No Music On A Dead Planet: How rock is answering the climate crisis call
Simon Neil is discussing Armageddon. It’s February 2020, and the Biffy Clyro frontman isn’t holding forth about his favourite Bruce Willis movies, however. No, he is talking about a very real, very tangible and very current end of the world threat: our climate crisis.
It was the afternoon of the BRIT Awards, I was recording a podcast with him expecting to hear about what outrageous suit he’d be wearing to the ceremony in London that evening. Instead, conversation turned to the existential danger posed by the climate and ecological emergency. It was exactly the type of conversation – a mix of desperate frustration and stubborn optimism – I’ve had with numerous musicians recently. Summing things up, Simon said: “Things have changed, and we need to wake up… We need to do so much more. Me and my band need to figure out ways so that we’re not contributing anything to that.”
The issue, of course, is not new. The science world has been screaming about environmental meltdown for decades, but by and large governments and the media haven’t prioritised it. As for musicians, the association between songwriting and our natural surroundings goes back as long as the artform itself. In more recent times, there’s even been huge concerts dedicated to raising awareness around the impending destruction. Live Earth, in 2007, was a series of simultaneous global concerts broadcast on TV that featured performances from Red Hot Chili Peppers, Metallica, the Beastie Boys and Foo Fighters. The momentum of which was cut short when the 2008 financial crash sent the world economy into tailspin.
But something is stirring again. In the past few years, awareness around the climate crisis has grown rapidly; so too has the necessity to get on and do something about it. In no small part that’s down to the rousing documentaries of David Attenborough and no-bullshit activism of Greta Thunberg, but it is also the increased frequency of extreme weather events: from devastating wildfires to unprecedented flooding. It’s right there in front of us, and the message is clear: time is running out to either stop, or more likely restrict, the catastrophic future we’re currently heading towards.
2021 is a crucial year, not just for societies reshaping after the disruption of COVID-19, but for huge-scale systemic action on climate. Back in 2015, the world’s leaders met in Paris to hammer out a historic set of climate pledges aimed at reducing their country’s environmental impact. In November they’ll reconvene in Glasgow – the promises made there will largely determine the fate of the planet. It’s hard to overstate just important that meeting will be.
Considering all this, it’s no wonder the voice of the music community is once again growing louder on the issue. This time it feels different – more defiant. Enter Music Declares Emergency, a grassroots collective co-founded by Fay Milton from punk band Savages. They witnessed the work being done by activist group Extinction Rebellion in 2019 and decided it was time to create a space where their friends and colleagues in the music industry could unite in action on climate. Their striking motto stands also a warning: ‘No Music On A Dead Planet’. Their mission is clear, too. They urge governments and media to tell the truth about the scale and severity of the problem, call on governments to have net zero carbon emissions by 2030 and encourage people to recognise the injustices in society that’ve led to the climate and ecological emergency.
More than 4,000 organisations, artists and individuals have signed up, including names you’ll know from IDLES and Black Peaks, to Kathleen Hanna and Mogwai. This is why I’ve launched the podcast Sounds Like A Plan, which speaks to figures from across the music world about what they’re doing to be more sustainable: from artists to record labels, festival bookers to data strategists.
Crucially, Music Declares Emergency wants the music industry to recognise the impact it has on the environment and improve it. That’s key, and action is happening. But how?
Let’s start with the biggest elephant in the room: touring. Live performance is an integral part of what being a musician is, and as the past year has evidenced, no-one wants to live in a world where we don’t get to experience the life-altering joy of seeing our favourite bands. It’s also the only way lots of artists make any meaningful wage. But touring, particularly internationally, is inherently bad for the environment. Criss-crossing the globe to play multiple shows in different countries largely involves taking carbon-heavy flights. Off-setting – a way of compensating for your emissions, by supporting efforts like CO2-absorbing tree planting schemes – is an additional cost, and there’s some debate over whether that’s treating a symptom rather than finding a solution. Travel can be done by land, but that costs both time and money, affecting the viability of the whole enterprise. Most venues are ‘dry’, even the big arenas, which means gas-guzzling trucks often transport the staging, lights and production. And that’s before you factor in the thousands of people turning up to see the band, all potentially creating harmful emissions.
