BY Theodora Sutcliffe

Sep 3rd 2021

Sustainable LivingTaking Action

Can We Keep on Rocking in a Green World?

The Music Industry's Search for Sustainability

Sep 3rd 2021

In 2004, Adam Gardner was riding high. His band Guster’s single, Amsterdam, had made Billboard number one; he was touring with the likes of Barenaked Ladies, Dave Matthews Band, and Maroon 5; and he was living with his environmentalist girlfriend, Lauren Sullivan, who was working for the Rainforest Action Network. Yet, as the lights went up after Guster’s shows to reveal a sea of single-use plastic and the fumes from diesel-powered generators left him struggling to sing, the adrenaline of live performance gave way to a creeping sense of guilt.

“We were all having a similar feeling at the same time: ‘Boy, it’s too bad that what’s happening out here is so negative on the environment.”

—Adam Gardner of Guster and REVERB

“The difference between what I was doing in the rest of my life and what was happening out on tour became very clear,” Gardner says. “We were all having a similar feeling at the same time: ‘Boy, it’s too bad that what’s happening out here is so negative on the environment.'”

Gardner and Sullivan established their non-profit REVERB that year to lower the carbon footprint of live music events and engage fans to take environmental and social action. Now married with two children, the pair and their team have worked with artists from Pink to Fleetwood Mac and venues, including California’s iconic Fremont Theater, and are collaborating with Billie Eilish on her Where Do We Go tour, currently scheduled for 2022.

Lauren Sullivan and Adam Gardner, co-founders of REVERB

REVERB is one of a growing number of organizations looking to mitigate music’s climate cost. This year’s Ohana Festival in Dana Point, Calif., founded by rock icon Eddie Vedder, will feature sustainability as a running theme. Throughout the three-day music event, a “Storytelling in the Cove” speaker series will host conservationists, environmentalists, and researchers.

“We are conscious of our footprint and incorporated sustainable practices into the vision of Ohana since day one.

—Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam and Ohana Festival

“We are conscious of our footprint and incorporated sustainable practices into the vision of Ohana since day one,” Vedder says. Part of that effort includes partnering with sustainability-minded organizations on the event, including Bank of the West. “It is a great example of how we can all do better working together.”

Others in on the cause include Bonnie Raitt, whose ARIA Foundation (run with her manager Kathy Kane) initially supported REVERB, continues to showcase environmental and progressive causes at her concerts; Music Declares Emergency works to drive fan action on climate change; A Greener Festival strives to make festivals of all kinds more sustainable; and Clean Scene targets a greener future for dance music.

While the movement to shrink the music industry’s footprint is sizable, the task ahead is even larger. Music generates negative environmental impacts across a range of fronts: from e-waste to touring, from tangible products such as CDs, vinyl, and merch to the intangible costs of digital consumption. As tour buses begin to emerge from the ravages of the pandemic’s first waves, some in the music business are exploring how it can reorchestrate the industry for a more environmentally harmonious future.

Not So Easy Listening

The entire global music industry’s carbon footprint is hard to size up given the available data, but what we do know doesn’t make for comfortable reading. Modern vinyl records have a carbon footprint of about 1 pound of CO2-equivalent emissions (CO2e)—think of 10 records equal to burning through one propane tank. Even in ideal conditions, vinyl can take centuries to decompose in landfills, and records may leach solvents into the environment. AirPods, which can last for as little as 18 months, can’t be recycled: their hard plastic shells may endure for over 1,000 years.

While the data centers that host music for streaming are becoming more efficient, neither the devices on which we listen or the far-off operations that store the bits and bytes are carbon-neutral. Creators from Grimes to EDM producer 3LAU are experimenting with non-fungible tokens (NFTs), lucrative digital collectibles that rely on energy-hungry blockchain transactions, typically powered by fossil fuels.

