Greener rooms: how is the music industry responding to the environmental impact of touring?
Ten years ago, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke made headlines when he was reported to have said his band would forgo an appearance at Glastonbury due to environmental concerns – specifically a lack of public transport infrastructure for fans travelling to the festival site.
While Yorke would later refute the statement in a blog post (since deleted, but you can read a summary here), his comments regarding venue choices and public transport provision were repeated in an editorial he wrote for a guest-edited, climate change-focused edition of the Observer Magazine. Indeed, Yorke had been a prominent campaigner for greater environmental awareness for years – having fronted a major campaign for Friends of the Earth called The Big Ask in 2006.
At the time, the environmental impact of touring was a frequent topic of discussion in the press, drawing attention to obvious factors like the use of private jets, as well as the less thought-of, like the accumulated mileage of fans travelling to shows, excess non-recyclable litter, and lavish riders that (more often than not) end up going to waste. As well as Radiohead, big names like Coldplay, The Roots, and The Rolling Stones were all considering environmental causes when planning tours – including publicity-courting measures such as offsetting the carbon footprint of their trips by planting trees. In 2010, Drake’s first headline tour as a solo artist was run in conjunction with Reverb’s since-shuttered Campus Consciousness Tour.
However, in many ways, the argument that Yorke was essentially having with himself via the press in 2008 sums up the messy conundrum faced by artists for whom tours form a core part of their existence: how do you balance a commitment to touring and performing live with the perhaps more universal duty to live in a way that’s environmentally sustainable?
And while Radiohead were at the time easily well enough established to miss out on a Glastonbury slot, the same could hardly be said for the vast majority of acts on the live circuit – then or now.
Since the late noughties, environmental causes appear to have fallen from the frontlines (or at the very least, the headlines) of many acts’ agendas. Chiara Badiali, project manager at Julie’s Bicycle, a London-based charity that supports climate action in the creative industries, has noted this slip too. “It’s certainly been less in the public eye and at the forefront of industry discussions,” she says, “and this has mostly mirrored what’s been happening in wider society (at least in the Global North), where climate change and other environmental issues faded somewhat out of mainstream view in the wake of the economic crisis and became increasingly used as a partisan political football.”
Indeed, looking back, the year 2008 marked the beginning of a storm that’s been whirling for the past decade. And not only because of the financial crisis: the ubiquity of smartphones and the mobile internet has ushered on a wave of digital disruption too. The music industry, particularly risk-averse in the wake of Lehman Brothers’ collapse and at the time still clinging onto record sales for revenue, still hasn’t quite caught up with this digital revolution. The result? “It’s been really difficult to keep this long-term, pretty abstract threat [of climate change] on the top of the agenda vs. short-term crises,” Badiali says.
That’s not to say that nothing has been happening in the field, though, and Badiali is buoyant in pointing out that there’s “definitely been a resurgent interest and urgency in the past year or so.” This summer’s heatwave served as a stark reminder for many of the creeping effects of climate change, and recent high profile campaigns aimed at reducing single-use plastics (straws in particular) have helped to bring the broader issue of environmental sustainability back into the spotlight.
Andy Inglis, an artist and tour manager (among other things), argues that it’s “easier to be environmentally considerate now than it ever was, because societies are generally more open to the conversations, our cultural institutions are often staffed by younger people who have more to lose than older people when the Thames Barrier can’t cope any more, and the sheer number of environmentally friendly products (around food particularly) has rocketed in the past two to three years.”
However, at a time when even the biggest-selling artists are increasingly dependent on live shows as a main source of revenue, money to be made from tours is even more valuable than before. This makes the cost of environmentally-friendly measures, such as squeezing fewer dates into a tour, harder to bear. Inglis contests the notion that artists depend more on touring than record sales to make money, arguing that the high costs associated with going on tour are often overlooked – “a four-piece hardcore band on the UK circuit isn’t paying their rent via £200 fees at the Prince Albert in Brighton,” he says. But, if anything, his argument highlights the issue of a profit pinch for musicians working today. And faced with that pinch, turning down an opportunity to earn becomes more difficult – not to mention that touring is supposed to be one of the highlights of life as a musician.
