“No Music on a Dead Planet.”
Since 2019, that slogan has been a rallying cry for the music industry. It’s been amplified by major artists like Billie Eilish, Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker and Thom Yorke of Radiohead, who’ve worn or designed shirts with those apocalyptic words. It’s shown up on the backdrops of arena tours, on award-show red carpets, on album compilations and playlists.
The catchphrase is part of a campaign by the global non-profit organization Music Declares Emergency (MDE), which has gathered big-name musicians across the world to pledge action in the face of the climate crisis.
But as festivals are cancelled because of wildfires, bands are forced to reroute tours because of road floodings, and large outdoor concerts become major risks for heat stroke, the music industry is starting to wake up to urgent omens. More than just a fashion statement, the sector’s eco-enthusiasm has to come with concrete, identifiable actions. They have to do it together – not just the musicians onstage, but also promoters, labels, record manufacturers, merchandisers, concert promoters and record labels. And they have to do it quickly.
Late last year, in the wake of COP26, the U.K.’s Association of Independent Music launched the Music Climate Pact, which was signed by all three major labels – Universal, Warner and Sony – along with large indies like Secretly Group and Ninja Tune. Agreeing to work collectively, the pact includes a commitment from each signatory to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050 and achieve a 50% reduction by 2030.
For an industry with many interlocking stakeholders, one that relies on vast amounts of energy-intensive manufacturing, streaming and travel, the challenge is figuring out how to meet their agreed-upon targets.
“Being green and sustainable is a shared value for a lot of people in the music industry, but no one really knows how to do it,” says Ben Swanson, co-founder of the Bloomington, Indiana–based record label Secretly Canadian and Secretly Group, which also represents other large American indie labels, including Jagjaguwar, Numero Group and Dead Oceans. “In terms of implementation, it’s still a relatively new concept.”
Swanson and his colleagues at Secretly Canadian have tried various eco-conscious initiatives over the years, including minimizing product packaging and avoiding pressing more CDs and records than they can sell (with some “missteps,” Swanson admits), but always wanted to be more strategic and intentional about it.
So, last year, on the label’s 25th anniversary, they hired climate consultant Jen Cregar of Terra Lumina and published an official Sustainability Plan. In it, they calculated their actual carbon footprint (116 MTCO2e, or metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, in 2021) and pledged to become “carbon negative” by their 30th anniversary in 2026 – a more ambitious goal than the Music Climate Pact that they also signed.
Swanson admits it won’t be a perfect estimate, but keeping track and staying transparent about the numbers will make it easier to improve upon them, both for themselves and for others following in their footsteps.
As an example, he points to Big Time, the 2022 album by singer/songwriter Angel Olsen. Aiming to create a carbon-negative album release, they calculated the “cradle-to-grave” carbon impact of both a CD and vinyl LP from manufacturing to shipping, from its life in a fan’s stereo to its likely afterlife in a landfill 100 years from now. With a quantifiable number, they then built in the price of carbon offsets supporting the Medford Spring Grassland Conservation Project in Bent County, Colorado. Offsetting is an inexact science, Swanson admits, and it’s not as sustainable as avoiding the output in the first place, but it creates a replicable – and improvable – template for future releases for both their label and others.
“Being green is a shared value for a lot of people in the music industry, but no one really knows how to do it.”
Secretly Group was part of a panel at the Canadian Music Climate Summit in Toronto earlier this fall about labels and sustainability. Organized by the Canadian wing of MDE, the summit was a daylong conference and concert ahead of November’s COP27 in Egypt. With panels about green touring and concerts, the role of artists, funding and diversity, and a keynote by David Suzuki, it was intended to give musicians the tools to take actions in their own practices – something they are often reluctant to do for fear of being labelled hypocrites, given their touring lifestyles.
But, more importantly, it was an attempt to get the “right people in the room,” says organizer and climate activist Kim Fry. “The musicians, for the most part, are on board,” she says. “It’s the labels, the managers, the tour managers, the venues.”
She knows from experience through her daughter, Brighid Fry, one of the co-founders of MDE Canada. Her folk-rock duo, Housewife (formerly Moscow Apartment), has made sustainability an integral part of their practice. But as an emerging act, one led by two 20-year-old women, they don’t have the power to enact big, sweeping change on a structural level. They’re using the power they do have, though, especially when it comes to advocacy. Last year, Brighid co-authored an open letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and this year she’s written a similar one directed at the decision-makers behind the scenes in the music industry, asking them to use their power for climate action.
“I just don’t think there’s really an excuse [not to],” she says. “Because if the people on the public side of the industry want it and the audiences want it, then why isn’t it being followed through behind the scenes?”
As an artist, she can do things like using green riders – asking for sustainable options like refillable water options both front- and backstage and strongly encouraging venues to use renewable energy. She can negotiate a sustainability clause into her record contract. She can work with T-shirt makers that use water-based ink and closed-loop manufacturing. All are recommendations within MDE’s Music Industry Climate Pack, which offers 10 steps for sustainability for artists, venues, merch, labels, touring and fans. But if the venues, promoters, engineers, labels, lawyers, audiences and multinational corporations don’t cooperate, there’s only so much performers can do.
While major pop stars can afford to rent or buy electric tour buses and fight against radius clauses that restrict playing multiple shows in one market, it’s harder and costlier for smaller acts. And those major acts carry a much larger carbon footprint. After being identified as a band with one of the biggest carbon footprints, the members of Coldplay paused touring in 2019 until they could work out how their tour “can not only be sustainable [but] how can it be actively beneficial.” Earlier this year Coldplay announced that its air travel would be powered by green jet fuel but was then accused of greenwashing for partnering with Neste, whose controversial “sustainable aviation fuel” might not be entirely green.
Even if a stadium act takes an electric bus to a concert, they also have to account for the travel of the tens and hundreds of thousands of fans to get there. (Some have encouraged fans with contests, discounts and other initiatives to carpool or take public transit.)
Building on work done by British organization Julie’s Bicycle over the last decade, the Centre for Sustainable Practice in the Arts recently launched Creative Green Tools Canada – a free and user-friendly interface to calculate the carbon footprint of a tour, concert or festival. Devon Hardy, the program’s director, says she hopes it normalizes tracking emissions for music events. “Even just the act of collecting that data can make folks more aware of their behaviours and start changing them,” she writes in an email.
One of the goals of the Toronto Music Climate Summit was to make people aware of tools like these, says Kim Fry. Many in the Canadian music industry don’t look beyond the usual arts funders such as SOCAN to realize there is money available from the federal government for green initiatives. The Ministry of Transportation’s Zero Emission Vehicle Infrastructure Program, for instance, has funding that could be used for tour travel.
In general, Canada is lagging behind other countries like the U.K., Australia and even the U.S. when it comes to sustainability in the music industry, Fry argues. There are a few potential reasons for that. Touring is harder in Canada because it’s so geographically spread out. The industry is small and slow to change. And many of the major events and award shows are sponsored by Canada’s big banks, which are some of the largest investors in carbon-burning oil and gas projects.
“If the music industry thinks it’s immune to the impacts of climate, it’s so naive,” she says. “We want them to understand the severity of the emergency we’re all facing.”
Richard Trapunski is the former associate music editor at Toronto’s NOW Magazine and reports on culture and business for various publications.
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