✘ Mercy, Mercy Me: the climate cost of live music
And: What music can learn from gaming in Web3; More on the rising costs for artists; Live Nation & Ticketmaster's poor practices
Tune in to any climate report of the last year or so and find out: the future is bleak. According to the IPCC’s latest, many of the impacts of global warming are now, simply put, “irreversible”. Last week, UN chief António Guterres did not mince words at the Cop27 summit, saying we are on a “highway to climate hell”; one glance at the news - raging wildfires, devastating floods, and deadly air pollution - and we would have to agree. With time running out for change, the conversation stalls, leaving companies, governments, and consumers with the certainty they are not doing enough; and, if they are, they are not doing it fast enough.
Touring musicians may not be the biggest climate offenders, but, even then, the touring sector is an industry like any other. These days, it too feels, with each step taken, the weight of its carbon footprint. It might not have the heftiest of traces if we compare it to fast fashion or agriculture, but, given the amount of travel (often by air), energy consumption, and all-around resource expenditure touring entails, it is certainly doing damage enough to grant discussion. The conversation has been going on for a while, as more and more touring musicians are starting to question whether they can justify hopping on planes and buses from city to city, carrying on as though climate disaster is not spreading its tentacles around them.
Maybe most notably, the popular British rock band Coldplay has been grappling with the cost of touring since 2019. Back then, the band announced they would be ceasing all touring activities until these could be proven to be “environmentally beneficial”. As that evidently did not happen, they are back on the road four years later - but, this time, they want to do things differently. For their ongoing “Music of the Spheres” tour, Chris Martin and the band are pledging to make it “as low carbon as possible”; this includes practices such as funding the planting of a tree for every ticket sold and adding energy-producing stationary bikes to concert floors to boost environmental initiatives. Despite their best efforts, skeptic observers were quick to point out - nice try, but are you not still going on a polluting world tour anyway?
Previously, we have touched upon the toll touring takes on musicians’ mental health, as well as their finances. These issues and more are making touring unendurable for so many musicians that they have ushered in a wave of voices pinpointing a crisis in the live music sector. However, it is important to add to the equation the impact of live music on the climate, at a time in which the conversation is not only important but urgent.
As the touring industry continues plunging downward in all-around financial and existential plight, its environmental price may be a final blow to its reputation. Unless, of course, we find a way out. Not unlike Coldplay, names like Massive Attack and Dan Snaith (who performs as Caribou and Daphni) have been searching for alternatives. These musicians may disagree on how, but they are bound by a common, ever-growing concern - to find out once and for all how to tour without further ruining the planet.
We are doing our best
Traveling is the backbone of touring, and, be it on cross-country flights or gas-gulping tour buses, this is where its impact on the environment starts counting. But it does not stop there. Musicians and their staff also need to be housed and fed, and the gear they also travel with has to be powered; the numbers start adding up. And this is even before accounting for the energy a concert devours, as each performance relies on a fair share of electricity consumption, night after night. And then we still need to factor in all the energy expended by traveling and consuming fans.
In 2019, the academic journal Popular Music published a research paper in which the environmental impact of five music tours was measured using a carbon-tracking tool. Their research found that combined, the artists added 19,314 kilograms of CO2 to the environment over a touring period of six months. This is the equivalent of taking almost twenty back-and-forth flights from New York City to London. Naturally, these shocking values left eco-conscious touring musicians fretting about the future.
This may be why Coldplay swore off touring that very same year. At the time, frontman Chris Martin told BBC News the band would be taking a break from road life to
“work out how our tour can not only be sustainable [but] how can it be actively beneficial”.
As we know, they would have had to halt touring anyway; but their pledge showcases how Coldplay, like many other bands and artists, has long been concerned with the environmental cost of live music. In 2022, like most of them, Coldplay are back on the road, because what choice do they have? That seems to be Chris Martin’s rationale.
He defended himself and his band on NPR’s ‘All Things Considered’, stating:
“ultimately the best thing we could all do for the environment is either disappear from the planet altogether or not go anywhere as humans. And so we have to acknowledge a certain — I don't know if you call it selfishness or placing a certain value on other elements of being a human, which is connection and music”.
Still, Coldplay is hoping their eco-conscious strategy ushers in a new era for touring musicians; do it, if you must (you must), but do it sustainably.
However, the criticism levied against the band continued. In May this year, Carlos Calvo Ambel, a senior director of the Transport and Environment campaign group (T&E) spoke harshly on Chris Martin and the band. Upon the news that Coldplay’s pledge to slash touring emissions implied a partnership with Finnish oil company Neste (whose palm oil suppliers cleared at least 24,710 acres of forest in countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia in the last two years), he called them “useful idiots for greenwashing”. In response, the band expressed they “don’t claim to have got it all right yet”. Likewise, they were criticized for their collaboration with BMW, which provides 40 rechargeable electric vehicle batteries to power the shows. The band, again, rebutted:
“we are doing our best, and always genuinely welcome suggestions as to how to do it better”.
