No Music On A Dead Planet – How the Entertainment Industry Is Becoming Sustainable

At A Glance – Music Matters

Music has healing powers – there can be no doubt about it. That euphoric tingly feeling when you leave a concert after watching your favourite artist play, having re-learnt each single verse in their discography the morning previous, is a sensation second to none.

As we continue into the climate decade where each of our habitual changes makes a difference to achieving sustainable development – the environmental impact of the entertainment industry must be scrutinised. Afterall, there will be no music on a dead planet. Sustainability has struck a chord with musicians, but to what extent?

Carbon negative on a greenroom rider? Solar powered sustainable studios? Banding together to rock n’refill? Upcycled staging? Forest friendly festivals? Responsible raves?

Creating a music culture that makes sustainability indispensable will be decisive in combatting climate challenges.

Throughout the coronavirus lockdown, we have experienced a brief glimpse into a peculiar music vortex where livestreaming is the new gig. Whilst the power to move listeners remains where artists transcend our screens with captivating performances, it cannot compete with the real thing.

This article evaluates how collaboration NOT competition between artists, venues, record labels, entertainment groups and listeners will catalyse momentum in the adoption of sustainable practices. It discusses carbon footprints, leading players, innovative organisations and projects as well as friendly festivals and future opportunities.

This relatively low carbon industry can monopolise its immensely high profile to lead climate action and leverage music as a force for good.

In Focus

Carbon Soundings – Some Statistics

A University of Glasgow study on the unintended economic and environmental costs of music revealed that:

  • The amount of plastic used to make physical records has plummeted from 61 million kilograms in the 2000s to about 8 million kilograms as of 2016.
  • At peak, in the US, in 1977 (the US sales peak of the LP) the recording industry used 58 million kilograms of plastic. In 1988 (the peak of cassette sales) the industry used 56 million kilograms of plastic. And in 2000 (the peak of CD sales) the industry used 61 million kilograms of plastic. 
  • The energy it takes to stream and download digital music has caused greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to rise sharply. The study estimates that music consumption in the 2000s resulted in the emission of approximately 157 million kilograms of greenhouse gas equivalents. Now, the amount of GHGs generated from the energy needed to transmit music for streaming is estimated to be between 200 and 350 million kilograms.

Although conducted one decade ago, it’s useful to contextualise that:

  • Music recording and publishing accounted for 26% of these emissions (138 000 tons carbon dioxide per annum), while 74% derived from activities associated with live music performances (400 000 tons carbon dioxide per annum).

What Is the Environmental Fall Out From the Entertainment Industry?

The challenges that face the entertainment industry’s environmental impact are multifaceted.  It encompasses everything from the plastic usage during gigs, the carbon emissions accrued from global tour flights, transport to venues by attendees and materials used in staging equipment to name but a few. Analysing activities of all stakeholders is longwinded and the list is infinite but here are some crucial touchpoints to consider:

  • Artists & touring: Their sustainability message, carbon footprint of touring, shipping musical equipment, recording
  • Transport: Travelling to and from concerts by attendees
  • Venues: Single use plastics, waste disposal system, lighting, sound, sustainable staging
  • Promotional Material: Paper marketing materials, merchandise (clothing/posters)  
  • Record labels: energy usage in studios, plastic casing of demo CD’s

The glaring issue is the carbon footprint associated with touring. Artists are advised to travel as efficiently as possible, this includes smart mapping and doing less routes, endorsing reusable merchandise and encouraging social impact/charity donations within their ticket prices. Conservative green room riders, flying with fuel efficient leaders and selecting environmentally sound accommodation is a way to be more sustainable when on the road. What goes on tour, stays on tour – it’s not only the band or artists that travel but it’s their entire entourage including sound technicians, dancers, voice coaches, filming crew etc!  Carrying minimal equipment across borders and hiring at specific destinations reduces the carbon emissions of flights as the overall air carriers will be lighter.

For venues and event organisers, strategies on recycling, waste and public transport are key. Assessing materials used for staging, energy providers for buildings as well as encouraging these standards amongst other venues should be noted. Examples of best practice in detail are explained later in this article.

