FEATURE: Footprints in the Sand: The Music Industry: Climate Change and the Environment



Footprints in the Sand


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The Music Industry: Climate Change and the Environment


NOBODY can ignore the seriousness of climate change…


 IN THIS PHOTO: Radiohead

and how action needs to be taken. Obviously, when it comes to making decisions and acting, the buck stops with politicians. There are artists out there – from Radiohead to Grimes – and organisations that are raising awareness and speaking out. It is a tough time where we are ruled by people who seem uninterested in making change and addressing the severity of climate change. I know those who can make improvements are. From individuals using public transport more to companies using less plastic and being more conscious, we are seeing small steps. In terms of the music industry, festivals are urging people not to use single-use plastic bottles; they are providing water on site and everyone is aware what impact air travel has – for a lot of musicians, it is hard to be like Greta Thunberg and go by boat. I will end by discussing whether artists who speak out can affect politicians but, after reading about streaming music and the environmental impact, can artists and fans do more?

This fall in the relative value of recorded music becomes more pronounced when you look at the same prices as a proportion of weekly salaries. Consumers were willing to pay roughly 4.83 per cent of their average weekly salary for a vinyl album in 1977. This slips down to roughly 1.22 per cent of the equivalent salary for a digital album during its 2013 peak.


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With the advent of streaming, of course, the business model of consuming recorded music changed: what used to be a commodity industry, where people bought copies to own, is now a service industry in which they buy temporary access to a music experience stored in the cloud. For just $9.99 – barely 1 per cent of the current average weekly salary in the US – consumers now have unlimited ad-free access to almost all recorded music ever released via platforms such as Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube, Pandora and Amazon.

Yet if consumers are paying an ever lower price for their music, the picture looks very different when you start to look at environmental costs. Intuitively you might think that less physical product means far lower carbon emissions. In 1977, for instance, the industry used 58 million kilograms of plastic in the US. By 1988, the peak year for cassettes, this had dipped slightly to 56 million kg. When CDs peaked in 2000, it was up to 61 million kg of plastic. Then came the big digital dividend: as downloading and streaming took over, the amount of plastics used by the US recording industry dropped dramatically, down to just 8 million kg by 2016.

But if these figures seem to confirm the notion that music digitalised is music dematerialised – and therefore more environmentally friendly – there’s still the question of the energy used to power online music listening. Storing and processing music in the cloud depends on vast data centres that use a tremendous amount of resources and energy.

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It is possible to demonstrate this by translating plastic production and the electricity used to store and transmit digital audio files into greenhouse gas equivalents (GHGs). This shows that GHGs from recorded music were 140 million kg in 1977 in the US, 136 million kg in 1988, and 157 million kg in 2000. By 2016 it is estimated to have been between 200 million kg and more than 350 million kg – and remember that this is only in the US”.

When we think of digital music, I guess we never really think there is much of an environmental cost. One assumes that everything is conducted online and there is no carbon footprint. One of the reasons we are buying fewer C.D.s is because there is a very visible problem regarding plastic packaging. Does that mean that we all need to stream less? It is hard when you are looking at an industry as large and growing as music. Artists need an accessible and universal platform on which to put their music; physical formats are valid, yet streaming is more impactful and easier. It is not quite as simple as people streaming less or artists balancing between releasing physical copies and digital. I do think platforms like Spotify need to be conscious when it comes to the amount of energy used to store digital files – and what that is doing to the environment.


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Every aspect of production, distribution and performance needs to be considered whilst we tackle climate change and try to reduce the damage being done. There are different problems when it comes to international stars and your smaller act. The former might have to be flown around the world and, as you can imagine, that leaves a big footprint. It is difficult to get around that, but I wonder whether, when scheduling tours differently so there are fewer cities visited and miles covered would help. I know a lot of acts who fly between nations and cities that are commutable by train; others who have a schedule that seems to take them in all sorts of directions; sort of illogical in terms of plotting and scheduling. If air travel is one of the biggest problems when it comes to big acts, smaller artists have vehicle travel between venues; there is another issue, mind: merchandising and mailing out to fans. I have seen Twitter posts from artists gleeful when a vinyl of their music is out, or they can send merchandise to fans around the world. One cannot undermine that thrill and connection, yet the environmental cost of small, regular shipments is evident. This article from 2016 explains more – and proffers a possible solution:

