Marc Ross, rocker and activist, answers questions
Ross ‘n’ Roll
How do you ensure the music doesn’t drown out the message, that hot licks instead enhance learning? — Carl F. Rebstock, Cofounder and Executive Director, Passionfish, Monterey, Calif.
Although most people will be attending concerts to experience music, I really don’t think the music will drown out the message, but rather will enhance it — and vice versa. To have someone like, say, Bruce Springsteen introduce a moving, powerful, and vivid song like “The River” with a statement about water quality or the importance of having those experiences along waterways as a teen enhances both the song and the message. The same would go for Jackson Browne introducing “Before the Deluge” or Dave Matthews introducing “Don’t Drink the Water” or String Cheese introducing “Rollover,” a song about global warming. Speaking of SCI, one of the best shows we worked this summer (Los Angeles, July 23, 2004) in terms of membership and mailing-list sign-ups and donations was a show that included the band playing no less than five songs that contained vivid environmental images about water and mountains, the dangers of urban sprawl, and the wonders of ancient Native American art. Surprising? I don’t think so. Artists have an ability to convey messages in music.
I think what you’re doing is a great idea, but do you ever feel that your organization paints a sad commentary on today’s celebrity-driven society? — Name not provided
In a way, I don’t think the utilization of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental issues is a sad commentary on today’s society. Sure, it would be great if most people were more cognizant of the world around them and their impact on it. Unfortunately, in this day and age, most folks are working hard just to make ends meet. They get up, go to work, and come home to take care of their families. They take their two or three weeks of paid vacation (if they are fortunate enough to have vacation) and they go about their business. They are worried about their jobs, terrorism, their health, their family, and their retirement. Despite all of the time-saving modern conveniences, it seems that most are working harder for less money, with less free time. The fact that they don’t have time to think about the gas mileage of their SUV (for example) is sad only because they have been fed contrary messages by the mass media. The fact that they don’t consider the impact that their employer may be having on the environment is sad because they live in fear of losing their jobs.
But, they do take leisure time to watch sports, movies, and concerts. Just as corporations like Coke, GM, Sprint, McDonald’s, Pepsi, Nike, and others utilize athletes and artists to sell their products, it shouldn’t be surprising that those same types of people could be utilized to “sell” the environment and educate the public. This truly is a battle for the hearts and, more importantly, the minds of all who live on this planet. We need to start leveling this playing field by utilizing all means available to fight this “use and consume” culture that will literally — not figuratively, but literally — destroy this planet and all who live on it. No, the artists and athletes won’t get lucrative contracts to do these endorsements, but as a result, they, their families, their fans, and all of us will be enriched.
As a fellow Phish and String Cheese fan, and as an environmentalist, I feel instant kinship with you. My experience is that hard-core ex-Deadhead music fans might say they are environmentalists, but the vast majority are too lazy to actually do anything productive. I wish you all the best of luck and I hope you can prove me wrong, but I think you would get better results from people who actually use the outdoors than from people who spend a significant percentage of their waking hours in parking lots waiting for shows. Backpackers and surfers care the most about the mountains and sea. — Tom Wallace, Honolulu, Hawaii
I agree that there are many fans in the so-called “jam band” world who think that just by being a fan of music that can be environmentally or socially inspiring, they are automatically environmentalists or social progressives. That’s talking the talk, but not walking the walk.
But, we have encountered many passionate and active fans who do walk the walk. Also, what we have found is that regardless of the musical genre, when an artist from stage promotes us or an issue, there are markedly different results. The fans come to the table, sign up for membership, and volunteer to help. This is a relationship — the one between band and fan — that if actively nurtured by the artists can inspire fans to do great things. An artist like Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, or Dave Matthews has an incredibly large platform and only through their direct actions with environmental groups and “putting their money where their mouth is” by holding benefit shows and donating songs to CDs, etc., can a group like RtE succeed in its missions.
What separates our organization from the other organizations that seek artists’ involvement is that we want to work directly on issues that derive from the artists’ own concerns. Sure, we’ll bring projects to a particular artist’s attention if we believe there are synergies there, but what we really want to do is provide a service to the community, inspired and suggested by the artists themselves.
