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20 May 2022

The pop stars tackling the climate cost of live music

From Billie Eilish to Brian Eno, musicians are increasingly determined to reverse the environmental damage caused by touring.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

In the mid-Nineties Massive Attack went from being a core act in Bristol’s eccentric live scene to one of the most popular bands in Britain, bringing trip-hop into the mainstream. Soon, at the height of the industry’s pre-digital boom, they were touring the world. As they did they increasingly relied on aeroplane and coach travel – not only for the band and their crew but for their extensive sound and lighting gear, which also required a lot of energy to power. As the band’s fan base grew, they racked up a significant carbon footprint, and became increasingly aware of climate change – and the part they played in it.

“It’s only when you see it calculated in front of you that you start to think, ‘Oh my God,’” the group’s founding member Robert Del Naja – also known as 3D – told the New Statesman in May. Massive Attack learned about carbon offsetting – most commonly where an individual or organisation pays to have trees planted to balance out their carbon footprint – and during the period of live shows supporting their 1998 UK No 1 record Mezzanine, worked with organisations such as Future Forest to “offset” their carbon emissions.

Now, however, Del Naja believes that offsetting is not enough to deal with the climate emergency. The UK aims to cut emissions by 78 per cent compared with 1990 levels by 2035. “We need to move into greenhouse gas emission reductions super fast,” Del Naja said. “Offset is not the answer.”

In 2018 Massive Attack put aside money from their tour of that year and commissioned the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research to produce a report on how the live-music industry could reduce its emissions. The result was the “Roadmap to Super Low Carbon Live Music”, an open-source report that was published in June 2021. Crucially the roadmap does not aim to offset emissions or reach net zero. “It is essential that we actually cut emissions,” said Carly McLachlan, a professor of climate and energy policy at the University of Manchester and the director of Tyndall Manchester, who worked on the report.

The report’s key message is the importance of low-carbon planning. McLachlan told me that environmental activism and creative experimentation do not have to be at odds with one another. “They don’t have to clash. You can do brilliant, creative stuff in a low-carbon way if you plan it from the beginning.”

Massive Attack and the Tyndall Centre are not the only groups working to make live music more sustainable. While the music industry has a history of environmental activism – Al Gore’s Live Earth concerts in 2007 brought the topic to a large global audience – in recent years climate action has entered the mainstream and the carbon-intensive music industry has, like many others, come under scrutiny. The latest research – which, completed in 2010, is well out of date – suggested that live music produced 405,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK every year.

When Covid-19 halted touring, many within the industry asked whether a return to the excessive travelling of pre-pandemic times was sustainable. Livestreamed concerts, which have a negligible carbon footprint compared to an international live tour, replaced in-person events while many people were staying at home. It was clear, however, that in-person shows would have to return in some way. Listeners craved the buzz of a live crowd, while artists missed the opportunity to share their music with real-life fans. Could the recovery from Covid-19 be green?

There have been breakthroughs behind the scenes. In April 2021 Live Nation Entertainment, the conglomerate comprising Ticketmaster, Festival Republic and other companies, introduced the Green Nation Touring Programme, promising to develop “industry-leading guidance and best practices to enhance the sustainability of concert tours”. In December 2021 the three major record labels (Sony, Universal and Warner) as well as independents such as the Secretly and Beggars groups signed the Music Climate Pact, pledging to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, and to achieve a 50 per cent reduction by 2030. These targets are important, but how might they result in tangible, significant change now?

Enter Coldplay, who have said that their current tour will in total emit 50 per cent less carbon than their previous one. At the centre of these stadium shows, which will culminate in UK dates in August, is a dance floor that generates electricity when fans jump on it, partly powering the venue. Other power will come from solar energy, recycled cooking oil from local restaurants and, where available, mains power from renewable sources. The tour’s itinerary minimises air travel, eschewing the old practice of zig-zagging around the globe to fit in as many dates as possible. 

Coldplay are not the first band to adopt such measures but their reach (during their last tour, in 2016-17, they played to 5.4 million people) makes their dedication to climate action crucial. “What Coldplay are doing is remarkable,” said Lewis Jamieson, a co-founder of Music Declares Emergency (MDE), a pressure group that works to involve musicians in conversations about the climate. “Everything Coldplay do will in some way filter down through to smaller acts and smaller venues to make more things possible.”