"At a time when even the biggest-selling artists are increasingly dependent on live shows as a main source of revenue, money to be made from tours is even more valuable than before"
“Between 2014 and 2015 I reckon I took, at the very least, 100 planes, and I never once thought of the impact,” says William Doyle, then performing as East India Youth. “I was very much wrapped up in my own bullshit. The lure of the touring fantasy can make it difficult to [consider the impact you’re having], but I think more or less all of the mythology surrounding being a musician or artist is complete fucking rubbish – and the prominence we’ve given the touring life and all of the trappings it comes with is no different.” Ultimately, Doyle believes that musicians should work to reduce their reliance on touring, if possible, by “cultivating alternative revenue streams.”
The issue is particularly acute for DJs, who by their very nature depend more on live performance fees than royalties or record sales. What’s more, the relative ease of getting from venue to venue without having to transport much (if anything) by way of gear means that DJs can often find themselves under pressure to attend multiple bookings within a single evening. DJs for Climate Action is a coalition of DJs that aims to raise the profile of environmental issues in the otherwise glitzy, global world of dance music. Sammy Bananas, who founded the organisation, argues that DJs “have a responsibility to engage with the issue [of climate change]” given the realities of their work.
(Another issue entirely, of course, is merchandise. T-shirts, bags, jumpers, and more still provide a strong, often welcome option for touring artists to supplement their revenue, but this comes with its own demands in terms of sourcing materials, minimising impact along the production line, and how items are packaged for point of sale.)
— DJs 4 Climate Action (@DJs4CA) May 1, 2017
All of this begs the question of what can be done to make touring a more environmentally sustainable practice – and where the responsibility for minimising the environmental impact of the live music industry lies. Is it with the artists themselves? Tour managers? Venues? Booking agents? Fans?
“For the answer, change ‘environmental impact of live music and touring’ to ‘protect the approximately 8.7 million other species on the planet from us’,” says Inglis: “it’s everyone’s responsibility.” Doyle agrees, as does Badiali, adding that “environmental impacts are distributed across so many different parts of this ecosystem that it will take everyone collectively working together.”
In terms of practical steps to take, solutions vary.
Some have argued in favour of the concept of ‘slow touring’ – which essentially involves spending longer at each stop on a tour and, in its ideal state, using that time to engage with and feed back into the local community. “It would entail creating more residency-type opportunities, different approaches to performance and engagement of audiences and communities, perhaps greater integration of the journey into the experience,” explains Badiali, but she admits that it would also require the development of a whole new business model – something she believes people in the industry “should be exploring and experimenting with.”
Elsewhere, advances in technology have caused speculation as to whether digital experiences – borne out in augmented or virtual reality – could soon become a viable alternative. Inglis is open to the idea, though argues that it’s unlikely to be an adequate replacement for all that many live shows; and Badiali points out that digital technology comes with its own raft of environmental challenges.
Currently, and in the absence of the societal shifts that these larger changes would need to work effectively, it seems a collective and generally more conscientious approach is what’s required – and to ensure that the conversation around climate action maintains its prominence. “We need to start talking about it more, with honesty, ambition, and a willingness to do something and challenge ourselves,” says Badiali.
"Elsewhere, advances in technology have caused speculation as to whether digital experiences – borne out in augmented or virtual reality – could soon become a viable alternative"
For Doyle, the conversation starts with him and his touring team – whether that be using refillable bottles, questioning the number of dates he’s taking on, adopting modes of transport that are less environmentally damaging – before extending to things like encouraging fans to minimise the impact of their own journeys to shows, or requesting environmentally friendly policies from venues and promoters. Requesting ‘greener green rooms’, for example, is a relatively simple step to take. More complex solutions, such as calculating your carbon emissions and planning tours further in advance to ensure a more energy efficient route around a country, are worth building up to.
Some venues, such as London’s Village Underground – which describes itself as an “ecological project”, as well as a cultural centre – are actively engaged with the need for all parts of the touring supply chain to be more environmentally conscious. As well as obvious moves like recycling and cutting down on single-use plastics, Village Underground’s general manager, Amelie Snyers, says that venues communicating about environmental impact, and the steps being taken to mitigate it, is key: “it’s little things to put environmental sustainability on people’s minds, and try to make them think about the changes they can start making themselves.” Venues have a responsibility, Snyers says, to have a positive impact on their audiences – both online and offline – and environmental sustainability should be part of that.
Ultimately, what seems clear is that touring will remain a key part of the mix for working artists, which means that the optimum solution will come from a combined effort to minimise the environmental impact of this corner of the music industry. And for Badiali, the way to make change happen is straightforward: “Start somewhere, even if it’s small. One action will unlock another.”