Rock the Earth
Rock the Earth: Defending the Planet ‘One Beat at a Time’
by Mary Eisenhart
“For the environmentally-minded artist, we’re one-stop shopping – not only can we take action on the issue, but we can also conduct the necessary education, publicity and fundraising to mobilize their fanbase and fund the advocacy activities.”
– Marc Ross, Rock the Earth
In 2001, under the stars at an outdoor concert at Mount Shasta, Marc Ross had an epiphany.
Having worked as an environmental litigator in both the public and private sector, he’d become acutely familiar with the fact that when it came to environmental issues, the legal deck tended to be stacked in favor of industry. By virtue of large consortia and industry associations, even the most egregious polluters and violators of the law were often able to avoid legal consequences by sheer firepower, overwhelming the resources of concerned citizens and grassroots groups trying to hold them accountable and make them change their ways.
Ross suddenly realized that combining his lifelong loves of music and the environment might be the key to evening the odds a bit. Many artists were already vocal about various issues; what if they and their fans joined forces to advocate for them? What if the resulting organization were able to offer legal and technical assistance, pro bono, to those under-resourced concerned citizens and grassroots organizations?
Inspired by this thought, Ross began recruiting music fans with expertise in environmental law and sciences, as well as the fundraising, marketing, media relations and Internet technology skills needed to sustain such an organization, and in 2001 Rock the Earth was born.
A 2005 Rex grantee, Rock the Earth uses tours and concerts of like-minded artists – dozens of shows a year – to reach the fans and spread the word, setting up information booths at shows to explain the issues and recruit new members. A relatively young organization – and, with the exception of a part-time office manager, all-volunteer – it’s successfully fostered a remarkable synergy between artists and their fans that’s become a powerful tool.
Says longtime Rex supporter David Gans, one of the artists scheduled to play at the Rock the Earth benefit September 17 at the Jerry Garcia Amphitheater in San Francisco’s McLaren Park: “I think Rock the Earth has taken a lot of inspiration from Rex and SEVA: modest but meaningful projects as opposed to large-scale endeavors, and a strong belief in the power of community. I’m really impressed with these people and how they’re going about their work.”
We recently spoke with Ross, who told us about Rock the Earth’s current activities and achievements, as well as the obstacles it faces.
Rex: There are lots of environmental groups out there – what’s distinctive about Rock the Earth, and what inspired the founders to launch this group rather than work within others?
Marc Ross, Rock the Earth: What makes Rock the Earth unique is that we are an environmental advocacy organization born from and serving the music community.
Our volunteer staff and volunteers are, for the most part, recruited from the music community. The projects upon which our legal and technical staff work are suggested by artists and their fans. Our outreach, education, canvassing and membership solicitation are done in conjunction with the music community – at concerts and festivals throughout North America.
Not only do we provide a service to the individual artists who wish to see action taken on the issues about which they care, but given our expertise in music industry publicity, we are able to mobilize the artist’s fanbase as well. For the environmentally-minded artist, we’re one-stop shopping – not only can we take action on the issue, but we can also conduct the necessary education, publicity and fundraising to mobilize their fanbase and fund the advocacy activities.
What caused us to create a whole new organization to work in this manner rather than working within the umbrella of another organization was twofold. First, there really is no other environmental advocacy group out there whose specific mission is to work with the music community on the issues that matter most to the artists and the fans.
Second, we had a general concern and dissatisfaction with the business model employed by most environmental organizations, who rely in large degree on foundation funding while their members are really rather passive. By joining our members to the artists that they admire, and tying the organization to a multi-billion-dollar industry (i.e. the music industry), it is our aim to not only increase grassroots activism in this country, but to wean our group off of foundation funding, which can, when relied upon too heavily, mean the difference between pursuing an issue or not.
Rex: Did any particular issue or crisis lead you to start Rock the Earth?
RtE: Our founders all had experience either as environmental professionals or activists, and all of us were concerned about the effectiveness of some environmental advocacy organizations. Particularly the smaller, less-funded ones, who really did not have the financial wherewithal to pursue what may be valid claims, due to a lack of qualified legal or technical counsel, lack of experienced media relations assistance, and a lack of ability to raise funds to really present a challenge to either a purported polluter or the government.
Rex: According to your Web site, the grant RtE received from Rex last year went to further your defense of the Colorado River wilderness in the Grand Canyon. Can you explain the issue, to those who might not be aware of it? And what were you able to do as a result of the Rex grant?