I also agree that we may be able to get better results from enthusiasts who use the outdoors, but to be fair, I think that there’s a lot of crossover, at least in the jam-band world, between those who engage in outdoor recreation and those who attend concerts. This is especially true for concert goers of all genres who live in areas of the country where the outdoor venues are particularly spectacular, for example music fans in Seattle who regularly attend shows at the Gorge or in Denver where there is Red Rocks or in Virginia where the scenery for Floyd Fest is Shenandoah National Park. As far as directly working with the outdoor enthusiasts, we’re hoping to be able to build some business relations with some outdoor gear corporations who will also support our efforts, thereby allowing us to appeal to that subset of music fans.
Do you think that by using a specialized source of entertainment/media and niche like “jam” bands that you are circumventing the larger group of people whose eyes truly need to be opened to the dire environmental issues of today’s world? In other words, does preaching to the choir really do any good? — Benji Nichols, Petaluma, Calif.
That’s an excellent question. We struggled a bit with the “preaching to the choir” issue concerning jam bands, but one of the principles that we have been trying to keep in mind is that we do not want to be a jam band-only organization. That would limit us way too much, and frankly, the jam-band community only has a few bands with the types of resources that we will need to tap to make our organization successful. The true strength of our organization will be our ability to bring together bands of all different genres, sizes, and resources on the issues themselves. Everyone loves music but music is a taste. People like all different kinds. We want to be able to take up an environmental project brought to us by any artist. We don’t care if that artist is Neil Diamond, Barbara Streisand, Bono, Marilyn Manson, Garth Brooks, Bob Weir, Mike. D, Green Day, Al Schnier, or Buckethead. We will not discriminate. By working with different types of artists, we’ll touch many more people and fans and our strength will come through these cross-genre collaborations.
Do you feel like musicians who support your cause play a certain type of music? Do you actively go after bands of all types (reggae, country, rap), or do you stick with a certain genre? — Name not provided
No, I don’t feel that the musicians that support us play a certain type of music and we do not go after artists of a specific genre. To date, we have leaned heavily toward so-called “jam band” artists as that’s really the genre from which most of us find inspiration. But, what we’ve been finding, not surprisingly, is that artists of all stripes and styles and genres have environmental interests and concerns. This summer alone we toured with mainstream acts like the Barenaked Ladies and Alanis Morissette and bluegrass acts like the Yonder Mountain String Band. I would love to see RtE work on projects in collaboration with reggae, country, rap, punk, mainstream, adult contemporary, and even children’s artists. The artists that come immediately to mind are those who are already environmentally and socially minded like Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Steve Earle, Willie Nelson, Dave Matthews, Beastie Boys, Mos Def, Neil Young, Raffi, Ziggy Marley, Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin, Moby, Peter Gabriel, Don Henley, etc.
We want to cross musical genres and bring together different kinds of artists to impact change, focused on the specific environmental condition or concern. The key will be to identify projects that are potentially close to the hearts of the artists (for example, a project from the artist’s home state/town) or, even better, are environmental situations about which the artists tell us. That is the true purpose of the organization: to help out communities that need environmental representation, which issues come to our attention by way of folks in the music community (artists and fans).
I was almost jumping out of my seat as I read this article and learned about the organization. Getting musicians involved in helping raise awareness (and funds) for environmental and conservation issues had been a dream of mine. I’m wondering how RtE generates revenue — from its membership fees, donations, cause-related marketing, and/or corporate foundations? — Amy Partilla, Centreville, Va.
At this point, we’ve been generating revenue from membership fees, donations, and charity auctions (we just raised $1,000 through an online auction sponsored by the Mimi Fishman Foundation), and we plan to start holding benefit concerts. In addition, we’re getting ready to have some very nice in-kind donations that we can utilize to entice folks to sign up for memberships. There is a CD going to be released later this year by various artists in conjunction with Pure Hemp to which we will be the only charitable beneficiary. The same goes for some DVDs being put out next month by Jam Cam Chronicles which will have a feature on Rock the Earth.
