The Day the Music Became Carbon-Neutral
By Amanda Petrusic
The New Yorker
It’s exceptionally difficult to be a modern person without behaving in plainly contradictory ways. I think about this whenever I find myself digging a sticky metal straw out of my backpack to responsibly sip some locally sourced orange juice before I board an airplane to California that will discharge several metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It is true that every little gesture matters. But it is also true that most of us are more likely to make small and showy sacrifices than to fully reorient our lives around inconvenient truths; even people who compost with zeal or devotedly eschew single-use plastics don’t always interrogate their other habits with the same fervor. Travel is a particularly tangled indulgence. It’s hard to deliver a convincing speech about the importance of moral action under late capitalism when you’ve never seen the Grand Canyon, or your mother is calling again to say that she really wants you home for Christmas dinner.
It’s also hard to coolly appraise your carbon footprint when your vocation demands that you spend a sizable portion of the year travelling the world. In the last few decades, musicians have come to rely heavily on touring to generate revenue, and that means more travel, more concession stands, and more cars jammed into parking lots. As glorious and life-affirming as live music can be, the magnitude of the enterprise—how much carbon a tour produces, how much waste a concert generates—can be troubling. In November, Billie Eilish wore an enormous black T-shirt to the American Music Awards, with the phrase “NO MUSIC ON A DEAD PLANET” spelled out in red rhinestones. Below the text was an outline of lapping flames.
Earlier in November, Coldplay announced that it would not be touring in support of its most recent album, “Everyday Life,” because of environmental concerns. (In 2016 and 2017, the band played a hundred and twenty-two shows, on five different continents.) In a recent piece for the Guardian, Robert Del Naja, the vocalist for Massive Attack, a British trip-hop band, said that he and his band mates had discussed ending touring altogether. “In an emergency context, business as usual—regardless of its nature, high profile or popularity—is unacceptable,” Del Naja wrote.
Refusing to tour is still financially possible for only very well established bands such as Coldplay. Many younger or smaller artists are instead partnering with environmental organizations to help rethink how they do their jobs. Last year, Massive Attack asked the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, at the University of Manchester, to study the environmental impact of its typical tour cycle. Carly McLachlan, the director of the Tyndall Centre, said that she and her colleagues will be “analyzing travel associated with the band, staff, and equipment, energy consumption at the venues, and audience travel” from Massive Attack’s two most recent tour cycles. “The idea is to use the understanding we get from that analysis to play around with doing things differently so we can see where we could make the greatest impact,” she said. “It’s about sharing ideas and experience and trying to catalyze change.”
In 2004, Adam Gardner, a guitarist and vocalist in the band Guster, and Lauren Sullivan, an environmentalist and community organizer, founded Reverb, a nonprofit that supports musicians looking to neutralize or at least lessen the environmental impact of their work. Guster has been touring since the mid-nineties. “I remember talking to bands we were touring with at the time, like John Mayer and the Dave Matthews Band,” Gardner said. “We all lamented the fact that our tours were harming the environment. When I told Lauren about those conversations, and how hard it was for tours to even begin thinking about being more green, she came up with the idea for Reverb.”
The organization helps artists in a variety of ways—including planning and staffing eco-villages where concertgoers can donate money for environmental causes and receive and refill reusable water bottles through a partnership with Nalgene—but its premier service involves embedding a trained Reverb staff member within a band’s preëxisting crew, with the exclusive purpose of handling the logistics associated with running an environmentally responsible tour. “Ditching disposables backstage and on buses,” Gardner said, “greening hospitality riders, biodiesel in buses and trucks, composting in catering, neutralizing carbon emissions, sourcing catering food from local farms, encouraging fans to carpool and take public transport, proper battery disposal and rechargeables, organic merchandise, encouraging venues to be more green: these are all things we help bands do.” Reverb has worked on more than two hundred and fifty tours, for clients including Eilish, Shawn Mendes, Maroon 5, Phish, the 1975, Harry Styles, Pink, Fleetwood Mac, and others. The cost varies with the length of the tour and the particulars of the approach, but Gardner said that it’s possible for the price to be entirely covered by fund-raising, partnerships with like-minded sponsors, foundational grants, or charity auctions.
It’s also possible for musicians to share the financial burden of environmental responsibility with their fans. Dan Snaith, a composer and producer who records as Caribou, has partnered with PLUS1.org, a nonprofit founded by the indie-rock band Arcade Fire, which adds one dollar to every ticket sold and then consults with artists on how best to donate the money. “Over the past four years, our artists were mainly interested in supporting mental health, gender equality, and civil rights, with climate change much lower down the list,” Marika Anthony-Shaw, a co-founder and the C.E.O. of PLUS1, said. “Now that list is looking much different, with climate justice right at the top. There is obviously no easy or single solution or path forward for touring. It’s going to require a big shift in industry practice—production, energy management, tour routings, travel requirements—as well as cultural and policy practice.”