RtE: The stretch of the Colorado River that flows through Grand Canyon National Park (GCNP) is one of the most sought-after river trips in the world. People from around the world raft this river, seeking to view the natural beauty of the canyon from the river and experience a trip like none other. Many of those river enthusiasts are do-it-yourself river runners with plenty of experience and gear.
Most who come to take these trips – whether done on private, commercial trips or on public permits – seek out a true wilderness experience, free from the sights, sounds and smells of everyday life. In fact, the Grand Canyon is known internationally for having some of the best natural soundscapes in the world.
Since 1980, the National Park Service has recommended that the stretch of the Colorado River that flows through the Grand Canyon be protected as National Wilderness and that all motorized use cease. Sadly, even under the latest plan, the Park Service has ignored its own recommendation (and therefore the laws, regulations and policies which bind the Service) by continuing to allow motors through an area that is eligible for wilderness.
This is our primary objection – the continued use of motors on the river in GCNP. The outcome of our litigation could have wide-ranging impact as to how all wilderness areas in the U.S. are treated and whether motorized use in them is necessary and/or appropriate.
A second issue is regarding access. Prior to the new Colorado River Management Plan (CRMP), the waiting list for non-commercial, public trips down the river stretched up to 20 years. This meant folks really only had two options: pay a commercial concessionaire hundreds or thousands of dollars to take you on a trip (practically whenever you wanted), or get on the waiting list.
Now, for non-commercial public trips, the Park Service has eliminated the waiting list and implemented a lottery. Therefore, folks who have been on the waiting list for years now get into a gamble as to whether they will ever get a permit or face paying concessionaires big money to ride the river.
In addition, the private concessionaires, even under the latest plan, still are awarded the vast majority of the permits in the most popular seasons, only adding to the inequitable access that the general public is given to one of our National Parks.
Our final issue is that the current plan for the Colorado River ignores the impact of the Glen Canyon Dam – a structure that, by all accounts, is having the greatest impact to the environmental life dependent on the river corridor. The operation of the dam not only impacts the entire ecosystem, but likewise impacts recreational use and should have been fully evaluated as part of the recent Management Plan.
With funding from the Rex Foundation, Rock the Earth was able to help form a coalition of wilderness advocate groups (including River Runners for Wilderness, Wilderness Watch, and Living Rivers) to challenge the Park Service’s mismanagement of the Colorado River by suing the NPS in federal court. It is our intent that our suit will not only draw a line in the sand as to how our precious wilderness areas will be managed, but ensure that equitable access to the Colorado River will result and that the Park Service will finally review the deleterious impact that Glen Canyon Dam is having on the entire ecosystem.
Rex: You’re at quite a few shows this summer. How do you choose the shows, or decide which audiences are likely to be a good fit?
RtE: Rock the Earth tries to work with a variety of artists each summer, and diversification is the key.
In some cases, there are artists known worldwide for their environmental activism, with whom we make it a priority to work (like Dave Matthews and Bonnie Raitt). Other artists are supporters of RtE (like String Cheese Incident and Jack Johnson) and we want to work with them as well. Sometimes, as with Bon Jovi, the band is seeking to educate their fans on environmental issues and seeks us out. Sometimes it is merely a matter of tour routing.
It really varies from tour to tour, festival to festival. But every summer, we try to have a presence on three to four major tours, as well as working over a dozen festivals throughout the country. While we have worked with over 30 artists in our organization’s history, we have yet to find a band that was a “bad fit.”
Have we had bad nights on tour? Sure. But usually the next night turns out successful, making it more a function of the venue, location, crowd, etc., than the artists themselves.
Rex: How closely do you work with artists, and how does that process work?
RtE: How we work with artists really varies from artist to artist. Some artists suggest environmental issues upon which we should work. Other artists feel strongly that while they don’t have a particular issue about which they care, they are passionate about the environment and want us to have a presence on their tour. Still other artists, instead of working with us at their shows, donate memorabilia, tickets or merchandise to us. It really depends on the artist.
When on an extended tour by a particular artist, we try to cultivate a relationship with artists themselves so that they can feel comfortable suggesting an issue to us. This often takes time (and access), but then again, sometimes when asked, the artist already has an issue that they can relay to us.
Unfortunately, sometimes even though we’re on a tour for a period of weeks or months, we never gain access to the artist to tell them about us and pick their brain.
