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    Illustration by Suki Anderson

    On a warm May evening, the Belle of Louisville moves at the pace of a massage, easy and enduring, no rush. A red paddle wheel muscles this sunset cruise on the Ohio River, kicking up water, tossing droplets toward lips and cheeks, sunglasses and bare shoulders bundled at the back rail. The sun softens. A silky, dark ribbon of water connecting the paddleboat to the Louisville skyline stretches farther and farther. Through tinny speakers, singer and songwriter Joan Shelley’s pure, warm vocals seal an almost overwhelming sense of joyful leisure.

    Down a few stairs and through swinging doors, Shelley is performing in a long, navy dress, her microphone swaying and bobbing as the river gestures. It’s a sold-out show, an all-ages crowd torn between the deck’s hair-whipping warm breeze and the intimate concert below. Shelley’s joined onstage by Daniel Martin Moore and Will Oldham, her friends and collaborators. The evening will benefit Kentucky Waterways Alliance, a charity Shelley has fundraised for all year. This past spring, she released a digital EP of cover songs and a set of elegant postcards to benefit the KWA. The music and goodwill, that was all Shelley. Quietly guiding her through the fundraising process is a Louisville-based nonprofit called Revolutions Per Minute.

    This event is not typical for RPM. Benefit concerts can be costly and complicated. Usually, RPM nudges musicians toward simple, effective fundraising for the charities of their choice, like $1 add-ons to concert tickets or a special-merch item. This year, RPM will work with about 40 different artists (from up-and-comers to big names) on 40 different fundraising campaigns.

    Paramore, the group originally from Franklin, Tennessee, recently offered a limited-release shirt to benefit a 24-hour crisis support line. My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James’ upcoming solo tour will support the work of United for a Fair Economy and the National Bail Fund Network, two organizations focused on combating racial and economic inequality. Other artists RPM has assisted include Deerhoof, Tune-Yards and Death Cab for Cutie.

    Art and advocacy have been paired for decades. Not surprisingly, though, President Trump’s 2016 election win ignited a fierce desire to act, not just among socially minded musicians but anyone left crumpled post-election. RPM didn’t sit idle. It teamed up with the Secretly Group (a family of indie record labels) to create Our First 100 Days, one song released each day for the first 100 days of Trump’s presidency. Everyone involved in the project donated his or her time. Subscribers to the compilation got new music from artists like Angel Olson, the Mountain Goats and Jens Lekman. In turn, a host of charities split about $102,000.

    Water, for Shelley, that’s near and dear. As a child, trash would collect in a creek near her home, a small horse farm in Oldham County. Mattresses, appliances, even dogs and cats tossed from cars and trucks wound up in the water, her water — at least that’s how she thought of that creek as a kid. Several months ago, Shelley knew she wanted to fundraise for clean water. But time went by. “Good intentions can get lost in this self-employment scenario,” says Shelley, who is signed to No Quarter Records, an independent label out of Philadelphia. “You are an accountant and salesman and performer and tour manger and driver.”

    Around the New Year, RPM sent Shelley an email, offering a suggestion as to how she could raise money for Kentucky Waterways Alliance — how about a limited-edition postcard? As Shelley recalls, with “encouragement and confidence” from RPM, the project developed into a three-print set of postcards and the EP of cover songs titled Rivers and Vessels.

    Shelley doesn’t engage in heavy dialogue on the importance of clean water from the stage, only a brief mention of a KWA informational postcard placed on each seat. She doesn’t need to elaborate. It’s all in the dressing. Eyes drifting from stage to shore spot kids dangling limbs at the edge of a pier and a family pulling a boat out after a day dipping in the river. Either a gentle or overt connection, it’s a connection nonetheless. And Shelley credits RPM with helping make it happen. “It’s like having a life coach for activism that you can call,” she says.

     

    If you were at least middle-school-aged in the ’90s, you may remember the series of massive rock shows called the Tibetan Freedom Concert. Several of the musicians, managers and advisors who helped establish the Tibetan Freedom Concert, from bands like the Beastie Boys, Pearl Jam and R.E.M., formed RPM in 2005. Their mission: Help artist become effective activists and philanthropists. (Several years ago, the band Arcade Fire started a similar organization called Plus1.)

    When Louisville native Jessica George was hired as RPM’s executive director two years ago, operations officially moved from San Francisco to an office in Louisville’s Smoketown neighborhood. She works with musicians all over the country, so her home base doesn’t demand a specific geography. (Though she does travel to New York and L.A. a couple times a year to meet with record labels and musicians.) Still, when on the phone with clients, confusion does arise. “People will often mishear me and think I said ‘Nashville.’ Because that makes a little more sense,” George says with a smile. “But, no.”