Touring remains perhaps the biggest obstacle in holding artists back from speaking on climate change – stuck between their moral feelings and their livelihood, they feel like hypocrites. But as Fay Milton put it in episode one of Sounds Like A Plan, “I’d say to other musicians: ‘Don’t feel guilty.’ There’s no use feeling guilty. You’re not a bad person because you’re a musician and the job involves flying. That’s how it is, it’s a system and you’re part of it. It’s about awareness and taking that action. Take a positive step and chuck your guilt in the bin.”
Music Declares Emergency give advice about touring practises and offer constructive ideas, as do organisations like Julie’s Bicycle, who specialise in helping cultural industries understand their environmental impact. In the United States, REVERB, who drive awareness around green issues, have also worked with artists like Serj Tankian and Panic! At The Disco – they’ve also helped Billie Eilish create pop-up ‘eco-villages’ at her concerts to encourage climate education among fans.
In the short term, bands can ask their agent to route their tours so they’re more efficient and don’t zig-zag between, say, Portugal and Russia in a single weekend. They can choose venues based on local infrastructure – somewhere located in a city centre, and served by public transport links, means fans don’t have to travel by car. Some festivals, including Glastonbury, make combination tickets (coach travel and entrance) available before general sale to encourage people to sign up. A number of artists, including Enter Shikari, have chosen to use a tour van powered by biodiesel – a plant-based alternative to fossil petrol.
Surprisingly, not all venues are powered by renewable energy – they really should be, since switching to clean electricity is straightforward and available across the UK. Importantly, the amount of solar and wind power being fed into the national supplies is increasing all the time. Production is key, too. Huge pyrotechnics, video screens and light shows are energy intensive, so in the future you might find your favourite artist finds smarter and lighter ways of creating a spectacle. The 1975 are among those working with a creative director in order to develop a new stage show that creates fewer emissions. Some artists are banning plastic from their riders, and supplying their touring teams with reusable water bottles instead.
“It seems like a small thing, but if another band sees you doing it then they start doing it,” says Sam Carter of Architects, who is also an ambassador for marine conservation project Sea Shepherd. “It all adds up and makes a difference.”
Some venues are being proactive, too. For example, the Academy Music Group – which owns and operates venues across the UK – is signed up to Live Nation’s (one of the biggest concert promoters in the world) sustainability charter. That means they’re all trying to reduce their greenhouse emissions by 50 per cent by 2030 – they’ll also phase out single-use plastic this year, meaning your food or drink will come in reusable, renewable or compostable containers. No more plastic straws.
It’s worth remembering that it’s not totally on the music industry to find answers to these problems. But until electric cars are in mass use, and planes are powered by giant batteries (it’s coming, though not for a while), then getting together to enjoy a gig is about the mindful choices we can all make.
Festivals are even trickier than gigs to plan when it comes to their environmental footprint, and they’re also more susceptible to extreme weather events. Again, there’s a carbon element to the travel of staff, artists and fans – magnified by the fact that a lot of festivals happen in green spaces often miles from the nearest train station. They can take a heavy toll on the local ecology – from pints chucked in hedges to discarded tents. The flashy main stage is also likely powered by a couple of fossil-fuel driven generators. To avoid a disastrous power outage, there will always be back-ups, too.
But festivals around the world are taking their impact very seriously now, including Festival Republic who organise Download and Reading & Leeds. They’ve created targets including reducing their greenhouse gas emissions by 50 per cent by 2030.
On site, they’re constantly looking at new ideas. For example, having food vendors use a traffic light system to help fans understand the carbon footprint of the food they’re consuming (the production of meat takes a huge toll on the planet) and offering punters the chance to get old band T‑shirts reprinted with new tour dates.