Our expert grant writers have also been busy at work writing grant proposals and letters of interest to both family foundations and to corporate foundations. While these are not very large grants, we are hopeful that these grants will be the start of some future, larger ones. We have some other new and innovative fundraising ideas as well, such as concert and festival ticket proceeds and online downloads, but these are only in the preliminary stages. What we really need is to generate enough money to start hiring staff and contractors who can help us out in bringing these ideas to fruition.
Will there be a large volunteer base? Meaning, will RtE reach out to gain volunteers throughout the U.S. to help? — Mollie Hays, Auburn, Ala.
We’re hoping to establish a fairly large base of volunteers throughout the U.S. and are using some very successful voter registration organizations like Headcount as a model, with regional and statewide leaders to support college campus organizers and some band-specific tour leaders as well for the bands with whom we collaborate. In the four months since we began our public outreach effort, we have gained over 1,500 people on our mailing list, in which most volunteered to assist the organization in some way. We have volunteers to table shows, to hold house parties, to provide legal, technical, grant-writing, and fund-raising assistance, to volunteers to create PR materials, action alerts, comment letters, and fact sheets. We’re now spending the fall analyzing and organizing this data and trying to figure out the best way to mobilize these enthusiastic volunteers. We will continue to seek out volunteers at all concert events at which we are present and are in the process of modifying our website to start to capture this information as well.
Do you do any education or lobbying for enviro-friendly concerts? Say, advocating shows powered by alternative energy? — Name not provided
We haven’t yet gotten directly involved in any alternative-energy concerts as of yet, but would love to. We were originally slated to be one of the official nonprofits on the Lollapalooza Tour this past summer, which was to have a solar-powered third stage in each city, and the shows scheduled to take place in New York City were to be run entirely on alternative energy. Unfortunately, that tour was cancelled. We were also asked to be part of a sustainable festival in California this past summer, but had to pass as we were already committed to a festival in Virginia that weekend. I believe that one of the concerts that we worked this summer was run entirely by wind power. If I’m not mistaken, an alternative-energy company donated all of the power that was used to power the Barenaked Ladies and Alanis Morissette show at Red Rocks this past summer, making it the first concert at Red Rocks to be run entirely on wind energy.
Meanwhile, a few of the bands with whom we have been working or discussing future projects have biodiesel or veggie oil buses and desire our involvement in alternative-energy projects. Getting behind a festival or concert run entirely on alternative energy, with all biodegradable and recyclable products, would be ideal for us and that is certainly a long-term goal.
Why did you decide to base Rock the Earth in Denver? Are the music scene and mass enviro consciousness in some sort of magical combination there more so than anywhere else, or did you just want to live in Colorado? — Name not provided
The decision to land the home base of RtE in Denver did not come easy. I was living in Pittsburgh at the time, an extremely affordable and liveable place to reside and an easy drive to a dozen different major and minor cities that are regular tour stops for bands. But for some time now, my wife and I desired to make a change to a more progressive city. We had it narrowed down to Portland, Ore., Asheville, N.C., and Denver, Colo. While we had close friends in and around all of those places, we ultimately chose Denver for a few reasons: 1) RtE staff had more connections to folks in both the environmental and music communities in Colorado; 2) we had a greater concentration of old friends in Colorado; 3) Colorado is really on the front lines of so many environmental struggles, especially those concerning water, mining, and public lands; and 4) we believed that Denver, as a larger city and a state capitol, would present more job opportunities for my wife. In some ways, to be located in a liberal and progressive community such as Portland would be nice, but there are a plethora of environmental groups there. While there are many in Denver and Boulder as well, we felt that we could be a bigger fish in a smaller environmental activism pond with larger predators in Colorado. Having 300 days of sunshine a year (as opposed to the inverse in Pittsburgh and Portland) didn’t hurt either!