Snaith said that he keeps running into the same problem: constant travel. “We’re still very much learning and researching, but I am not convinced that a compelling solution will be available, other than drastically reducing the amount of travel that we do,” he said. “It seems to me that the only solution commensurate with the scale of the problem is fundamentally changing the way musicians work. We have to stop seeing it as reasonable that we’d play in Barcelona one day, London the next, and New York two days later. And stop seeing it as reasonable that, at a big festival in Barcelona, fifty thousand out of the hundred thousand people there have flown from the U.K. to attend.”
The Canadian singer and songwriter Tamara Lindeman, who records as the Weather Station, admitted that she often feels helpless while trying to square the requirements of her job with its impact on the planet. “There’s no way I can see to make touring sustainable or environmentally responsible,” she told me recently. “Touring happens in vans and planes.” She already has a no-plastic stipulation on her rider and invests in carbon offsets, and she plans to give up short-haul flights, but Lindeman nonetheless recognizes that those gestures are small. “To me, the situation of the touring musician—where, at best, you can shave something off your emissions, try and offset the rest, and still feel shitty about it—is very illustrative of the situation as a whole,” she said. “The changes most people can make are limited by access and affordability. We want to make big changes, and we’re often stuck with small ones.”
Tour itineraries aren’t always logical documents. In the summer, especially, artists tend to plan their routes around lucrative festivals, such as Glastonbury, which draws around two hundred thousand people daily, or Coachella, which hosts about ninety-nine thousand each day. Most major festivals now have sustainability initiatives in place; Glastonbury recently banned single-use plastic bottles and allows only compostable or reusable plates and cutlery. But nobody has really figured out how to do anything about all the waste generated (Coachella produces around a hundred and seven tons of garbage a day, twenty per cent of which can be recycled) or, more urgently, all the travel involved in getting performers and fans to what is often a semirural area, without a significant public-transportation infrastructure.
In 2019, Unsound, an underground music-and-visual-arts festival held annually in Kraków, Poland, joined with the Aeris Futuro Foundation to estimate the festival’s total carbon emissions, with the idea of planting enough trees to help offset the event’s environmental impact. (Carbon offsets refer to an investment in some kind of technology or practice—often reforestation—that aids in the reduction of carbon-dioxide emissions.) The foundation estimated the over-all carbon footprint of the festival at 943,472 kilograms of CO2, an estimate based on “the travel of the audience members, artists, guests and media, as well as overall usage of energy and resources to produce the festival.” (The “vast majority” of the emissions resulted from artists and audience members flying to Kraków.) Attendees could then make a donation to the carbon-offset fund, based on their point of origin—if you flew to Kraków from Sydney, Australia, you would be asked to buy forty-four plants, whereas if you arrived from Kyiv, you would be asked to buy three plants, and so on. Offsets are appealing in part because the transaction is simple. But they offer their purchasers a dangerous sense of acquittal—buy this and you are instantly absolved of culpability. “My personal view is that bands should move away from the idea of getting to ‘carbon-neutral’ by buying offsets and instead commit to working toward really low emissions levels,” McLachlan told me.
Last year, four scholars—Matt Brennan, Jo Collinson Scott, Angela Connelley, and Gemma Lawrence—from universities throughout the U.K. published a paper titled “Do Music Festival Communities Address Environmental Sustainability and How? A Scottish Case Study” in the academic journal Popular Music. The authors were interested in analyzing how music festivals consider issues of sustainability, but they also wanted to raise questions about pervasive greenwashing—any small gesture that, like the purchasing of an offset, might stop attendees and performers from addressing more complex issues—and the vague hypocrisy inherent to the entire enterprise.
“Since its early days in the 1960s, pop music festival culture has been concerned with the practice or at least rhetoric of care, nurture and environmentalism,” they wrote. “Festivals derive cultural cachet from their historic association with environmental utopianism and the attraction of ‘getting back to the garden’ (to paraphrase Joni Mitchell), but more often festival sites vividly dramatise the difficulty of living sustainably—a challenge that is all the more visible when rural landscapes are temporarily transformed into festival communities.”
They studied the tour activity of five Scottish artists in 2015, using an online carbon-tracking tool, and found that, collectively, they generated 19,314 kilograms of CO2 emissions between April and September, when most music festivals take place. “The biggest dilemma for these artists, who are all at the grassroots level, rather than the Massive Attack or Coldplay level, was A) touring was their biggest source of revenue, and B) their fees were much better when they signed exclusivity agreements to not play in the surrounding region for a certain period of time,” Brennan told me. “That leads to the most financially beneficial tour itineraries also making the least sense from a carbon-emissions perspective.”
For years, some artists—Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, Neil Young—have insisted on using tour buses that run on biodiesel fuel, but smaller bands generally have to make do with a gas-burning fleet or figure out a way to acquire and retrofit a vehicle that will accommodate a band and all its gear. In 2009, the electronic musician Dan Deacon executed a North American tour in a school bus that ran on waste vegetable oil; anyone who showed up at the venue with five gallons of clean, filtered oil received two free tickets to the show. If you arrived with thirty gallons, Deacon and his crew would serve you a home-cooked dinner aboard the bus. (Deacon has successfully completed eight tours this way, although he no longer asks fans to donate waste oil.)