Yet it is audience travel that is the single biggest contributor to music industry emissions, accounting for 80 per cent of the carbon footprint of any live event. Coldplay have created an app to help fans plan low-carbon travel to their shows, offering a merchandise discount code for those who choose “green journeys”. Artists and their crews have little control over this aspect of their tours, however.

Massive Attack have long refused to play at events sponsored by car manufacturers or airlines, Del Naja said. He dissects a festival’s “shtick” before agreeing to play it, considering such questions as “Are we complicit in promoting aviation travel to festivals abroad?”. He believes that an important step forward will be for promoters to offer local presales, where fans who live close to venues can buy tickets before anyone else. After such a period, promoters could offer bundle packages including train tickets, encouraging attendees to use public transport rather than drive or fly. (Glastonbury Festival has for a long time offered coach packages.)

Del Naja is working to enact many of these measures in his next tour. In 2023 Massive Attack and the Smile – a new group comprising Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood, with Sons of Kemet drummer Tom Skinner – will perform six live shows organised by Act 1.5, a “temporary agency” set up to develop prototype models of a decarbonised music industry. Act 1.5 “shouldn’t have to exist”, Del Naja said. “If we end up existing for more than two years then something’s not right, because we’re still talking and nothing’s happening.”

A large part of what Lewis Jamieson and his team at Music Declares Emergency do involves working with artists to help them transpose their climate message to their fanbase. When the organisation was founded in 2019, Jamieson found that a lot of musicians cared about the issue, but did not know how to speak out about it. They were aware of not being experts, and fearful of “being exposed to quite aggressive pushback”. He recalled tabloid journalists who, within 24 hours of MDE’s launch, had researched details about the bands they were working with, and published the carbon footprint of their coming world tours. “In an age of media scrutiny, you have to be mindful.”

“I don’t mind any backlash at all,” Chris Martin told the BBC when Coldplay first announced their 2022 tour. He was right to pre-empt it: in May the band were branded “useful idiots for greenwashing” by campaigners after partnering with the Finnish oil company Neste, which claims to be one of the world’s largest producers of renewable and sustainable fuels – but some of whose suppliers have been linked, according to Friends of the Earth, to large-scale deforestation. Does this mean Coldplay’s climate work was done in vain?

“One of the accusations that is often levelled against people who are trying to do something in their own lives on climate change is: ‘hypocrite’,” Brian Eno told the New Statesman. Eno, the pioneering ambient musician and producer – and one-time member of Roxy Music – is the founder of EarthPercent, a charity that asks music industry professionals to pledge a small percentage of their income to environmental causes. EarthPercent collects this money and then directs it to the organisations its advisory panel deems “most impactful” on climate action.

“The charge of hypocrisy is very hurtful, and often accurate,” Eno said. “It’s not just Coldplay; we’re all hypocrites. But we cannot help it. We’re stuck in a system that only gives us that choice.”

The accusation is an example of “the best being the enemy of the good”: until some crucial resources – such as so-called sustainable aviation fuels – are available, no internationally touring group can be carbon zero, as Coldplay pointed out. “It’s getting better, and it will get better, but it will only get better by people doing something good, even if that’s not the best thing,” Eno said.

Music – which brings together communities of passionate fans – offers fertile ground for significant climate action. In fact a recent survey from MDE found that music fans are more likely to care about climate change than those who do not see music as an important part of their life. The influence of artists with large, devoted audiences, such as Billie Eilish, who is in June hosting a six-day climate-focused event at the O2 Arena, is a powerful tool. Eilish’s appearance at the 2019 American Music Awards in a specially designed MDE outfit embellished with their rallying cry “No music on a dead planet” was a lesson in what culture does best: taking a complex idea and communicating it directly, said Jamieson. “It put the slogan in front of millions of eyeballs.”

But progress will come from collective action: it cannot be up to artists alone. “I’m going to change my behaviour first,” said Del Naja, “and I’m going to make sure I’m not responsible for producing that carbon. The artist is the catalyst for all this behaviour. But the artist shouldn’t have to take responsibility for the whole industry.”

Jamieson agreed. “Music doesn’t change the world,” he said, “but it does bring everyone together to have a conversation about how to do it.”

[See also: Liam Gallagher’s new album is a soporific wade through the swampy waste of Britpop]

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