You said you’re based in Colorado, but do you guys do any touring with bands who are part of your cause? If so, when and where are you going to be next? — Name not provided
Rock the Earth is based out of Denver and six of our current volunteer staff members live in Colorado. But we have volunteers who table concerts throughout the country and train other volunteers. Since receiving our 501(c)(3) status in late February 2004, we have had tables and booths at over 50 concert and festival dates. We did this through a combination of local volunteers and a traveling core of volunteer staff throughout this past summer. We worked large chunks of tours by String Cheese Incident, the Barenaked Ladies, and Alanis Morissette’s “Au Natural” Tour, and the Acoustic Planet Tour featuring Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Keller Williams, and Yonder Mountain String Band. We also worked shows by the Dave Matthews Band, Guster, Sound Tribe Sector 9, Hot Buttered Rum String Band, New Monsoon and the Motet, as well as festivals such as the High Sierra Music Festival, Gathering of the Vibes, Baja Bash, and Floyd Fest.
As for our next steps, we’re going to focus primarily on substantive environmental issues this fall along with a few concerts in cities in which our volunteer staff are located. We’re also planning to hold benefit concerts on a quarterly basis throughout the country to help fund both substantive projects on which we are working as well as some operational expenses. In spring 2005, we are hoping to embark on a major college tour in which we will seek out thoughtful, articulate, and passionate college and graduate school students to create campus chapters of Rock the Earth. Not only will this assist us in our recruitment of volunteers, but these chapters could work hand-in-hand with college concert committees and Earth Day event planners to organize and educate students. Students in environmental sciences and environmental-law programs could begin to really carry forth academic projects from the college campus to the concert halls. We could support some college groups in their advocacy efforts as well as provide internships and help those interested students expand their experience.
You mentioned that one major problem you have is getting other environmental groups to keep you in the loop. Why do you think they feel so threatened by your organization? Shouldn’t they be happy to see someone else working for the same cause? — Name not provided
This is something that we’re still trying to figure out. Yes, we’re a new organization with few resources, but many believe that we have great potential. Not only do we have extremely skilled and accomplished legal and technical staff willing to donate their services, but we have an ability to bring both public attention and funds to support their issues in a very unique way. We simply don’t have the resources to bring our own litigation efforts yet. Therefore, our involvement would mostly be to benefit these other groups. But, for whatever reason, most groups do not return our calls or emails. At this stage in our development, we are, for all practical purposes, only able to support others’ efforts, so I don’t quite know what to make of it. One would think that they would welcome our involvement as our mission is to support these types of efforts.
But we do have a new and creative angle in terms of promotion and fundraising — one that most established environmental groups do not have — so maybe that has something to do with the lack of response. Environmentalists need to work together. The idea behind RtE is to create powerful coalitions between the music community and others in the environmental community to try to counter the formidable coalitions formed by those in industry and in the regulated community.
Did you get to see or know anyone who saw the String Cheese Incident show called “Aron’s Incident,” named for the hiker last year who had to cut his own arm off to free himself from under a boulder, benefiting the search-and-rescue crews who came to his aid? Are these the sorts of benefit concerts you envision bands putting on for your organization? — Name not provided
I did not get to see Aron’s Incident in Santa Fe, but know a lot of people who went to that July 4th weekend last summer. It was held in one of the best small venues in the country (Paolo Soleri) and sounds great on disc! Aron really is a remarkable and long-time Friend of Cheese. The positive thing about Aron’s unfortunate story is that his battle to hold on to life is touching nerves across all kinds of people, providing many with inspiration, including myself. Incidentally, Aron, being the environmental conservationist and enthusiast and music lover, is just the type of person we would love to see involved with RtE.
As for benefits, yes, we intend to hold benefit shows throughout the country, roughly on a quarterly basis to support both our activities as well as to raise money for other citizen groups who are involved in projects with whom we are collaborating. Right now, we’re planning for our first benefit show in the Bay Area on Sunday, Nov. 14. After that, we’re tentatively planning a benefit surrounding our Mattaponi River project in Virginia, sometime this winter. We’re planning subsequent RtE benefits in Colorado in either February or March as well as one on the east coast in the spring.