We must take their word for it; at this point in time, it would be disingenuous to dismiss Coldplay’s strive to turn touring sustainable as cynical or opportunistic, especially given the pointed criticism levied against them for not fulfilling their mission entirely. But are we still left with time for anything else?
There’s a strategy that’s missing
Like Chris Martin and his band, fellow UK group Massive Attack are anxious about climate change. They had been carbon-offsetting their tours for years, but they have since become disillusioned with the practice’s impact. According to founding member Robert “3D” Del Naja this pledge ended up benefiting fossil fuel companies, which are known to be primarily responsible for climate change, serving as an excuse for them to continue spreading the blame around, and, ultimately, dodging accountability.
Also in 2019, Massive Attack commissioned a report on carbon emissions in live music. The report, created by Manchester University’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, intended to tackle how, beyond simply mitigating damage, the live music sector could actively reduce carbon emissions. Prof. Carly McLachlan, who led the research, described it as a potential catalyst for the entire live music ecosystem. For Del Naja, it sustained an urgent call for governmental action.
“The data [from the report] is not surprising, it’s the strategy that’s missing here”,
he said then.
Now that the report has been made publicly available, part of that strategy may have been uncovered. Among the shifts required for “rapidly accelerated” industry progress is the immediate elimination of private jet use, a switch to electric transportation for concerts and festivals, and, by 2025, the phasing out of diesel generators at festivals. The report also suggests minimizing the burden of transporting gear, and the standardization of equipment worldwide - which should be implemented collaboratively to support smaller venues struggling with the improved regulation. Perhaps most relevantly, the report found that carbon offsetting should be a last resort, employed only when further reductions are impossible; the plan to slash emissions should be plotted before even stepping out to tour, not afterward, it claims.
In 2020, Massive Attack and Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research’s collaboration led to a short film examining the music industry’s role in climate change, directed by Anthony Tombling Jr for Unit 3 Films and narrated by Del Naja. In his own words,
“we came to the realization that our industry couldn’t, or wouldn’t, move fast enough for live music to play its part in rapid decarbonization. So we opted to design that change ourselves, to put together the identities and circumstances to push through and show that it’s possible.”
Thankfully, they are not alone; there are others trying to move things along, even if less steadily. There’s Reverb, the nonprofit supporting touring musicians looking to neutralize or at least lessen their carbon footprint, founded by Adam Gardner from the band Guster, and Lauren Sullivan, an environmentalist and community organizer. Dan Snaith is sharing the burden with the crowd. He has partnered with Plus1, the Arcade Fire-founded nonprofit which donates one dollar for every ticket sold to a charity of the artist’s choice. But he is skeptical of what these generous, but, ultimately, small gestures can do in the face of climate doom.
“I am not convinced that a compelling solution will be available, other than drastically reducing the amount of travel that we do”,
Snaith told The New Yorker.
The future of live music lies ahead, unknown. But not entirely. As the weight of climate change proves insurmountable for touring musicians and audiences alike, new solutions are being tried and tested in order to lay out an actionable, sustainable plan. Touring musicians are now stepping up and demanding change; their collective action has bolted a door open for them and us alike. The question is - dare we go in?
🎮 Games have raced ahead to build Web3, but it’s not too late for music (Bruno Guez)
“How did this happen? While music companies strategized, game companies acted. It was easy for them; their products are based on communities— gathering them, maintaining them, monetizing them—at its core, Web3 is all about community. Labels and DSPs are not. Labels have struggled to build fan-powered communities for artists. DSPs have struggled to build a community of fans, to an almost embarrassing extent. Subscribers and playlists are just not enough to build fan communities.”
💞 ‘Music could wither’: new report finds 98% of musicians concerned about rising costs in the UK (Safi Bugel)
“Help Musicians’ data shows that derailed careers and financial stresses are also having a knock-on impact on wellbeing. Of those surveyed, 68% say their mental health is worse than before the pandemic and Help Musicians has seen a 34% increase in calls to its support services this year.”
See also last week’s article Too broke to play
😡 Activist Group Asks Justice Dept. to Unwind Live Nation and Ticketmaster Merger (Winston Cho)
“Ticketmaster’s market power over live events is ripping off sports and music fans and undermining the vibrancy and independence of the music industry. With new leadership at the DOJ committed to enforcing the antitrust laws, our new campaign helps connect the voices of fans, artists and others in the music business who are sick and tired of being at the mercy of Ticketmaster’s monopoly with enforcers who have the power to unwind it.”
Sarah Miller, executive director of the American Economic Liberties Project
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Well-written article, thank you!
I think it's key to observe that from a full lifecycle perspective with appropriate boundaries, the largest impact is often audience travel. Simply choosing the right venues in the right locations (with public transport options) can have an enormous effect.