    In the last 13 years, RPM has grown to include a network of 1,500 people within the music industry. For about a year, one of them has been Jack Hedges, the vice president of marketing for Canvasback Music, a division of Atlantic Records. “I think artists come from a place of sensitivity and awareness and good intentions and wanting to do good things for the world outside of just making music and playing shows,” Hedges says. “I think sometimes where people get stuck is, ‘I want to do something charitable but I don’t know where to start. I don’t know how to handle the financial aspects or legal aspects.’ Meeting Jess (George) was a bolt from the blue because, all of a sudden, there’s somebody out there who knows the answers to all our questions.”

    First, George plays matchmaker. She gauges what the artist feels most passionate about — the environment, homelessness, LGBTQ rights. Then, she takes into account how much money they could potentially raise. Finally, she links them to a charity and helps devise a fundraising campaign. “I’m looking to hit three to five percent of (a charity’s) budget,” says George, explaining that these campaigns are essentially one-time gifts from a musician. She wants the donation to be sizable but not so much that a nonprofit will suffer when the money doesn’t arrive the following year.

    A blues artist out of Nashville, Adia Victoria, recently worked closely with George. She has a regional following, so they knew her fundraising wouldn’t total in the tens of thousands. “If you’re raising a couple thousand dollars, that’s not going to mean much to UNICEF. But for a local soup kitchen in Nashville that’s struggling to get by, that’s a big deal,” Hedges says, adding, “What (George) has really taught us is that it’s not about doing the big headline-grabbing things; it’s doing the small things that’s going to make an impact.”

    RPM’s fingerprints can also be found on a more high-profile campaign involving the band Death Cab for Cutie. Two years ago, North Carolina enacted House Bill 2, the so-called “Bathroom Bill” that prevented transgender individuals from using public bathrooms based on their gender identity. Musicians like Bruce Springsteen canceled shows in the state. Death Cab for Cutie chose to support North Carolina’s LGBTQ community. With RPM’s help, they selected two grassroots charities — Southerners on New Ground (SONG) and the Freedom Center for Social Justice. The proceeds from two shows in North Carolina in 2016 — $56,000 — went to those two groups.

    J.F. Lyles, a member of SONG, remembers the excitement in the office when matched with Death Cab for Cutie. “With House Bill 2, we were in rapid-response mode. I didn’t have time to figure out which artists were coming to North Carolina and who might want to help us in some way,” she recalls. “Jess is so lightening fast.”

    During one of Death Cab’s shows, Lyles joined the band onstage, reading the names of the 49 victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting, which had happened in Orlando just a few days before. “It was really powerful. Folks could’ve gone to that show and seen Death Cab for Cutie and had a great night,” she says, “but they got to do that and bear witness to this important cultural piece.”

     

    RPM’s staff equals two, just George and one other full-time employee. So organization is key. “We do deeply administrative stuff. Things cannot fall through the cracks. If we’re working with 40 different artists that are on 40 different tours. . .that are supporting different organizations, you have got to be on your shit,” she says, snapping her fingers on the last few syllables for emphasis.

    In one sense, George’s job is part housekeeper, making sure musicians and their teams stay blissfully immune from the messy part of charity work — the tax forms and daily emails to venues scattered from coast to coast, reminding them to cut a check to RPM at the end of the night so that RPM can then forward the money to the right charity. (RPM keeps 15 percent of whatever’s raised to cover salaries and expenses.) George is at ease in the nonprofit world. Prior to RPM, the 37-year-old worked for 10 years with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. She can package the tedious particulars of a 501c3 versus 501c4 in an utterly digestible fashion that engages and leaves you hungry for more.

    The other part to George’s job is the people part — the introductions to musicians and their crews in the glistening skyscrapers of Manhattan and the never-ending phone calls as she recruits folks into the RPM fold. It seems a natural fit for George, who comes off friendly and warm. But she swears she goes home spent. “I’m definitely an introvert,” she says. “But I give it all up.”

    Patrick Hallahan, the drummer for My Morning Jacket, has worked extensively with RPM since 2009. He admires George’s belief that paralysis when facing the society’s ills does no one any good. George cheerleads, reaffirming that even a few thousand dollars can lead to incremental change, can be a piece of something larger. “It’s tough. I don’t know how she doesn’t walk around with wide eyes all day,” Hallahan says. But ask George to reflect on her work, and it’s all gratitude. “The music industry is fun. And what I get to do is I get to see the best parts of the music industry. I’m going to work with the people who care about issues and want to make a difference in the world,” she says. “What a charmed perspective of any industry.”

    This originally appeared in the August 2018 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline "This Song's For You." To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

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