Merch is a significant chunk of many artists’ incomes. Margins are higher on cheap T-shirts produced in the famously damaging and unsustainable fast fashion industry. And not all fans are prepared to pay the premium for organic cotton or recycled polyester manufactured in a just and sustainable workplace.

Some musicians are calling attention to the cost of consumption. Japanese artist Ei Wada creates eerie melodies using discarded electronics, shining a light on the industry’s e-waste problem. Denver’s DJ Cavem released his album Biomimicz as a QR code in a packet of seeds, creating the world’s first compostable release.

DJ Cavem’s sustainable and compostable hip hop album is distributed digitally in a seed package.

Yet, as streaming at home gives way to the chance to experience live music again, the impact of live events comes into focus—particularly the travel involved. At least 75% of the carbon footprint of a typical US show derives from fans’ travel to and from the venue, according to Gardner; the average top-1,000 touring DJ flies almost 73,000 miles per year; and the standard reveler at an American festival travels over 900 miles—think airplanes and cars. Then there are myriad rules that make venue operations unnecessarily wasteful, such as one Gardner calls “ludicrous” and is working to change. “You order a beer, it comes out of a can, and they pour it into a plastic cup because the can could become a projectile,” he says. “And they’re doing this across the board, whether it’s a heavy metal show—where that could be a problem—or a mellow folk artist.”

A Post-Pandemic Path Toward More Sustainable Touring

From power-hungry sets to wasteful backstage spreads, touring carries such a substantial climate burden that Coldplay refused to tour until more sustainable choices were available. That’s a luxury most artists can’t afford, particularly as the rise of streaming means musicians increasingly depend on gigs for income.

Routing is intrinsically tricky. Guster, whose tour buses currently run on biodiesel produced using cooking oil from local restaurants, would love to plan their gigs to minimize mileage. But streamlining tour routes for the myriad bands on the road would require coordination between scores of agencies (and individual agents), a similar number of venues, and hundreds of acts, while competition dictates that nearby venues feature different acts.

Tours deferred from 2020 and 2021 are now competing for venue space in 2022, exacerbating the routing challenge. “2022 is, we already know, a very congested year for routing tours,” Gardner says. “There’s going to be a bit of zigzagging, which is obviously never good environmentally.”

Further, with the live music scene devastated by lockdowns, closures, and loss of staff, and uncertainty about the future path of COVID-19, it’s unclear how many venues will be willing to take on the effort and expense of sustainability measures.

“Venues are struggling to recover,” says Gardner, “so there’s a balance between the desire to do this and the reality of them struggling.”

REVERB recently launched a campaign, Music Climate Revolution, that shares practical actions fans, tours, venues, artists, labels, offices, studios, and festivals can take to help combat climate change. And green riders allow artists to request everything from sustainable transport for performers and fans through to locally sourced food backstage, with excess donated rather than sent to landfill.

REVERB’s refill station for reusable water bottles helps reduce single-use plastic waste.

Yet, some structural issues remain beyond the industry’s reach, most notably America’s abysmal public transport and suburban sprawl. “A lot of the larger venues that are outdoor in the summer, 20,000-seat amphitheaters, are 40 miles outside of city centers and don’t necessarily have the public transportation that can get that number of fans to and from the show,” says Gardner.

And making a tour, venue, or festival more sustainable often requires hard choices, including sacrificing revenue.

The Persuasive Power of Music

On the flipside of music’s carbon footprint is its unrivaled power to turn hearts and minds toward action. Music and activism have been deeply interwoven since before Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit. Artists from Mavis Staples to Bob Dylan soundtracked the mid-century Civil Rights and anti-war movements. Environmentally conscious musicians can both encourage individuals to live more sustainably and nurture a groundswell toward systemic change.

“Music has the ability to do far more good for the climate than the harm it creates through its footprint, because of the millions of people it reaches, because of that incredible relationship artists have with fans,” Gardner says. “Fans are actually paying attention to what they’re posting and taking action when asked. It’s really a unique position for music.”