When Deacon toured with the experimental-pop group Animal Collective, in 2013, he didn’t understand why their tour bus was running almost constantly. “He thought it was silly. And I didn’t really have a good answer for him,” Brian Weitz, who performs in Animal Collective, told me. Weitz has a bachelor’s degree in environmental science from Columbia and an M.P.A. in environmental policy from Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. It’s not unusual for bands to keep their tour buses running even when they’re not moving—it allows the air-conditioning to stay on, which makes spending time on the bus more comfortable, and it powers various onboard appliances, including a refrigerator where band members store groceries. “One night in the U.S.,” the musician William Doyle recently wrote in an Opinion piece for the Metro, “I stood outside the bus and listened to the air conditioning whirring through the open door. I realised that we’d not really turned off the bus for over two weeks. We still had three weeks of tour to go.” Doyle announced in the same piece that he had significantly reduced his tour dates.
Last year, Animal Collective started inputting all its tour travel into a carbon calculator. “It was crazy,” Weitz said. “We emitted the same amount as eight cars in an entire year—but we did that in a ten-day tour.” The group decided to invest in The Ocean Foundation’s offset program, Seagrass Grow, which plants and protects coastal wetlands. Wetland plants, and the sediment they grow in, consume and sequester large quantities of carbon. “We might not be entirely sure of the science of the offset, but we thought it was still a good program to support,” Weitz said. According to the Ocean Foundation, “seagrass habitats are up to thirty-five times more effective at their carbon uptake and storage abilities” than Amazon rainforests. They provide nursery grounds for juvenile fish; in conjunction with mangroves, they abate storm surges and protect against coastal erosion.
The band is now considering developing a “best practices” guide for touring bands, including information on offsets and how to reduce or ban single-use plastics at their shows. Weitz also thought there might be an opportunity for an angel investor—maybe a legacy musician with a surplus of cash—to “come in and retrofit the rental-transportation economy for touring. I don’t know if bus companies have the resources or the incentive to retrofit their fleets,” he said. “There are people in our industry who care about these issues and have capital.”
It might seem as if one way to balance the environmental impact of touring would be for consumers to buy physical media, thus reducing the extent to which musicians have to rely exclusively on live shows for income. But both compact discs and vinyl records are made from plastic (polycarbonate plastic for CDs, and PVC plastic for records), which is difficult to recycle and can take centuries to decompose. (Vinyl production has also credibly, if not generously, been described as “a noisy, dirty, 19th-century steam-driven manufacturing process, involving a series of environmentally troubling materials.”) Paying to stream music isn’t a panacea, either: the energy required to store, stream, or download songs results in the emission of hundreds of millions of kilograms of greenhouse gases. In his book “Decomposed,” Kyle Devine, an associate professor in the department of musicology at the University of Oslo, suggests that even though music has been largely dematerialized, the CO2 equivalents generated by the consumption of music have doubled in the streaming era. (Greenhouse-gas emissions from music consumption totalled a hundred and fifty-seven million kilograms in 2000, when compact discs were still widely sold; in 2016, streaming generated between two hundred million and three hundred and fifty million kilograms in the U.S. alone.)
Josh Dibb, also of Animal Collective, admitted that he had to work to overcome a sense of paralysis. “For a few years, I felt mostly overwhelmed by the news,” he said. “I found it all so bleak. I felt hopeless and incredibly freaked out. I began experiencing anxiety symptoms brought on by my awareness of what was happening. I still do. But somehow, this past year, it just became clear that being freaked out and not doing anything is insane. Feeling defeated is not really an option. Or maybe it is, but I’m choosing a different way.”
It seems worth pointing out that live music offers people a very particular kind of joy. For me, a concert is one of the most reliable antidotes to the alienation and anxiety of modern living, in part because live music has very little to do with economic productivity, and instead merely requires that a person be awake to an actual moment. It feels good, sometimes, to be jarred back into the present. As music becomes increasingly individualized—we already mostly listen to fixed, carefully produced recordings on headphones, often in private spaces—it feels more essential than ever to protect the communal roots of song, and the increasingly rarified experience of singing along with your friends and neighbors.
Even climate experts are careful not to imply that musicians should stay home. “Music, art, and culture are a really beautiful part of what it is to be human,” McLachlan said. But she believes that the industry-wide reckoning that’s already under way needs to be sustained and expanded: “If this is something we really value in our lives, we need to make sure we can do it in a way that reduces impact.” There are ways for artists to rethink the modern tour: more-responsible routing, fewer dates (and fewer exclusivity clauses), less tolerance for waste. There are also ways for fans to reimagine their support: to localize their interests, investing in bands that live and play in the same place; to use public transportation to travel to shows, or to pay slightly higher ticket prices to help offset carbon emissions. The climate crisis demands this kind of vast cultural audit. Together, we’ll try to figure out how to fix the things that make us better.