Coldplay Arena Tour

Music Moves Towards Sustainability – Key Players

Reassuringly, the wave of world-famous artists and bands have put sustainability on the map for their fans. Actions often speak louder than words so here’s what has been happening in recent years:

  • Coldplay – When the band released their album ‘Everyday Life’ in 2019, Chris Martin stated “We’re not touring this album. We’re taking time over the next year or two to work out how our tour can not only be sustainable [but] … actively beneficial.” “Our next tour will be the best possible version of a tour like that, environmentally … The hardest thing is the flying side of things. But, for example, our dream is to have a show with no single-use plastic — to have it largely solar-powered.”
  • Massive Attack – have partnered with Manchester’s Tyndall Centre. The Tyndall Centre is a research community that brings together natural scientists, engineers, social scientists and economists to produce socially impactful and policy-relevant interdisciplinary research. Researcher, Dr Chris Jones announced they will collaborate with the band to review the sources of carbon emissions from their touring schedule. Subsequently, they will produce a framework on the data collected based on travel and production, audience transportation and venues impact. He stated “It’s more effective to have a sustained process of emissions reductions across the sector than for individual artists to quit live performances. It will likely mean a major shift in how things are done now, involving not just the band but the rest of the business and the audience.”
  • The Lumineers – their 2020 tour set out to take a percentage of each ticket sold to donate to important causes. This included climate change, aiding the addiction crisis and funding local non-profit organisations to address homelessness across the US.
  • Billie Eislish – this favourite popstar amongst the younger generation intends for her next tour to be green. This includes the banning of plastic straws, fans bringing refillable water bottles and a zone dedicated to teaching fans about climate change.
  • Drake – ran his first headline ‘Away From Home’ tour in collaboration with Reverb’s Campus Consciousness Tour. This looked at minimising the output of fossil fuels during the tour. This included the use of biodiesel, recyclable products, tents with green technology to teach students about carbon emissions and promote eco-consumer sampling.
  • Radiohead – Thom Yorke in 2010 said his band would not appear at Glastonbury due to environmental concerns and the lack of public transport infrastructure for fans travelling to the festival. He also partnered and campaigned with Friends of the Earth in ‘The Big Ask’ campaign in 2006.  

The Challenge for Smaller Artists

The above case studies are all from creatives with a devout global following. There is of course a conundrum for smaller artists. Here, artists rely more heavily on circulating local regions for touring to promote their identity, music and latest records. The momentum has gathered but has definitely not reached it’s crescendo, the balance between sustainability and successful outcomes of touring must rely on green gigs.

What Does a Conscious Concert Look Like?

Having traced various avenues of the environmental impact of the industry, what exactly does organising a conscious concert entail?

Reverb, is an organisation dedicated to ‘uniting around the music we love, tackling the issues we face.’ And provides the perfect case study of how to do things differently.

They partner with musicians, festivals and venues to green their events and engage fans in environmental as well as social issues.

The list of their collaborations is infinite but Reverb has championed sustainability for the likes of Fleetwood Mac, Maroon 5, Shawn Mendes and John Mayer. From supporting not for profits, biofueled tour buses, banning single use plastics and having dedicated sustainable venues, they are making a seismic impact. Thus far in their journey to transition the music industry into one that makes a net positive effect on the planet, they have:

  • Greened over 250 tours
  • Helped reduce 120,000 tons of carbon dioxide
  • Supported over 4000 not for profits
  • Promoted over 950,000 gallons of biodiesel for touring fleets

Casting our minds to greener tours, Reverb have devised a special action plan. Whilst not an exhaustive list, here are some elements this framework takes into consideration:

  • Sourcing local food through their Farm to Stage Program
  • Ensuring proper waste disposal including recycling and composting
  • Donating unused food to local food banks
  • Collecting and donating hotel toiletries for use at local shelters
  • Hosting the REVERB Action Village where fans join the band in taking action on climate change, addiction, and homelessness. This also provides ways for fans to pledge to reduce their footprint
  • Offering green cleaning products and bio-products for catering and buses

A new notion of ‘slow touring’ has come into fruition as travel of artists falls under scrutiny. This involves spending longer on each leg of the tour and using that time to integrate with local communities. It pulls on the idea of residency opportunities and a greater integration of the journey experience into the overall tour ambitions as opposed to darting from one country to another and back again.

