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Looking for silver linings – Abigail Dunn

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In this post, Live Music Exchange student intern Abigail Dunn considers the environmental impact of music, and offers some personal reflections on whether the current crisis provides an opportunity to take stock of how to address this.

The Coronavirus pandemic is causing global devastation, with countries across the world going into lockdown in order to prevent it spreading. It has completely changed the way we live, with many people finding themselves out of work due to the closure of businesses from shops to bars to cinemas.

The live music industry is one that has of course been hit particularly hard, with the closure of venues not only putting an end to artists’ touring for the near future, but also leaving the likes of the bar staff, security, bookers and techs out of work.

In the UK, Chancellor Rishi Sunak has at least acknowledged the challenges that grassroots venues, in particular, are facing and has guaranteed a £330 billion package of support during this challenging time. This can only, of course, mitigate the worst of the damage – but it is a start. Likewise, the UK government have announced a plan to support the self-employed, and the Musicians’ Union are working hard to ensure that no musician falls through the cracks.

This is, then, an extremely challenging and scary time for everyone across all aspects of the live music sector. But it is a long haul, so it’s important that we notice the silver-linings as well as the clouds, to help get us through the next few months of uncertainty.

In the bigger picture, it’s clear that the live industry worldwide has been a contributor to the generally detrimental effect on our planet of modern life over the past few decades. A 2010 study commissioned by Julie Bicycle showed that music consumption and production in the UK alone was responsible for around 540,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases, around three quarters of which came from live music performances. Three of the main points which I aim to touch on this piece, are the effect that travel, onsite energy use and plastic pollution caused by the live music industry have had on the environment.

Travel

It is evident that modern modes of transportation such as cars and planes have a hugely destructive effect on our planet, emiting greenhouse gasses which contribute to damaging climate change. Big, established artists flying from country to country and driving between cities in huge tour buses to perform their music to the world is a part of this. In fact, live concerts and performances have been shown to generate 405,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions every year. However, a key issue here actually lies with the fans as much as, or more so, than with the artists – 65% of the pollution caused by live music events was actually shown to come from audience travel to the events. It is festivals in particular that have the biggest impact, as they tend to be situated outwith cities, with fans having to make their own way out to the more distant locations to see their favourite artists perform. And with the increasing popularity of visiting festivals abroad, this means an increasing number of attendees travelling by plane to get to them. Sadly, this issue is almost unavoidable, as gig and festival tours have become a vital source of income for most artists, with streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music not replacing the former revenues from physical copies of music.

However, bands such as Coldplay have announced that they’re making a conscious effort to reduce their carbon footprint. When they can, Coldplay travel by train, they’ve paid to have trees planted, and have even considered ending touring altogether. For now, they have put their touring on hold until performing can be made less damaging to our environment.

Many festivals also organise public bus travel from major cities to their events, and although this is perhaps putting fewer cars on the road, it can’t end the problem entirely.

Energy use

Another huge contributor to the global warming is the energy consumption of the live music event itself, with about 32% of greenhouse gas emissions being associated with venue energy use in the UK. Festivals should not be left out of this, as they use huge generators to power everything onsite, from sound systems and lights to food stalls and portaloos. Although festivals such as Wood Festival in Oxfordshire are run entirely on renewable energy, and Glastonbury was running on solar, storage and vegetable oil generators to help reduce its carbon footprint, there is still a very long way to go.

Massive Attack announced the commissioning of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research to map the full carbon footprint of typical tour cycles. This will also highlight the three main areas of CO2 generation – band travel and production, audience transport, and venue – and findings will be shared with other touring acts, promoters and festival/venue owners in order to allow for a significant reductions in emissions. The aim is to raise awareness of the issue, in the hope for change.

Plastic

It is apparent to anyone who attends a music festival or concert that they produce a massive volume of plastic waste. Whether that be when the lights go up at the end of a gig and everyone filters out of the venue, tripping over the hundreds of plastic cups left behind, or the sea of barely-used tents left behind at the end of a weekend’s camping.

When we order a drink at a gig, we often receive it in a disposable plastic cup. I get it. It’s convenient, it’s effective, safer than glass and it saves the venue from a mammoth washing up job. However, think of how many thousands of these plastic cups every venue across the world is dishing out every single week. The same stands for festivals, although they’re disposing of far more than just plastic cups. Some examples of the single-use plastic items that are swept up at the end of a music festival include plastic bottles, straws, food trays, glitter, shampoo bottles and even tents.

Many festivals are starting to make a conscious effort to reduce their plastic waste, by switching from bottled water to cans, plastic cutlery to wooden, and banning single-use tents. Glastonbury have also laid out a strict set of green policies to ensure that the 210,000 festival goers they attract are respecting their environment. Despite many of these steps being effective in reducing plastic waste, the reality is that switching one disposable item for another is still harmful to the environment. Although such items may decompose at a faster rate than plastic, many will inevitably still be going to landfill and, sadly, often into our oceans after being used just once.

 I know I spoke of clouds having silver-linings, and I promise I’m getting there.

Clouds and silver linings

Although all the steps that bands and festivals are taking in order to help to reduce the carbon footprint of the live music industry are welcome, this is, in reality, an issue that is going to take years to tackle and it will involve a lot more than switching from plastic to paper straws.

Unless something makes people pause, and take stock.

Since the world has gone into lockdown, the clouds of air pollutants and globe-warming gases have significantly decreased over some major cities across the planet. And with the temporary closure of businesses, and postponement of several of the world’s biggest festivals this year, we can only assume that this decrease will continue.

We can’t ignore the fact that the Coronavirus is causing a huge level of uncertainty for the economy and the livelihoods of everyone involved in the live music industry, or the plight of those affected. But perhaps we can also notice the silver-linings. As self-isolation has begun to clear the clouds of pollution which encase the earth, we have given our lovely planet a chance to breathe. As Music Declares Emergency states, there will be no music on a dead planet, and if we continue to consume music the way we are, we won’t have much longer to enjoy it.

As consumers, we have a responsibility to demand change, and be part of it. The future of our planet is quite literally in the hands of each and every one of us. Although the pandemic is allowing the planet to take a temporary breather, things will return to some kind of normal in the future, and we can take this moment to think about what we want that to be, rather than allow them to go back to the just the way they were. Although it’s a problem that ultimately needs to be tackled by governments and big, powerful companies, we should also all be trying to make tiny changes wherever we can. If these large companies and governments see this demand, then we can only hope that we will begin to see it as an opportunity to implement positive change across the world.

 

Please note that this is a forum for discussion, dialogue, and debate, and posts and comments on this blog represent only the author, not Live Music Exchange as a whole, or any other hosting or associated institutions.

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