Rex: Since road trips are obviously a lot of work, what’s the benefit? What can you do at a show that you can’t do elsewhere?
RtE: While it is true that putting a team on tour for 17 weeks a year is a lot of work and can be expensive, Rock the Earth has enjoyed tremendous success with our annual Outreach and Education Summer Tour. We try to mix the tour up with having traveling teams and local volunteers help out as well.
Having a presence at the shows really demonstrates to the public that there’s a partnership between the bands and us. We also take online and mail-in memberships, but those numbers are far below the numbers that we can achieve by having a physical presence on a band’s tour.
In some cases, RtE may be some young people’s first opportunity to meet folks associated with an environmental group, and the ability to turn them on with our message, attract them with our membership premium gifts, and for them to see us being “sponsored” by the bands, cannot be duplicated by simply engaging in a cyberspace campaign.
Further, there’s no way that we, as an organization, could cultivate relationships with the artists themselves without being out on the road with them. By our being on the road, the artists (and their management, friends and families) can witness our work ethic and the interest that we generate with their fanbase.
Rex: Any stories to relate of interesting connections on the road, cosmic coincidences, new friends in new cities, etc.? Do the performers show up for unscheduled meet-and-greets, etc.?
RtE: We always meet interesting folks on the road. From would-be up-and-coming musical artists, to the band’s management or family, to folks in the “green business” community looking to collaborate with us. No night is ever a dull moment.
Usually, once or twice a tour, there will be the anti-environmentalist or corporate, industrial type that will come up to the table with the sole purpose of trying to grill us about particular issues, and sometimes even try to pick a fight. Those can be some of the best conversations, especially when they realize that RtE is not an “extreme” environmental group. We base all decisions on science and law. Sometimes, these would-be “foes” will even end up becoming members.
Yes, sometimes the performers unexpectedly drop in. In April, we were working the Green Apple Music Festival in NYC, when who should come to our table but Bela Fleck, looking to join RtE and get a long-sleeve T-shirt. Earlier this summer, at Summer Camp (a festival in Chillicothe, Illinois) Al Schnier of moe. was helping out HeadCount at the booth next to ours, when he came over and started pitching RtE to would-be members. I think he even signed up a few. Of course, Al was one of our “celebrity” drop-bys back at High Sierra Music Festival in 2004, when he approached us rather anonymously, inquiring about the group and signing up for our newsletter.
Rex: Who works the booth at shows? What do they do during a typical day at the venue?
RtE: RtE booths are either staffed by our touring team of volunteers/interns or a local team of volunteers. At a typical show, the team engages the audience throughout the show, educating interested patrons about the organization and the important issues upon which we’re working. We also inform visitors about the importance and benefits of membership in the organization and ask folks to become members, or, at the very least, to sign up for our monthly e-newsletter.
When feasible (meaning during slow parts of shows or when we have more than two volunteers working), the volunteers take turns enjoying the show. We will typically stay open until the crowd thins out after a show, as post-show can sometimes be one of our most productive times to gain memberships.
Rex: With no shortage of environmental issues and crises out there, how do you decide where to put your resources? Any successes you’re especially proud of? Failures that are still really hard to take?
RtE: Ideally, the issues are all derived from the music community (though some of the issues upon which we’re working, like the Colorado River Management Plan, pre-date our tax exempt status and public launch of March 2004).
We have a flowchart and matrix through which our Legal & Technical Committee passes all potential project suggestions. The issue needs to be ripe for involvement. In other words, RtE needs to be able to take action on the issue. If, for example, an artist suggests an issue to us because they read about a governmental enforcement action against a polluter, the issue isn’t really one in which we can have an impact.
We also try to work on issues that don’t have the entire environmental community’s involvement (like global warming). There also has to be a reasonable likelihood of success.
Lastly, we will not act as private attorneys for rock stars who want to play the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) game… there actually needs to be some important environmental issue at stake.
In terms of successes, the ability to bring our first lawsuit in only our second year – well ahead of our business plan – is really remarkable. I am especially proud that our challenge to the Colorado River Management Plan could have such a monumental impact throughout the country.
