Hard Reset: Climate change and music in 2020
This time last year, the dance community took stock of its impact on climate change. Priorities may have shifted in light of Covid-19, but the global crisis also provided a wake-up call. In this conversation, three artists discuss how the pandemic has forced an industry to imagine a more sustainable future.
As 2019 drew to a close, public concern about climate change was surging. With Greta Thunberg named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year and Extinction Rebellion on the streets, it seemed as if the climate crisis had finally migrated into mainstream consciousness. The music industry was no exception, as artists and independent creative businesses raced to ‘declare a climate emergency’.
Then the pandemic hit, and turned everything upside down. The music industry has been severely damaged by Covid-19, but climate change hasn’t gone away. So we brought three artists together to hear how the pandemic is taking its toll, and whether there’s light at the end of the tunnel for musicians making their way in a climate-changed world.
Jayda G is the Ninja Tune artist who based her debut album around her environmental science studies, and hosted young scientists at events in London. Darwin is one of the team behind the Clean Scene initiative, which has big plans to get to grips with the carbon footprint of the international DJ circuit. And Kelly Lee Owens released her latest album mid-pandemic, grounded in themes of love for (and loss of) the natural world.
What has happened to the climate conversation in 2020 from your point of view as artists, is the energy still there or has everyone just dropped it?
Darwin (D): I think a lot of people are not thinking about it right now, they’re thinking about their financial stability. We saw how fast our industry was deprioritised in the face of a global crisis, and that is just a fucking snapshot of what’s going to happen in the future when all of these things set in.
Kelly Lee Owens (KLO): I think Covid has highlighted all the issues – anything that had a crack in it, the light is kind of shining through and the crack is widening and widening. Like you say, we’ve been deprioritised. The systems that are in place only serve a very small percentage of people. Moving in a direction where potentially touring may not exist in the way it does now, we need to look in industry terms how we can have fairer royalties. With Covid, we’re in survival mode, but also we’ve had more time to reflect. We’ve seen silver linings, the environment recovering in very minor ways. That was a glimmer of hope for me, initially at least.
Jayda G (JG): I think in terms of people having to stay at home, and not able to travel, we’ve had to reconsider and say, ‘OK what are the resources that I have here, locally’. It gives you a chance to look at certain societal structures that are in place. With things like Black Lives Matter happening and raising consciousness that way – it’s all going to help us deal with the climate crisis, that’s my silver lining.
D: I like your optimism!
You both mentioned silver linings. Another phrase that’s been thrown around is the idea that somehow this could be a ‘dress rehearsal’ for climate change in terms of the significance of the disruption. Is that how it’s understood do you think? Or is everyone like a coiled spring ready to jump on a plane as soon as they can?
D: A bit of both, because we don’t know anything else. One thing I have felt real grief over is not being able to have human connections, that realisation that we all really need each other, that human touch and interaction and energy in the same room. That provides a safe space for people, those situations literally save lives in other ways.
D: Going back to what you said, the answer to being more sustainable is going back to more regional bookings, more local residencies. We need to get back to the essence of what we do. It’s about communal spaces and shared experiences. I spoke to DJ Storm, who I booked last year, and she was telling me she used to come to Germany in the 90s, she would do eight shows and just drive from city to city. They used to do it differently because they didn’t have the option, and we need to get back to trying to do it smarter. What’s up with the model of paying local acts way less than people out of town? That model needs to end too – the system is so fucked up.
KLO: Because we’ve been pushed into a corner, right? Live shows are the only way we can make money, pretty much. How do we change that? How do we come back to being held by this industry, in a fair way?
D: The anger towards streaming services had been building for a while, but then when Covid hit, it was like, ‘wait a minute – all the corporations are taking all of our money’. And we just saw it revealed on such a big scale.
“One thing I have felt real grief over is not being able to have human connections, that realisation that we all really need each other, that human touch and interaction and energy in the same room”
– Kelly Lee Owens
It’s thrown a lot of things into sharp relief. One of them is showing a possible future for music around live streaming, or when the artists or the crowd are ‘not there’. Some people see innovation but lots of people see an underwhelming future?
JG: Streaming definitely has its purpose and, in terms of the environment, it helps a little. But it’s like Kelly was saying earlier we need connection, that’s the whole point: we’re bringing people together so we can all have togetherness, and you feel closer to people, and you have empathy and you start caring about people more and it’s a better world in the end! You take that away and all of a sudden everyone’s just on the internet – what is that?