It’s been my idea for quite some time to begin an organization that blends rock music and stewardship of the environment. I wonder if you have any suggestions or helpful advice as I take the first steps in my new project. — Claudia Gutierrez, San Diego, Calif.
Know that it will be a long, hard process. We have a 10-year business plan and we’re only starting year three now. We have yet to receive a single grant (though we have applied for three) and we are still searching for a project to work on for a big-time artist. Although we’ve been working hard for quite a while on this project, we still have a long way to go. Follow your heart and you’ve got nothing to hide. Sometimes it takes a leap of faith to get things going.
Although Rock the Earth is still relatively new and small-scale as an environmental organization, have you thought about any big moves to make it more well-known? Something that immediately comes to mind is appealing to MTV or VH1. Any TV time you might get (even through a smaller venue like MTV2) would increase your presence exponentially. Do you have a marketing staff working for those types of connections? — Name not provided
Yes, we often think about a public-relations strategy and are tapping staff members who can help us with this effort. Again, we’ve really only been public with the organization since March, and for all intents and purposes, our staff was tied up all summer with direct outreach at concerts. But we have started to gain recognition from the press. At High Sierra Music Festival, after a cocktail party with the Hot Buttered Rum String Band, members of Railroad Earth and Jim Page and Pete Grant, I was interviewed by the CBS affiliate in San Francisco. This past summer I also did an hour interview on Pittsburgh’s most listened-to progressive talk-radio show, the Lynn Cullen Show. We’ve had local radio stations in Denver, Boulder, and Fort Collins approach us to conduct on-air interviews, and later this week we’ll start tabling a few performances of etown, a nationally syndicated concert program. I have even heard that the morning hosts on the Morning Sedition on Air America radio were talking about our organization in late August. We are hoping that we can make some inroads with the mass media like MTV, VH1, and even satellite radio like Sirius and XM, but it is hard for us to do that at this point without a major, A-list performer partnering with us. We are in the process of forming an advisory board of people in the music, environmental, business, and nonprofit communities, and we’re hoping that as those names begin to reach the public, our profile amongst the mainstream entertainment-industry outlets and publications like Variety and Rolling Stone becomes elevated.
How about some more specific music favorites: What album is in your CD player right now? What do you put on when you really need some inspiration for your organization? What albums get you going on a rough day? — Name not provided
Right now in my CD players (home and car) are a number of artists: the new Jerry Garcia concert release “After Midnight” is the latest addition. Steve Kimock’s “Live in Colorado Volume 2,” Old 97’s “Drag it Up,” Todd Snider’s “Live: Near Truths and Hotel Rooms,” Scott Miller’s “Upside Downside,” Uncle Tupelo “89/93: An Anthology,” Keller Williams’ “Stage,” Hot Buttered Rum String Band’s July 20, 2004 Compilation from the Sweetwater, Papa Mali’s “Thunder Chicken,” the Acoustic Planet, live from Columbus, the Motet’s “Music for Life,” Umphree’s McGee’s “Anchor Drops,” New Monsoon’s “Downstream,” and Widespread Panic’s “Uber Cobra.”
For inspiration for the organization, I find that Michael Franti and Spearhead, Bob Marley, and the Grateful Dead are extremely inspirational. Franti and Marley are cut from the same cloth — one uses reggae to get his message across, the other hip-hop. Both are quite effective. In particular, Spearhead’s “Songs from the Front Porch” and “Everyone Deserves Music” and Marley’s “Songs of Freedom” are amazing sources of inspiration. Steve Earle’s “Jerusalem” and “The Revolution Starts Now” are also a couple that provide inspiration for us.
My “rough day” albums that pick me up for various reasons: Jackson Browne’s “Late for the Sky,” Springsteen’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” Steve Earle’s “I Feel Alright,” any live Grateful Dead or Jerry Garcia, any Donna the Buffalo, John Hartford’s “Steampowered Aeroplane,” the Beatles’ “Revolver,” String Cheese Incident (12/28/99, Vancouver — my favorite Incident), and Keller Williams (5/12/01, Pittsburgh).