Green Festivals

Festivals are a form of escapism and a parallel universe which you can enter for a weekend and forget about the woes of the world to a collective of your favourite DJs, artists and creatives. Performers are the pull factor in booking tickets, but how incentivised are you to attend a festival based on their recycling or waste sorting schemes or even their upcycled staging?! Going to Burning Man whilst the planet is well, burning, means we should be responsible attendees i.e. stop abandoning your tent after one weekend in a field.

A note on tents – the Association of Independent Festivals estimates more than 250,000 tents get left behind at UK festivals each year. The average tent is mostly made out of plastic which is equivalent to 8,750 straws or 250 pint cups.

Abandoned tents at Reading Festival

A Greener Festival is an NGO that engages festival organisers through their consultancy and research practices. It is not exhaustive, but here are some key considerations:

  • Local Ecosystem
  • Local Area Impact
  • Travel & Transport
  • Power & Electricity
  • Procurement
  • Solid Waste & Recycling
  • Water Usage, Waste Water & Sewage
  • Legal Compliance & Management Systems
  • Behavioural Change & Communication
  • CO2 Analysis
  • Promote green artist rider: Reduce single-use plastics, Source food with low environmental impact and high social benefit, Reduce and balance emissions and eliminate waste

There are festivals of all sizes that make sustainability as important as their headline acts.

Glastonbury in 2019 banned single use plastics, they have stringent ecological, energy, waste and green policies which you can read about here.

In the US, Lollapalooza, was the recipient of the 2017 Illinois Sustainability Award. As stated in their Environmental Impact Report, their records demonstrated they had offset 2.4 million pounds of carbon emissions, recycled nearly 150 tons of recyclable materials and avoided 1,119,276 plastic bottles due to its refilling stations.

I Land Sound in Estonia is strictly sustainable

On a smaller scale, I Land Sound –  a four-day festival in Estonia has been sustainable since its inception in 2017. They have never permitted single use plastic, offer free water, promote reusables, have reversible vending machines, have no posters and upcycle their staging. A fact I particularly enjoyed was their specially designed reusable and heat resistant cigarette tube that has a screw-cap and can be carried comfortably in a pocket. Smokers carry their butts in a single place and can empty into bigger containers dotted around the site.

Change Makers in the Music Industry

Be sure to check out:

Shika Shika –  a record label founded by environmentalists marrying their passion for electronic music and saving the planet. They launched a not for profit album called A guide to the Birdsong of Mexico, Central America & the Caribbean focussing on species in danger of extinction. Watch a video which explains more here.

Julie’s Bicycle – a London-based charity that supports climate action in the creative industries

 DJs for Climate Action – 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.

Final Thoughts – Opportunities & Challenges  

The power of the entertainment eco system to orchestrate sustainable development from the fans, the venues, the creatives and the brands is limitless.

The rise of digital technology presents opportunity for musicians and sound streaming services to become increasingly energy efficient and innovate on ways to share tracks. Offsetting schemes for artists and attendees need to be made readily available and ideas such as funding forestation efforts and social impact endeavours through ticket sales will become increasingly popular. As with all industries, there are challenges surrounding levels of disclosure and metrics of true GHG footprints across the production and supply chains. However, with the framework devised by the Tyndall Centre hopefully this can create a future roadmap for other creatives. As the UK Government has committed to net zero, the music industry should chime for change in the form of legislation.

The role of music in our lives is indisputable, an antidote to the darkest days so let’s all bang our drums for a symphony of sustainable sound waves.


If you’re interested in this topic, listen to BBC Radio 4’s episode on Music’s Green Day via their Costing the Earth series.

Check out Graeme O’Hara “The Cost of Music and Decomposed: The Political Ecology of Music by Dr. Devine.

If you need to plug in for a little escapism, head to the S & S Books & Media section for podcast recommendations.

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