“Music festivals have to evolve; they can’t stand still,” Reading & Leeds boss Melvin Benn told Sounds Like A Plan. “The most important things are audience travel, the power, and what’s left behind and recycled.”
Encouragingly, festivals are working together on sustainability – not-for-profit company A Greener Festival helps them share ideas and best practises. You even have events like Into The Great Wide Open in The Netherlands where they deliberately use their event to test fresh sustainability technologies in their aim to be a completely ‘circular’ festival – meaning they want to reuse and recycle everything so that it goes back into the event the following year. And how about Roskilde in Denmark where a few years ago they turned 50,000 litres of fans’ pee into fertiliser to make beer. Anyone for a pint of Pisner?
Records & Merch
The bad news is physical music consumption has been terrible for the environment for a long time… and it still is, from vinyl (historically made from synthetic plastic derived from crude oil) to unrecyclable CDs. The boom in the creation of these products – particularly in the 1980s through the 2000s – was an environmental disaster, as they take hundreds of years to decay in landfill. That’s before you consider they were manufactured in one place before being shipped and flown to every provincial record store across the world. Kyle Devine’s book Decomposed is a sobering investigating into how recorded music has exploited natural and human resources for decades.
Again, this puts artists in something of a bind. While royalties from streaming continue to be uneven, many of them rely on the income provided by physical products to support themselves. While She Sleeps even produced a tee which literally stated that “this T‑shirt is the equivalent of 5,000 Spotify streams”.
So while the so-called ‘vinyl revival’ isn’t good for our planet, streaming music isn’t without its polluting ways, either. The tens of millions of songs available at a touch of a button have to be stored on servers, which in turn have to be cooled every second of the year. Every time a track is streamed, energy is consumed – from both the streaming platform and the listener. In his book, Kyle Devine gathered data together from various sources to suggest that streaming and downloading created around 194,000,000 kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions in 2016.
Not even NFTs (non-fungible tokens) escape this debate. These pieces of one-of-a-kind digital content – everyone from Slipknot to Mike Shinoda to Poppy have got in on the act – also have a negative impact on the environment. The cryptocurrencies used to buy and sell them create planet-heating emissions – one piece of analysis, reported by The Verge, estimated the average NFT has a carbon footprint equivalent to a month’s worth of electricity usage for a standard person in the EU.
The good news is that the music industry is awash with fresh initiatives. For example, Architects have set up their own merchandise company to ensure what they sell is ethically and sustainably produced. It’s all about avoiding needless waste. “We’re not making merch that uses loads of water and energy that then sits in a warehouse and which nobody buys,” explains Sam Carter. “They’re limited items, so people take real care of them, printed on organic cotton [the production of which avoids using harmful chemicals and pesticides]. It’s about knowing where your stuff is coming from.”
And while vinyl continues to resurge in popularity, increasingly record labels, distribution companies and pressing plants are looking at more sustainable options – for example, PVC vinyl can be recycled if it’s in decent condition and being processed in bulk (unfortunately, putting your unwanted 7”s in your green bin at home doesn’t help – seriously, think about gifting it to someone using vinyl to make decorations). Given the nickname “re-vinyl”, Biffy Clyro, The Cure and Depeche Mode are among the artists who’ve put out records on 100 per cent recycled PVC.
“‘Recycled’ vinyl is available quite commonly – it’s the offcuts from the process of making LPs,” explains Nigel Adams from independent label Full Time Hobby. “It isn’t massively more expensive and is cheaper than some of the colour variants – plus, you can get random colour-ways.”
Nigel also points to other areas in which production of vinyl can be more sustainable. “There’s no proof that heavier vinyl weight affects sound quality in any way, so just changing from 200/180gm to 140gm saves on emissions,” he recommends. “We can do without shrinkwrap, or go for a longer lasting bag so it’s not single use. Make sure the card in the LP sleeves is recycled, and the pressing plants are using non-toxic inks.