Being such a young organization, our victories (and defeats) are rather few, but I’m also proud of the Bush Administration’s decision to use the Antiquities Act to protect the Northwest Hawaiian Islands as a National Monument. For the past year, we’ve been promoting the issue with funding from Jack Johnson and alongside of our Hawaiian partners, KAHEA, announcing our intention to challenge what we believed was going to be a substandard management plan. Now it will be our job to ensure that the regulations implementing the Monument are as stringent as the Bush proclamation.
As far as hard failures, we thankfully have not really encountered any in terms of environmental issues, although the Park Service continues to ignore our arguments, the evidence and public will to ban snowmobiles from Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks – an issue that we’ve been fighting for over four years now. Frankly, the hardest “failures” are when artists want to see us at the table on a particular environmental issue and the environmental groups already involved in the issue lock us out of the process.
Rex: Anything else Rex supporters should know about that we haven’t talked about?
RtE: Rock the Earth is approaching a critical point in our organization’s development. We’ve enjoyed success by just about every measure (especially grassroots support, with over 1,100 members strong), but still have yet to get over the funding hump so that we can pay folks to work on RtE full time. Currently, all of our staff (including myself as a full-time executive director) are voluntary, save for a part-time office manager.
While we are looking to expand our paid staff in the coming months to include a part-time development director and a part-time membership director, we are still lacking the funds to take RtE to the next level. Please consider joining RtE and help us to “Defend the Planet, One Beat at a Time.”
On the Road
For both Rock the Earth and the Rex Foundation, outreach at shows is both essential and fun. Rock the Earth’s summer-long tour schedule is a far more ambitious undertaking, involving dozens of volunteers, while Rex outings are fewer and, currently, involve only Peter Kliegman and executive director Sandy Sohcot. But when it comes to the unique opportunities a tour offers to get the word out and build relationships, both organizations tell the same story.
As RtE’s Marc Ross puts it, “Since the organization was created by and for the music community, what better place to conduct outreach than at concerts and festivals? Not only does it allow us to directly educate the fans and promote the issues about which the particular artist cares, but it’s also a pretty fun place to engage in outreach.”
Sohcot adds, “Being at festivals or similar types of events provides the opportunity to have personal connection time with people who are, by their being at the festival, likely to be interested in our work. Being able to talk a little, tell stories, answer questions, provide information, hand out newsletters and so on gives a more personal face to Rex than what will happen by visiting the Web site. This means people who visit will more likely better understand what we do, and may then want to get involved. It’s also more possible that word will be spread about our work, as the people we see then talk to others about their experience.
“The other advantage of being at a show or festival,” she adds, “is the opportunity to establish more in-depth relationships with the event producers and the musicians who participate – again, something more challenging to do by phone or email. This may be the music world’s version of ‘playing golf,'” she laughs, “though a lot more grassroots and people-connection oriented.”
And you never know who you might meet. Sohcot says, “At the 10,000 Lakes Festival, Rex did not have a booth. However, I spent time wandering around checking out other booths. I stopped at Rock the Earth, having not yet met Marc. Marc looked up and asked if I was familiar with RtE, and I told him I was pleased to say the program was one of our grantees! It was fun to meet that way and see him and his wife in action.”
Rex Board Perspective
It was board member Andy Gadiel who first brought Rock the Earth to Rex’s attention. Says Andy: “I’ve known Rock the Earth for years through their presence at music festivals and live music events. What really drew me into them as a fit for Rex is that they bridge the concert with awareness of issues that are affecting everyone.
“It was a natural fit for the mission of Rex, and when I proposed a grant for them (my first since joining the Rex board), it was great to hear just how obvious a choice they were, and so in line with why Rex was started.
“What’s even more impressive is that the people behind Rock the Earth are educated and trained professionals in the area of legal issues and lobbying, to actually make a difference and see the cause through to action. It’s one thing to have a great idea, but a whole different level to actually be able to make it happen.”
“By joining our members to the artists that they admire, and tying the organization to a multi-billion dollar music industry, it is our aim to not only increase grassroots activism in this country, but to wean our group off of foundation funding, which can, when relied upon too heavily, mean the difference between pursuing an issue or not.”
– Marc Ross
“Usually, once or twice a tour, there will be the anti-environmentalist or corporate, industrial type that will come up to the table with the sole purpose of trying to grill us about particular issues, and sometimes even try to pick a fight. Those can be some of the best conversations, especially when they realize that RtE is not an ‘extreme’ environmental group. We base all decisions on science and law. Sometimes, these would-be ‘foes’ will even end up becoming members.”
– Marc Ross