From the Soundboard: The music industry must embrace ecological concerns

Shutianyi Li/Daily Trojan

Yesterday marked the end of the 20th annual Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. While attendees spent their time ingesting copious amounts of alcohol and music in the sweltering desert sun, I spent the past two weekends asking myself: How do festivals as massive as Coachella affect the environment? More importantly, what kind of ecological impact does the music industry as a whole have, and how can it reconcile this with concerns surrounding climate change?

While the urgency of global warming has permeated industries like consumer goods, fashion and technology, the topic has largely gone undiscussed in the entertainment industry. Both inside and outside of the business, many do not typically consider the carbon footprint of common industry practices.

However, it’s time to account for the impact music entertainment has on our planet. It is important to consider electricity use during recording sessions, carbon emissions from CD and merchandise production, as well as emissions from transportation of these products by cargo ships, trucks and planes. On tour, artists use an immense amount of energy for sound and lighting, and tons of carbon is emitted by the transportation of their sets and for travel.

There is a multitude of environmental factors associated with sustaining a musician’s career; as climate change remedies become more crucial, the music and industry will need to research and implement ways to make music entertainment environmentally sustainable. Environmental research organizations like Julie’s Bicycle and A Greener Festival are already offering numerous solutions for reducing energy usage and carbon emissions in music.

First, let’s trace the journey of a typical album cycle and analyze the environmental impact of each step. Albums begin with the recordings. In spans of a few months to multiple years, musicians trek between recording studios to complete their projects. Moreover, while at the studios, artists can spend multiple days recording, mixing and mastering tracks. Unsurprisingly, this requires a significant amount of energy and produces lots of atmospheric carbon. In total, the process contributes about 10,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually, according to studies done by Julie’s Bicycle on the industry in the United Kingdom.

Once the project is completed, the recordings have to be pressed into CDs and vinyl records; they are also stored in large warehouses before being distributed to retail stores. Julie’s Bicycle found that the materialization and packaging of physical records accounts for 65,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions, and manufacturers produce about 10,000 tons. In addition to the emissions caused by music distribution centers (6,000 tons), and transportation of the product (16,000 tons), buying even one CD can still greatly increase a consumer’s carbon footprint.

Next comes album promotion, where live events get their time to shine. The music industry should focus on making tours and festivals greener; live events are already the most lucrative source of income for musicians and industry professionals, and they are continuing to grow in popularity. Nonetheless, their carbon footprint is problematic. In a 2010 study, Julie’s Bicycle found that large commercial music tours in the U.K. emit an average of about 2,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year (that is 2,000,000 pounds per tour, per year!). A 2007 study showed that air travel alone for record label, management, agency and promotion personnel produces upward of 3,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year.

One-off festivals can be just as bad. Oxford University researchers discovered that transporting Glastonbury Festival attendees can produce about 45,000 tons of carbon dioxide, accounting for 68% of the festival’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

Water trucking also largely contributes to the festival’s carbon footprint, as are waste disposal and abandoned tents (historically, about one in five tents have been left on the festival grounds after the event has ended). Glastonbury also uses up to 30,000 megawatts of electricity during the event, which is the same amount of energy as some small cities in the U.K.

Are these just lost causes? Are the entertainment industries — particularly music — so traditional that there are no ways to get similar results with less ecological impact? Well, fortunately, all it takes is awareness and a mitigation strategy.

In regards to diminishing the carbon footprint of music studios, Julie’s Bicycle suggests reconstructing recording facilities to reduce electricity. This can entail repainting walls to maximize natural light and utilizing smart technology that automatically shuts off after long periods of standby.

The most effective solution for minimizing physical music’s carbon footprint might be not buying it at all. Luckily for the environment, purchases and permanent music downloads are growing obsolete by the day as streaming becomes ubiquitous. The problem for the business is that physical music generates more revenue, per unit, than streaming. The key to solving this issue would be to push streaming services to increase their royalty payments, as well as find a way to revitalize digital downloads. Julie’s Bicycle also recommends rethinking CD and vinyl packaging to include biodegradable materials.

For festivals and touring, reducing carbon footprints will require overhauls of energy and transportation. Many festivals like Coachella and Glastonbury have already implemented green initiatives at their events to minimize carbon footprint. Glastonbury has urged visitors to manage waste and tents, and Coachella, a desert festival, has smartly implemented solar and wind energy. Moreover, adding newer technology that lets festival guests generate electricity themselves will help.

The music business is designated as a low-carbon industry, but there are still steps that can be taken to reduce ecological damage. As global temperatures and carbon dioxide emissions continue to rise, we must work to make our enjoyment of musical expression as environmentally sustainable as possible. Our world continues to spin even when the records do not.

Willard Givens is a sophomore writing about the music industry. His column, “From The Soundboard,” ran every other Monday.