Music that cares

Matt Charlton examines the impact of live music and festivals on the planet and those aiming to turn a negative into a positive

Live music is the zenith of everything that music is supposed to do. It is highly emotive and transcendent; it is uniting, bringing together disparate groups of people to worship at one tuneful altar. It can be life affirming, even life changing… it can open a door to a world that up to this point you’ve only seen in two dimensions. It can also leave you drenched and exhausted, but, hey, that’s part of the fun.

But (and sadly we can’t just whisper this anymore) the other side is pretty important. The UK in particular is famed for its music scene, from upstairs at sticky floored pubs to under the arches of Wembley Stadium, but in the UK alone, live music generates 405,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, according to Julie’s Bicycle. Imagine what that means comparatively in the USA and Europe.  

Internationally, major tours can have up to 60 trucks moving equipment all over the world, with the biggest acts including, as we have recently learned, Taylor Swift, using private jets to keep up with their hectic schedules. This burns 40 times as much carbon per passenger as regular commercial flights. It is never quite as noticeable as at large scale events, the swarm of humanity, the queues, the dreaded toilets, the multiple food trucks with hungry music fans waiting…

With something apparently as socially conscious as the music industry being such a significant culprit in an issue so critical, it’s clear something has to change. But how can this balance be struck whilst maintaining a healthy live music scene, something that isn’t just the lifeblood of a healthy cultural life of any country, but fundamental to the economy too?

Øya Festival in Oslo may be getting closer to the solution. It purports to be one of the most sustainable festivals in the world, and has been run on entirely renewable energy since 2009. “Live music is super important, and always will be,” Tonje Kaada, the festival’s CEO, tells me, “but we all have to try to minimise our footprint, but we also have to remember that we have a unique position that can be used for good stuff. Musicians and promoters have a voice that can be used to raise important world issues, and festivals and concerts are great arenas to showcase sustainable solutions and inspire fans and partners. We can create a positive engagement that very few other businesses can, because of the unique experiences and connections that live music can give people.”

Speaking of big platforms, Coldplay recently told BBC news that they have put their plans to tour on hold to work out how it can be “not only sustainable [but] how it can be actively beneficial”. Lead singer Chris Martin is determined to have a ‘positive impact’, with dreams to have no single-use plastic on tour and largely solar-powered shows. Martin has expressed that he and his bandmates "would be disappointed if it’s not carbon neutral".

He’s not alone in this. Billie Eilish is partnering with Reverb, an online platform spearheading what they call the ‘Music Climate Revolution’ working to reduce her tours’ environmental footprint, engage fans in climate action, and support non-profit organisations and climate projects.

Massive Attack worked with the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, and earmarked six emission-reduction modules to trial on their 2022 tour. Artists with this level of profile are an integral factor in convincing people to change their habits and consider the environment.

Øya Festival's Kaada agrees, “I think it’s super-cool to see an artist like Billie Eilish using her platform to speak up against the climate crisis, showcasing green solutions at her tour, and giving her voice to other young climate activists.” He continues, 

We have a unique opportunity to inspire not only the audience, but our partners and other businesses, festivals and the industry. I also believe doing things in a sustainable way improves the quality of the festival for our customers and everyone involved. It gives meaning, and it’s an integrated part of what we want to be.

But herein lies the contradiction. When I, as a music journalist, travelled to Øya last year to be greeted with a gorgeous Scandinavian summer, sustainable cutlery, pedestrianised infrastructure, and carbon offsetting, I took a plane (it is important to state that 98% of the audience arrive by walking, biking or using public transportation). Artists will still need to reach several festivals in good time, meaning more planes and private jets; crowds will gather in concentration, meaning carbon emissions. There is still a need to balance sustainability with musicians’ need to tour, and the public hunger for live music.

It is, then, often awkward and sometimes plain difficult, like every other aspect of attempting to negate climate change whilst trying to lead a relatively normal life. Only, this attempt is more visible, often standing on the stage in front of thousands of people who just want to dance. But Coldplay have that covered too. They’ve installed kinetic dancefloors, so a jumping reveller can be an energy source… maybe not during ‘Sparks’, but try stopping them with ‘Viva La Vida’.  I wonder, then, what Øya has planned next? “We will keep focus on sustainable food, and keep on working to get our emissions from transport down”, says Kaada. “But just as importantly, we will keep on sharing and gathering knowledge, creating and showcasing new solutions, and giving our voice to some causes important to us.” But with Blur headlining this year, maybe they should order some kinetic dancefloors for when they play ‘Song 2’. That’s some serious pogoing energy right there. Woo, and indeed, hoo.

Top five festivals that care

Our top five festivals that consider their impact on the environment along with fun times

Øya

Oslo, Norway; 8th - 12 August

A very special time indeed, and set right in the middle of one of the coolest cities in Scandinavia. Oslo comes alive when Øya is in town, and the Moomin Valley-esque site provides a beautiful backdrop to a wholesome yet hedonistic time. Over 90% of all food served is organic, and almost 40% of the 100,000 portions of food sold is meat-free, the waste is minimal and the site is always spotless. Musically, 2023 is a doozy. 

Blur, Amyl and the Sniffers, FKA Twigs and Sigrid all play this year. It's a Nordic-based music extravaganza too good to miss. oyafestivalen.no

Terraforma

Milan, Italy; 9th - 11th June

One of the few festivals that doesn’t believe in ‘growth at all costs’, Terraforma has actually chosen to reduce capacity this year. Taking place in woods just outside of Milan, the stages are made out of wood, and designed to have as minimal impact on the environment as possible. There are recycling stations, green stewards, durable cups, and all dinnerware and cutlery is 100% biodegradable. They even have electric fleets for artists and their teams. This year's line-up features Paris-based Aho Ssan and New York free jazz artist, Dawuna amongst many other talented artists. terraformafestival.com

Latitude

Suffolk, UK; 20th - 23rd July

In a picturesque corner of the Suffolk countryside, this genteel boutique offering features rolling hills, enchanted forests, and pink sheep. They have committed to the Vision 2025 pledge, working towards a 50 per cent reduction in event related greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 (from 2014 levels). They see it as their responsibility to preserve the live music experience for generations to come. None other than Pulp is headlining this year, along with Paolo Nutini, Metronomy, and the Proclaimers, who have already saved on transport emissions by walking 10,000 miles. latitudefestival.com

We Love Green

Paris, France; 2nd - 4th June

In 2011, the WE LOVE GREEN festival dared to combine beats and beets, decibels and falafels, artists and activists, talk shows and light shows, think tanks and renewable energies. Taking place in the towering trees of Vincennes Woods, brushing up against the Paris orbital, this boundary-pushing independent festival is sure to provide some sustainable joy de vivre, with non-too-small headliners such as Little Simz, Honey Dijon, Bon Iver and Phoenix. And it’s not just music. There’s sport, art, talks, and comedy too. Hopefully the jokes aren’t recycled. welovegreen.fr

NorthSide

Aarhus, Denmark; 1st - 3rd June

You can always rely on a Danish summer to provide a good time, and the unique NorthSide really leans into the Danish mantra of squeezing every little bit of pleasure out of those special moments. Denmark’s most sustainable festival, NorthSide is dedicated to raising the bar with new, green initiatives. All food is plant-based and 100% organic, and there is no bottled water. In 2022 NorthSide was the first major festival in the world to run on 100% green electricity. Headliners this year include First Aid Kit, Madrugada, Sam Fender, and a little band called The 1975. northside.dk

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