster who prompted the group to look at rechargeable batteries for their gear. 
Sullivan said she realized from the earliest days of REVERB that music was able to bridge a gap and make these global issues personal and help people care, and that its role in the coming years will be more important than ever. 
“The things artists offer up in terms of taking another facet of their life, putting it out there, being vulnerable in this way, saying ‘This is what I care about,’ that has awed me in many ways,” Sullivan said. “Musicians are creating the soundtracks to our lives, births, deaths, sadness, whatever you are going through in your life, [music] is meaningful. And the communities these musicians have created need to and can come together and fight this good fight together.”