Another big cost to the industry, consumer, and environment: shipping merchandise. And let’s think beyond just the t-shirts. Some artists ship in large quantities, but most don’t have the scale to mass-produce. They produce small batches, and then ship them around the world from where they live. It would arrive at your home or a local pick-up point. What if instead, you order something, it’s produced at the nearest 3D printer and you can pick it up from there.

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Not only are there less emissions involved, but it might be faster too. There are still questions about whether the amount of energy required offsets the carbon emissions, particularly for mass production, but some printers are performing great.

Services like 3D Hubs are already providing over 1 billion people with access to 3D printers within 10 miles from their home.

A lot of festivals are powered by diesel generators, costing around half a billion euros each year, just in Europe. As much as three quarters of the UK music industry’s greenhouse gas emissions come from live performances.

Tents get left behind, a lot of water is used to clean, and cars queue up for hours to get into parking lots.

One of the most interesting music-related startup accelerators has to be Open-House. They look at how events can be made more efficient, but also how festivals can be used as a case study for how we organise humanitarian aid, or solving other societal issues.

Their startups include Kartent, a recyclable cardboard tent, Sanitrax, which makes the toilet experience more efficient, and Watt-Now, an energy monitoring system for festivals”.

I have raised a couple of environmental concerns but, from digital storage/destitution through to packaging, travel and festivals; people are doing their best - but more can be done. The fact fewer plastic bottles are being taken to festivals is good. Others are combating vehicle emissions and urging public transport.


 PHOTO CREDIT: @paucasals/Unsplash

I do think every artist can do their part in many ways. From using public transport as much as possible to thinking about the distance covered when touring…there are little steps that can make a big difference. Whilst the industry and artists – and fans, for that matter – can help reduce the environmental impact music creates, I think, obviously, politicians need to do more. There is that obvious outlet of publicity and interviews; time at gigs where artists can step aside and talk about the environment. Is it easy for an artist, especially a big one, to ‘go off script’, and discuss something like the environment? This article from Vice discusses some of the issues faced; they also address travel and how it might be hard to reduce the impact immediately:

The first thing is to speak about it, whether in interviews, on social media, or referencing climate change in their songs. Of course, thanks to those previous efforts from Mr Bono and the conscious uncoupling dude, these efforts have the potential to come across as corny and overly sincere. Or even preachy. The BBC covered this in a 2015 piece titled 'Where are all the climate change songs?', where they ran the historical gamut of songs about the issue: from Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi" (put up a parking lot!) to Paul McCartney's "Love To The Earth" – a UN-approved song released that year featuring Sean Paul, Sheryl Crowe, Leona Lewis, Fergie and more. Think of it like Kanye's "All Of The Lights" with a BBC Radio 2 cast. But that was three years ago, and this is now. And though it might be naive to think songs about climate change will never be anything less than a hard sell, the issue is more pressing than it has ever been.


Grimes is one musician choosing to dive headfirst into the topic. In an interview with The Washington Post last week she announced that her upcoming fifth album will be a concept record about “the anthropomorphic Goddess of climate Change”. In practice that might not be so overtly calling for environmental action, but at least it is focusing on the issue. The same goes for Foals, who talk about the state of the world on their most recent record Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost Part 1. Speaking to us about the issues that fed into the record, frontman Yannis Phillipakis said: “What scares me right now is what scares you, right? … the bee population that’s going, environmental collapse, biodiversity collapse – the fact that on an aesthetic level there’s a plastic flotilla the size of France in the Pacific.”

