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From Coldplay to COP26: Is a greener music industry possible?

The high cost of cleaning up live music mustn’t kill off smaller artists, says Malcolm Jack

Live music is, for the time being at least, well and truly back. The dispiriting experience of trying to get in the zone for an online streaming gig by your favourite band while a small child in pyjamas hangs off your leg and the washing machine loudly announces the end of its spin cycle is mercifully banished to grim memory.

But the great pause for thought that the pandemic precipitated has sharpened minds towards another, even larger looming threat, not just to concerts but all the things that we enjoy in life: the climate emergency. Live music touring is a carbon-filthy business, based around endless travel almost exclusively by airplane and combustion-engine road vehicles. Most musicians will agree that it can’t continue in its current form for much longer. And yet, finding a way forward that allows musicians to stay true to their green principles without destroying their livelihoods – these days mostly generated from playing live – is proving a divisive problem. One that no amount of reusable water bottles, compostable catering or #NOMUSICONADEADPLANET T-shirts (as sported by artists from Billie Eilish to The 1975) can truly solve.

There’s a mild irony in the fact of the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow being held at the SEC – an events campus with Scotland’s largest indoor concert venue, the OVO Hydro arena, at its heart. Once Joe Biden and other world leaders have left town, hopefully fresh from inking a drastic new resolution on reducing carbon emissions, the likes of Dave, Sam Fender, Blondie, Little Mix and countless others will perform in the same space in coming months, as part of UK and international tours.

The scale of the problem is becoming clear, and some artists have proposed to roll up their sleeves and do something about it

An academic study in 2015 used an online carbon-tracking tool to follow the tour activity of five relatively small Scottish artists on the spring-summer festivals circuit. It found that, collectively, they generated 19,314kg of CO2 emissions in six months – the equivalent of taking nearly 20 flights back and forth from New York City to London. Had the acts in question been five arena-scale artists such as the above, requiring masses of personnel and equipment to be transported on fleets of buses and trucks across countries and continents for weeks on end, then the associated CO2 dump would have been depressingly far larger.

The scale of the problem is becoming clear, and some artists have proposed to roll up their sleeves and do something about it – but with apparently wavering resolve. In 2019 Coldplay announced that they would not embark on another major tour until a more environmentally sustainable solution had been found. They say their newly announced 2022 jaunt in support of their new album Music of the Spheres will have a net-zero carbon footprint, with initiatives such as a kinetic stadium floor and a battery which charges the shows using renewable energy.  

In any case, some had questioned the wisdom of that pledge in the first place. Robert Del Naja from Massive Attack, addressing MPs earlier this year as part of a drive to make the music industry clean up its act on carbon emissions, criticised Coldplay by saying that “one band’s unilateral action is not going to change the look of the whole problem at all”. He questioned why more musicians don’t, for instance, take the train to shows. If you spot Chris Martin on the TransPennine Express any time soon, then you’ll know why.

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Massive Attack for their part have worked with the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research to look into long-term solutions for tracking and reducing emissions from live events. Based on the principle that gigs and festivals are a fundamental part of our culture and should be encouraged and supported to change, theirs was the first serious research to show that, if ingrained behaviours can be altered and different types of new low-carbon technologies extensively phased in, a greener future for live music is possible.

Zero emissions electric tour buses are very gradually becoming a feature of the tourism industry, and should in time become available across the entertainment world. One venue in Glasgow, SWG3 – situated just over the road from where COP26 will take place – claims to be installing a pioneering system which it says can trap and store body heat from clubbers and gig-goers as reusable energy. Venue-level changes needn’t even be as high tech as that – industry standardisation of sound systems for one thing could greatly reduce the amount of gear artists have to lug around.

In short, solutions exist – but they’re going to be hugely complex and expensive to roll out, thus available at first only to the likes of Coldplay and Massive Attack. Much smaller bands, packed into spluttering splitter vans, their slender incomes already squeezed hard by the pandemic and Brexit, risk being shamed out of the business altogether if a joined-up, root-down approach isn’t taken. If there is going to still be music on this, hopefully not dead, planet, let’s make sure no one gets left behind in the process.

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