“Transportation is key, and the sooner that low or no emissions ways are mainstream for transporting the finished vinyl, the better,” he adds. “I’d also like to see more local pressing plants – there are very few in the UK and they are expensive and constantly booked up, so if there was more development in that area it would help. In the future you’d like to think technology would help a lot of industry operate in much more localised ways and possibly use materials closer to home.”
And speaking of materials, there are even examples of artists adopting new ideas entirely – in 2019, a ‘vinyl’ release from artist Nick Mulvey was made out of 100 per cent recycled ocean plastic found on the Cornish coastline.
Some UK labels have been particularly proactive in sustainability, like big independents Beggars Group and Ninja Tune – between them home to the likes of Queens Of The Stone Age to Black Country, New Road – who’ve this week committed to plans to become carbon-negative (meaning they remove more carbon from the atmosphere than they create). They’ll not just make sure packaging from their releases is recycled and recyclable, but cut down on things like single-use stickers. They’re also calling on pressing plants to switch to renewable energy.
This even extends to retailers. Some record stores, whose livelihoods largely depend on the sale of traditional vinyl, are being proactive. Norman Records, based in Leeds, has published advice for shoppers encouraging them to think more sustainably. That even includes buying less vinyl and embracing vinyl’s cyclical “resale and reuse” culture, as well as giving the option for customer’s to convert their loyalty points into credits that support plastic offsetting measures.
“We feel it’s important to recognise because, when push comes to shove, we’re essentially part of the fossil fuel industry,” Nathon Raine, director of Norman Records tells Kerrang!. “A relatively tiny part, sure, but we’re selling oil here, not lentils. Reducing the footprint of vinyl starts by acknowledging it has a footprint.”
What you and your favourite artist can do
From a fans’ point of view, there’s lots you can do. Maybe you’re well educated in this stuff; if not, Sam Carter suggests starting with a few hours on your favourite search engine or immersing yourself in the documentaries on Netflix – Seaspiracy, A Life On Our Planet and Kiss The Ground are just a few. Then, it’s about practical action: think about your carbon footprint when you next get to go to a gig – take public transport if you can, or car-share to your next festival. If you’re in charge of the energy supply to your home, switch to renewables. It’s easy and can save you money. Next time you buy a band T‑shirt read up about where it’s come from or how it’s made – or ask the artist themselves. Even if they don’t know, the fact you’re asking will encourage them think about it. Get creative with your old band merch, upcycle them into a new garment yourself – YouTube’s full of tutorials.
Make sure you support artists when they launch green initiatives – bands including Pink Floyd, The 1975 and In Hearts Wake have been known to plant trees for every CD or gig ticket they sell. Mostly importantly, talk to your friends and family about the climate crisis; awareness and advocacy is everything.
As for the music, there’s practical action taking place across the industry. Of course, artists are protesting in their songwriting; from Gojira to Enter Shikari. “Mothership, our second single from back in 2006, was a warning about disappearing coral reefs, one of the first signs of climate change,” says Enter Shikari’s Rou Reynolds.
Outside of their creative output, artists can have huge persuasive influence – shouting about a cleaner, better, fairer future in interviews and at their shows. Public pressure on our elected officials works. “In terms of using your platform to discuss this,” says Sam Carter, “I cannot think of anything more important right now.”
“We can all do our own bit to address climate change, be that through cutting out meat and fast fashion, or supporting renewable energy companies, but most of our efforts as individuals and artists should be directed at applying pressure to governments and policy makers,” adds Rou. “Climate change is a global problem. It therefore needs coordinated global action… we are at a pivotal point in the whole of human history. We are amongst the most important generations of humans to have ever lived.”
The music industry might just be one corner of the gigantic super-structure that is the climate crisis, but it has huge influence to inspire the action that’s needed. So don’t be disheartened. Complain, shout, protest. You can do your bit, but also don’t let our leaders and big business owners get away with not doing what’s required. It’s your future in their hands. We all want to still be enjoying our favourite bands in decades to come. There’s no music on a dead planet, after all.
For more information, visit Music Declares Emergency.
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