Of course, when it comes to touring there’s also the problem of travel. Huge international bands often fly not only themselves but loads of equipment across the world. So where does this problem sit? And who can fix it? There are no easy answers. We can't expect bands to stop touring – first CD rips, then downloads, then streaming have all slashed the money they make from selling recorded music. Touring and merch have become vital revenue streams. So bands starting to push beyond their local circuit certainly can't buy up personal, electric-powered airplanes, while looking for a way to make enough money to survive as artist. And aviation companies themselves haven't yet figured out how to get a battery that isn't too heavy for an airplane but can hold enough charge to carry it.


 PHOTO CREDIT: @maxwellridgeway/Unsplash

I understand there are logistical and professional challenges when it comes to reducing travel and merchandise but, from the smallest artist to the top of the mainstream, concerted efforts, concessions and constructive changes, when combined, can lead to a big difference. I do think the most effective channel of change is the human voice. There are a few artists directly addressing climate change through their music, but I think many are avoiding as they feel it might be too edgy, divisive or lacks commercial appeal. I do think, in general, so many artists tackle politics; there are many more artists aiming their lyrics at politicians compared to the environmental struggles – making more noise through song would be a good step. Although the charts are gloomy, I think a lot of that is to do with personal malaise or a bad pattern. I think singing about the environment need not be morbid and preachy.  I will wrap up soon but, just before, I found a Finnish article that outlines a few things happening in the country that is making a difference:

Audiences can be reached both by using public authorities and rhetoric, and directly through art. Even small actions matter, but the largest responsibility falls on those who enjoy the greatest public authority. One recent example is the rap group Gasellit who lent their support for a campaign titled Korvaamaton [Irreplaceable] during the recent Finnish parliamentary election. The campaign was run by various environmental and development organisations in order to identify the climate crisis as the number one issue in the election.


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EDM artist Darude, Finland’s representative in this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, played his part through his contest piece Look Away, urging people to take action in order to solve our big global problems. Darude is also involved in a UNICEF campaign which illustrates the effects of climate change on children and young people around the world.

Although the American online magazine Pitchfork recently remarked that songs on the current pop charts are anything but upbeat and fun, we still have not seen many songs about climate change hitting the charts.

Tiainen from Greenpeace points out that in addition to using their public authority, music makers can directly influence gig presenters and festivals, for example: “Musicians, too, have to be active in sending a message to their presenters about the importance of environmental responsibility through actions such as using renewable energy or offering more plant-based catering options.”

Bands in the beginning of their career hardly dare to bite the hand that feeds them, which means that all eyes will be on the most influential stars to lead the action.

In 2014, Europe Jazz Network partnered with Julie’s Bicycle, a pioneering charity working on environmental sustainability in the arts. Their joint initiative “Take the Green Train” has mapped the environmental challenges in the arts industry and endeavoured to find solutions through seminars and conferences, among other activities. In conjunction with the initiative, saxophonist Evan Parker undertook a pilot green tour in 2016, choosing the most environmentally sustainable transport methods, creating a “green” rider and coming up with more sustainable ways of organising and marketing his concerts.

PHOTO CREDIT: @joshrocklage/Unsplash 

One of the problems in the arts industry could be as basic as the lack of information. Help can be found through various associations and organisations. Julie’s Bicycle maintains a website with many practical guides towards more environmentally conscious practices in the creative industries. Festivals are another forum for sharing information and searching for solutions. For instance, Stockholm’s Baltic Sea Festival this August will present a program with many music or spoken word events focusing on sustainable development.

I do agree it is hard to make sweeping changes, but new and regular information regarding small changes would start a chain that would lead to big improvement. It is a scary situation we are in, but not all hope is lost – it is just a case of acting and trying to be as economical as possible. I do have faith things can be turned around and action will lead to change and commitment from governments around the world. Every industry and human needs to be conscious of their environmental impact and legacy. The music industry is not the biggest offender, yet there are problem areas and, when it comes to something like streaming, many of us were probably unaware of the environmental damage it is doing. There is so much to be said for the power of people and how, when we pull together, something remarkable can occur. The music industry is taking steps every day (regarding climate change); there is still more do be done, but I do think current actions, steps and pledges are…

 PHOTO CREDIT: @roxannedesgagnes/Unsplash

HITTING the right notes.