The ‘Green Resurrection’ Of The UK’s Live Music Scene

By Abi McQuater

There is no doubt that the live music industry plays a role in the climate conversation. A report from think-tank, Powerful Thinking, found the UK summer festival industry responsible for around 20 kilotonnes of C02 annually from onsite emissions, 100 kilotonnes of C02 including audience travel and 23,500 tonnes of waste. It also found typical recycling rates to be lower than 32% .

However, in recent years, industry leaders have shown willing to address this. In 2018, leading international music organisation, Live Nation, introduced Green Nation, a global sustainability coalition aiming to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030 and end the sale of single-use plastics at all Live Nationowned and operated venues and festivals by 2021. Others joined the fray with English rock band, The 1975, pledging to plant a tree for every ticket sold, and international pop-phenomenon, Billie Eilish, launching a sustainably-sourced merchandise line and encouraging fans to visit a ‘Billie Eilish Eco-Village’ at her show to learn about climate change. But when the live performance industry closed its doors in March 2020, not only was its budding green future thrown into uncertainty but also its continued existence in any capacity. As such, with the UK’s roadmap to ‘normalcy’ in full swing, many are viewing this as a second chance to resurrect and rebuild a live scene that truly considers the environmental cost of live music. One that we cannot allow to pass us by.

The Blue Campsite at Leeds Festival 2009. The morning after the weekend before.
Photo credit: Gavin Lynn

Powerful Thinking’s report offers festivals suggestions on how to reduce their carbon impact in line with the 2008 Climate Change Act’s targets, including the use of renewable and advanced energy technology, better waste management systems such as recycling and composting, an increase in reusable materials, and the promotion of sustainable travel policies. They seem simple enough, at least in theory, but a question mark still hovers over their implementation as fears of increased costs, shortage of internal resources and a lack of time threaten to put the breaks on action from organisations.

Julie’s Bicycle, a not-for-profit which focuses on mobilising the arts and culture sector to act on the climate and ecological crisis, has reported that ‘before the pandemic, the creative and cultural sector was contributing £111.7 billion to the UK economy – employing over two million people and growing at five times the rate of the economy as a whole’. As the sector scrambles to reinstate these pre-Covid operations, Julie’s Bicycle calls for this recovery to be ‘just and green’, as frightening forecasts emerge predicting 2021 carbon emissions to soar by the second-highest rate in history in response to Covid’s devastating effects. That is, unless certain measures for sustainable progress are prioritised. So, what can be done to realise this ‘just and green recovery’ of the touring and festival scene, and whose responsibility is it?

According to a survey conducted by A Greener Festival, a non-profit dedicated to improving sustainability of the events sector, 90% of 2012 festivalgoers who responded thought festival organisers should be responsible for minimising the environmental impact of festivals, 80% thought festivalgoers themselves should also be responsible, and 30% believed local authorities carried responsibility. In a bid to tap into the first bracket and in response to Powerful Thinking’s reportVision: 2025 was created, pledging to help participating festivals to achieve 50% recycling rates, reduce fossil fuels and halve annual diesel consumption by 2025. Other focuses address travel-related emissions, accountability and sustainability of food sourcing as well as measuring key impacts to evaluate progress. Testament to the changing values of the live music scene and overall support of the mission comes in the form of Vision:25’s already impressive member list, which includes festival heavyweights such as Love Saves the DayBestivalShambalaAll Points EastVDownloadLatitudeCreamfieldsBBC Proms, amongst many others. The same sentiment can also be seen in the growing number of eco-accreditations festivals can now attain, which include Julie’s Bicycle’s ‘Creative Industry Green Certification’ or, Falmouth University’s ‘A Greener Festival Assessor Training’ along with a host of courses and modules in Sustainability added to music industry business courses. 

These developments show resourcing commitment from industry towards environmental progress, but action and impact on every level remain key. Whilst Shambala festival has removed meat from its on-site catering and is powering the event with 100% renewal energy, what if your favourite artists are programmed at festivals that show no commitment or understanding of their environmental impact? As a fan, certain individual steps can make meaningful collective contribution: use public transport, car-pool or cycle where possible, consider carbon balancing initiatives, take a reusable water bottle, recycle service-ware appropriately, consider the food supply chain by avoiding meat and take your tent when you leave. However, whilst individual action should be actively and positively encouraged through slogans such as Glastonbury’s ‘Leave No Trace’, it is clear that systemic change is needed to tackle this issue.

The UK’s national target of 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 may sound like a purely ecological problem, but the reality is much wider: environmentalism is a social and environmental movement. Just as the ‘No More Blood Wood’ campaign engaged musicians, instrument makers, lawmakers and fans to end the environmental destruction and social justice violations of illegal logging, progress and impact do not work in silos. Campaigns for policy and legislation change from music-led organisations span history from Rock Against Racism, Free Tibet, Rock The Vote and Warchild. More recent calls for a governmental response to prioritise the climate and ecological emergency have come from a group of artists and music industry professionals, Music Declares Emergency, co-founded by Savages’ drummer, Fay Milton. The campaign, ‘No Music on a Dead Planet’, asks music fans to put public pressure on the government to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. You can play your part by signing the petition, or opt to wear and share a t-shirt available via the Music Declares shop. Other organisations taking control include the European Independent Music Companies Association (IMPALA) which issued its climate charter and offers member organisations tools such as a carbon calculator specific to the recorded music sector plus voluntary guidance on sustainability tips. IMPALA board member, Will Hutton says ‘the arts have an immensely powerful platform to help ignite social and legislative change. We need everyone involved – the live sector, record companies, streaming partners, and or course artists’.

‘Artivism’ has proven itself a highly powerful tool in the past and it continues to be so, as many in the industry choose to wield it within an environmental context. The British Rock band Radiohead have been credited for their socio-political engagement from as early as their third studio album OK Computer (1997), both explicitly voicing outrage at the British government’s environmental policy and implicitly playing with ideologies within the music itself. More recently, in anticipation of the 2021 COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, composer, musician and sound-artist Michael Begg, has begun to explore creative responses to climate data. The technique ‘data sonification’ has increasing engagement from musicians trying to find ways to express alarming climate data through tonality, harmony, and texture. This sonic experience of listening to this data has begun to open conversations between the scientific and musical communities.

Image Credit:

It’s clear that the music industry’s awareness of its environmental impact is growing. However, it’s imperative that this awareness blossoms into a priority if real progress, rather than just the illusion of, is to be made. As Covid rates diminish, we need to seize upon our heightened awareness of our own social responsibility and harness a ‘just and fair’ recovery rather than one that champions a return to previous operations by any means possible. The boom in education, pledges and plans within the sector illustrates the power of individual voices and organisations to find solutions that value the planet without jeopardising economic profit, instead making both fundamental components of long-term success. So, as musicians begin their return to the stage, we are urged to consider our individual and collective agency in how we choose to experience live music and uphold environmental expectations for those organising and attending our festivals.

Abi McQuater

Abi McQuater is a writer and music researcher currently delivering creative development programmes for UK-based charity, Help Musicians. She started her career at the Financial Times and has also worked for the UK’s biggest music organisation, Live Nation Music. She holds a Masters in Music, with a specialism in music psychology, and is co-founder and co-editor of the music research journal MUSIC.OLOGY.ECA.