There has to be a world where there’s a bit of both, maybe? You have shows that are streamed, but where there’s a hundred people there and they’re all local or something, so there’s a shared experience that’s happening at the same time. And that has to be monetised in some way as well because artists have to be paid for their work.
KLO: It keeps coming back to the value that is placed on the arts. But with regards to climate change generally, I’m sick and tired of the onus being put on the individual to create changes. To divert the responsibility away from government and corporations consistently is something I feel deep rage over right now. There’s a bigger picture here, if greener energy was provided to power festivals, to power everything… governments are failing time and time again, but individuals are being blamed, when it’s already hard enough for people.
JG: Any politician from any party should have some kind of baseline policy on climate change that has to be there. Because this is our home, once this all goes to shit you know… when it comes to voting that is one thing that you can do.
D: One thing our scene has shown is that dance music is a progressive community. We’ve made so many strides to change things, with equal line-ups, and we need to change the systems in our immediate community. I feel empowered by being able to do things within my community, try to do that at least… as soon as I start thinking about the whole world, it’s just overwhelming.
KLO: Fully, and being overwhelmed is real. Sometimes I cry in grief for the planet, and space for that reality is important. We’re all individuals who care… we’re going to do what we can, that’s a given. But in order to really change things, let’s have conversations – because we’re on public platforms – and talk about how the biggest thing that can be done is keep putting pressure on governments and changing structures.
Is it maybe less about tonnes of carbon saved by artists not flying, and more about setting an example, showing by doing, that kind of thing?
KLO: I only have two people in my crew, so when we travel we can do trains instead of planes, the basic stuff. I remember playing End of the Road festival last year and I was one of a few artists who had requested no plastic, no meat – but I feel like the festivals in general should just be doing that.
JG: As artists, we need to know that information as well. That information should be readily available because my agent, for example, would know if I get offered three shows and I can only choose one… It’s important knowing how sustainable they are, where their energy is coming from. It empowers us to make better decisions.
D: These are all things that we are going to try and change within our (Clean Scene) initiative. One agency we work with (Poly), all their artists have green riders.
“It’s a huge issue because so many artists are struggling so much right now. We can’t just focus on one thing on its own, so many other things are connected”
– Jayda G
Do you think there’s buy-in in the wider music industry to these ideas? It sounds like there is some way to go yet, from what you’re saying. Is it fair to ask people to change when they’ve been slammed by Covid?
JG: It’s a huge issue because so many artists are struggling right now. They will need to make money from their art, we can’t just focus on one thing on its own, so many other things are connected. Like with BLM, if we dismantle white supremacy, that will inherently help the climate crisis in a positive way, if we’re all lifting each other up, supporting each other.
D: Like Kelly says, it’s not about going after the individual. The DJ is the bottom rung of the ladder really, the DJ goes where the money goes and where the agent books them. So if we can change promoters’ way of thinking and agents’ ways of thinking… getting promoters to route more efficiently and to feel some level of accountability and responsibility. It’s the whole system that needs changing.
With the idea of local scenes, is there a bit of a risk that this makes sense in the metropolitan areas where the scene is healthy but doesn’t make sense elsewhere, so people come to the big cities anyway?
JG: That’s a huge issue! Where I’m from the scene is literally made up of 50 people.
KLO: I’m from a village of a few hundred people!
JG: Here we are, three artists, promoters, DJs who have moved to more metropolitan cities in order for us to work. It’s fine to say ‘promoters need to book more regionally’, but it leaves out a lot of people.
KLO: I’m from Wales, where there are so many problems. It’s been an oppressed state by the English, we couldn’t sing or speak in our own language, it’s a working class country, lots of poverty. I’m working at the moment with the Welsh Government to encourage young people to create and bring about opportunities in the communities they’re from.
JG: If every artist looked at their own story and where they came from, and used that to work within their own community and give something back, then people feel more connected to where they’re from. They feel more validation and that their experiences matter – and that helps with the climate crisis too.
Something that is coming out strongly in all the polling is that no-one wants to go back to normal. Is there an opportunity in there even though the picture is bleak?
KLO: We’ve known for a long time that something is fundamentally wrong. That’s where a lot of our anxiety and mental health issues come from. We’re only just at the beginning of this ‘great pause’, as I call it, we’ve only just begun to recognise en masse ‘oh, maybe the system is broken’. We’re just connecting with ourselves, finally.