After the 2016 election brought issues like climate change and gender inequality to the forefront of popular culture, freaked-out rock stars everywhere made frantic phone calls: “What can we do to help?” Death Cab for Cutie, Tune-Yards and more found answers from Revolutions Per Minute (RPM), a matchmaking agency that links artists who want to make a difference with nonprofits and activist groups.
“There was definitely a sort of panic,” recalls RPM executive director Jessica George, 38. “People were paralyzed and questioned their own activist strategies: ‘I thought I was in touch. I thought I knew what was going on and then this happened.'”
After the election, George helped connect the First 100 Days project — for which indie acts like Angel Olsen and Jens Lekman released exclusive “songs of resistance” — to charities like the reproductive rights organization All Above All. Around the same time, she helped Death Cab for Cutie raise roughly $60,000 for groups like Southerners on New Ground and the Freedom Center for Social Justice, which opposed the North Carolina bill blocking transgender people from using public bathrooms that match their gender identity.
With the 2020 presidential campaign underway, RPM is getting more calls once again. The agency partnered with multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird to set up a $1-per-ticket donation to his Our Finest Work Yet Fund while on tour, and he has raised over $115,000 to preserve national parks and monuments, and reduce gun violence, over the last several years. RPM also launched singer Grandson’s XX Resistance fund, which has collected nearly $20,000 for progressive groups like voter-registrar HeadCount through a portion of song royalties, sweepstakes and more.
“A lot of artists are generally unprepared, understaffed or underresourced to be able to run a functioning charity or nonprofit,” says Grandson. “RPM stepped in as a really helpful and easy way to connect with the people on the front lines of the issues that I’m passionate about.”
RPM was originally founded in 2005 as the organization Air Traffic Control by a group of musicians, managers and advisers from bands including Pearl Jam, Beastie Boys and R.E.M., who used it as an agency to vet nonprofit requests for artists’ time, talent and donations. In 2014, George began to attend RPM retreats in New Orleans and other cities, and made connections with artists in her native Louisville, Ky., like singer-songwriter Joan Shelley and My Morning Jacket‘s Jim James. She took over the group a year later, relocated it to Louisville, then recruited Steve Ralbovsky — founder of Canvasback Music, which has a label services deal with Atlantic Records — to join the board.
She has now given presentations to staff at labels like Atlantic about ticket add-ons, political merchandise and branded funds. “It’s funny. I have no business being in the music industry,” she says. “But being part of RPM and having a very clear ask, I’ve been able to develop a lot of relationships.”
It helps that George comes from a large activist family: One of their favorite stories is how her grandmother, who immigrated to Pennsylvania from Lebanon, dealt with a schoolmate who called her a “bow-legged Arab.” “She beat that girl up every single day until she found a new way home from school,” says George, who started her career as a high school volunteer for the Fairness Campaign, a Kentucky lobbyist group battling LGBTQ discrimination.
Now, she takes her grandmother’s same ethos to RPM. “We don’t take shit,” she says, “and we stand up for each other.”
This article originally appeared in the Nov. 2 issue of Billboard.