Interview: Conscious Alliance’s Justin Levy and Rock the Earth’s Marc Ross

One core idea behind HeadCount is that the music community is capable of organizing from within and bettering the planet. No two organizations share that belief and spirit more than Conscious Alliance and Rock The Earth. Both based in Colorado, these two nonprofit organizations have become lasting institutions on the festival and live music circuit. Conscious Alliance feeds the hungry through a variety of initiatives, including their iconic "Art That Feeds" poster series. Rock the Earth’s panel discussions are a mainstay at Bonnaroo and other festivals, inspiring thousands each year. As the holiday approaches, the two organizations have teamed up for an all-important joint fundraising campaign. We sat down with their executive directors to learn more.

HeadCount: So, what kind of years have you had? What’s been happening with Rock the Earth and Conscious Alliance respective?

Marc: It’s been an exciting year, and a challenging year as well given the economy. We rely heavily on individual donors as well as grants and corporate sponsorship. Those are down across the board this year. But we’re a pretty lean and mean organization in terms of staffing and overhead and expenses. We rely heavily on volunteers. So we’ve been able to accomplish what we set out to do despite the poor economy. So subsequently, we’ve been able to continue to protect special places throughout the United States that are important to music fans and bands, while at the same time engaging in our normal education and outreach efforts at over 120 concert events. So overall it’s been a pretty successful year despite the pressing issues we’re facing, financially.

Justin: From the Conscious Alliance perspective, we really hit the road again hard this year and utilized our volunteers and collegiate groups to run food drives at the major music festivals with a really successful turnout. Our membership on our email list and people following us on social networks has really picked up as well. We’ve been picking up new supporters throughout 2010 and strengthening the relationships we already have with natural foods sponsors including Justin’s Nut Butter and Whole Foods. Right now we are working on a project with Justin’s where $1 from every jar sold at Whole Foods Stores nationwide is donated to Conscious Alliance to help fund our project to get healthy food to those in need at Pine Ridge Reservation. We’re really grateful to all the people—bands, artists, sponsors, festivals, and individuals—who have supported us this year.

How did you get to work with Whole Foods?

Justin: They bought Wild Oats a few years ago and chose us as the national sponsor to donate the surplus food to. They ended up contributing around 600,000 pounds of food to us. So that’s how the relationship began. At Rothbury 2008, we used the donated food from Whole Food to set the Guinness Word’s Record for the largest canned food sculpture. We’ve maintained a relationship through the years and now we’re really excited to be at a national level with them again.

What I think we all have in common is that our organizations started in – for a lack of a better term – the jam band scene. How much do you want to go beyond that? Is it difficult some times to stretch beyond one community. Do sometimes people perceive you a certain way and do you find that limiting?

Marc: From Rock the Earth’s perspective, while a lot of our initial volunteers and even myself came from the jam band world, we’ve always strived to be a bigger tent for the environmental movement. We’ve worked with a lot of artists that are a lot broader than the jam band scene. We worked with Tom Petty for a second time this year. This past summer we also worked with David Grey and Ray Lamontagne, two artists I don’t think anyone would confuse with the jam band scene. But we also keep our toe in the jam band water as well because there are a lot of passionate people who care about the environment in there. Dave Matthews is a big crossover act we work with. We’ve been out with Dave for the last five summers. We also work with Jack Johnson who also crosses over the jam band world and the pop world. But from our standpoint looking forward, we’re looking to expand into the hip-hop community and country, into pop music and world music. Our strength comes from the ability to cross genres of music and bring people together around environmental issues. Music is kind of the universal language that crosses between all of us and allows us to do what we do in regards to the environment.

Justin: We started in the jam band movement and we continue to stay there. Because Conscious Alliance has been around for eight years it’s a whole new generation that is donating to us. The concertgoers that are bringing food to us are now a younger generation than we were before. And some of the older people that supported us in the early years are now actually working for natural food companies. So it’s important for us to hit both demographics, using collegiate groups and volunteers, while also working with natural food companies to bring healthy food products to the reservations. Conscious Alliance is becoming multi-layered in our approach. But it’s important for us to continue to get youth involved and hitting an age range that doesn’t normally donate to food banks, which is 18 to 25. Jam bands will always reach that demographic.

Are the posters still the driving force of the organization?

Justin: It’s part of it. As I said we’re working with natural food companies and getting grants for funding, but the “Art that Feeds” program is a way for us to connect with the youth. When a Conscious Alliance poster is hanging in their house it’s a great reminder to them that not only did they get a great piece of rock art but they also did positive work by bringing food to the event. It’s also a great conversation starter if someone doesn’t know about Conscious Alliance and they see a poster they like hanging at a friend’s house.

What are the most popular posters over the years?

Justin: The Rothbury 2008 by Jeff Wood won best poster of the year at the Independent Music Awards. It was a 3-D lenticular poster that we did, and definitely a hot item. A lot of the Jeff Wood’s and Michael Everett’s have become collector’s items, as well as the Richard Biffle prints.

Marc, tell us about your approach to fundraising. I think of the Rock the Earth shirts as a staple.