Hip hop players from Childish Gambino to Malik Yusef are highlighting climate justice in their work, while musicians from Neil Young to Lana Del Rey have turned their attention to climate change. Megan Thee Stallion hosted a beach clean-up in Santa Monica, California. Jay-Z made a documentary about the water crisis in Angola. And artists including The 1975 and Fatboy Slim have sampled or released Greta Thunberg‘s speeches.

Eilish is a vegan who sang about burning California in All the Good Girls Go to Hell and has spoken out about the climate crisis. Her Where Do We Go tour is an opportunity both to model better habits and to educate her audience. Alongside providing water refill stations and recycling opportunities, an eco-village will encourage fans to take climate action, be that registering to vote or connecting with local nonprofits.

An Environmentally-Minded Festival in Action

The path toward sustainability can be even trickier for festivals, many of which take place in sensitive environments that aren’t equipped to manage the burden of tens of thousands of revelers. BottleRock Napa Valley is a festival of food, wine, beer, and music that runs September 3–5 and will feature artists including the Foo Fighters, Guns N’ Roses, and Miley Cyrus. While BottleRock does not engage in advocacy, it operates a rigorous sustainability program, including composting, recycling, food donation, and cleaner transport options.

“We’re eliminating that waste stream, but it’s a revenue stream we’re forgoing as well.

—Jason Scoggins, partner with BottleRock

Jason Scoggins, a partner in BottleRock, emphasizes that environmentally positive choices cost time, energy—and cold, hard cash. BottleRock is eliminating 55,000 single-use plastic cups and roughly 270,000 single-use plastic bottles from the recycling stream by giving out branded reusable tumblers and operating water refill stations. “People will use those free water stations, fill up their water bottle, and they won’t buy a bottle of water at our concession booth,” Scoggins says. “So we’re eliminating that waste stream, but it’s a revenue stream we’re forgoing as well.”

Even something as apparently simple as donating excess food to local organizations is logistically complex, and composting and recycling require investment in signage, facilities, and—really—trash traffic cops.

“It’s not easy,” Scoggins confirms. “Sensory overload is part of the festival business model by design. So you’ve got a lot of things happening and different receptacles for the customer to use, and they have to understand, read, think through all this stuff.”

Clean power at festivals is another area with (as yet) no obvious solution. “We looked into solar power generators, and the amount of panels it would take to charge one of these would be the size of a football field,” Scoggins says. “Where do you find the footprint to deploy the panels? How long will it take to charge? What happens if it’s bad weather?”

No Place Like (Closer to) Home

One route to a smaller footprint for the industry more generally might be to place a greater focus on local events, reducing the carbon cost of fans’ travel and enhancing communities. Gardner also wonders whether live streaming might continue to allow some fans to follow bands without traveling vast distances to see them.

But concerts, festivals, and community events are places where people gather to share ideas, connect and add value to their lives. Campaigning initiatives such as REVERB’s eco-villages or Raitt’s Green Highway—backed by efforts to mitigate the industry’s footprint—could turn live events into loci for good. If Eilish’s typically young and female fanbase could be engaged to campaign for, or simply vote for, climate action, that’s a win that’s likely worth more than a few plane rides—even on gas-guzzling private charters.

And, says Gardner, it’s possible to take action just from your home—which is, after all, where his and Sullivan’s journey into music activism began. At Music Climate Revolution, REVERB encourages music fans to advocate for clean energy, lower their personal carbon footprint, and find regenerative agriculture farms near them.

“Join the music climate revolution,” he says. “That’s our rallying cry to music lovers and music makers everywhere.”

With their favorite musicians inspiring them, fans—millions of them—might just do it.

Author image

Theodora Sutcliffe

British-born, Theodora lives in Bali, Indonesia, the island of the gods. When she’s not writing, she likes to hang out with manta rays, practice ashtanga yoga, and drink sunset cocktails on the beach.

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