Marc: Well like Conscious Alliance it’s a multi layered approach. The initial idea was to almost replicate the ethos of the independent jam bands to have merchandise that would attract people to join us. We don’t see our items as merchandise, but rather we only give items away with memberships in Rock the Earth. We have 2,000 members across the country. These are people who have donated money to us and they get free gifts. We do have t-shirts and long sleeves. Usually an annual poster. We’ve had some high end art that have attracted members as well – one in particular that Pearl Jam ended up using an image for. We quickly ended up selling out all the prints we had of that poster. But really that’s just one aspect of how we raise funds. We write grants. We’ve been the recipient of a $10,000 grant from the band Incubus. We’ve gotten grant monies from Bonnie Raitt and Jack Johnson. We got a $50,000 grant from the Educational Foundation of America. We’ve had corporate sponsorship dollars come in from Stonyfields Farms and Major League Baseball. Auction monies are a huge revenue generator for us over the last two years, really offsetting some of the losses in individual donations because of the economy.

What would you say are the biggest challenges each of your organizations face?

Marc: I’d say individual donors. People don’t have money right now to even go to a concert or a festival. And then to ask them to dig into their pockets and donate another $25- $50 is asking a lot. We’ve worked with Dave Matthews for the last five years, and over the last two years we’ve seen only half each night of what we were bringing in at an average Dave Matthews Band show. We’ve worked with Tom Petty for two years and this summer we saw half of what we were bringing in two years ago. Allman Brothers, even though they were off tour this summer, last summer we were with them for the fourth year in a row, and again we were seeing donations come in at half of what they were for the previous three years. With foundations, unless you’re already a grantee of a foundation they’re not taking on new grantees. They don’t have the money. Corporate sponsorships have all but dried up for us. I’m very encouraged to hear that Conscious Alliance has been successful in that area and I hope it’s an area that we can expand for our fundraising needs as well. So funding right now is the biggest challenge. Hands down no question about it.

Justin: For us it’s utilizing the limited staff as we expand the scope of CA. We have begun supporting youth projects on the reservations – projects that encourage them to learn about their culture and heritage, while also maintaining the emergency food relief. We’ve had a pretty consistent donor base that’s been with us since the very beginning and we’re very grateful for that. We’re always looking for new funding opportunities. We’re really excited about some of the new projects that we have and being able to get those going.

You had mentioned social media and you’ve seen an uptick there. How important is social media to your organizations?

Justin: It’s vital. We’re on our social networks every day. It’s one of our greatest assets I believe, as far as letting people know what we’re doing. We are able to minute-by-minute upload images from the reservation. I think that’s a great way for our fans to travel side-by-side with us as we go to these communities.

Marc: It’s become a growing focus. Between all the social network sites we’re involved in we have over 15,000 followers, friends whatever the site calls them. We’re trying to increase our communication and trying to find the right mix between letting people know what we are doing and get information on the environment and the arts. There are a lot of other sites that do that, so trying to find the balance so we’re not being repetitive and just retweeting everything that other news sites tweet about and informing people of what we’ve up to without appearing to be constantly asking for money is the fine line. But yes, it’s certainly become a growing area of our organization.

With the year now coming to a close, what was the single most memorable day you had in 2010 and why?

Marc: Bonnaroo is always a memorable event for me personally, because I get to have the opportunity to program the environmental portion of the Solar Stage. Conducting interviews with artists and environmentalists talking about social change through music is always pretty exciting. And we get to work with pretty great artists as well as activists. This year was no less exciting than previous years. Nick Forster from Hot Rize and eTown was one of the panelists that same day I got to do a one-on-one interview with Jerry Greenfield of Ben & Jerry’s. Just being able to sit down and talk with people that are deeply in the environmental and music communities is a thrill for me. People who have been around and seen how the environmental movement has intertwined with the music community … it’s inspiring to me.

Justin: We did many food drives over the summer and then were able to travel to Pine Ridge with the entire Justin’s Nut Butter team. They took a few days off work and went to the reservation with us. It was the first time we ever brought sponsors with us, just to show them around and show them what they have been supporting for the last few years. We went to an elder’s home, Louis Braveheart. He had no food in the cabinets. He had no heat in his home. But this is a very, very proud man still. We were able to work together to help improve his situation for the winter, since it becomes so extremely cold on the reservation. We teamed up with Justin’s and have been helping to insulate his home and get him ready for the winter. It was something we were able to do for one individual in just a couple of days of being up there. It was impactful to really connect with the brands that are supporting us as well as develop friendships with them, which I know will last a long time.

Final question for each of you. What is your single highest priority for 2011?

Marc: I think the single highest priority is to develop new and creative income streams that will allow us to continue to do the work that we do. We can’t fly down [to Florida] and negotiate with the cruise industry in regards to tighter guidelines unless we have funding to get us down there. We can’t protect special places like Colorado’s Roan Plateau from proposed drilling unless we can take them on and hire lawyers. And we certainly can’t continue to get out and do education and outreach to tens of thousands of people at hundreds of events each year without having the funding to allow us to do it. As much volunteer help as we can get, we still have hard costs we need to confront. So that’s the single highest priority for us heading into 2011.

Justin: Much of what Marc said is exactly the same for Conscious Alliance. Increasing the revenue streams coming in, increasing our donations so we can unroll some of these exciting projects we have for 2011 and further our mission. Continuing to keep this thing rolling at its current speed is a top priority.