top of page
  • Writer's pictureLive team

Greenifying Touring

Soundtracking sustainability

With dedicated industry initiatives and major artists pressing for change, music touring has made waves when it comes to greening its practices. But as always, the reality is more complex than it seems

Words David Davies   

The live music industry has a sustainability problem, and you don’t have to look far for data for proof. In the UK alone, it has been estimated that the sector releases 405,000,000kg of CO2 every year, while some live events can yield as much as 100,000kg of solid waste.

It’s an untenable state of affairs that has not been lost on musicians themselves, as the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) acknowledged in a 2022 article that alluded to the ‘growing number of musicians who are using their celebrity to cast a spotlight on climate change, pollution, species loss and other environmental perils’.

In addition, UNEP sustainable lifestyles expert Garrette Clark indicates that the live music industry is especially well-positioned to affect broader change as it ‘influences the hearts and minds of people around the world’.

Meanwhile, the imperative for a notoriously carbon-intensive industry to achieve profound change grows ever stronger. The latest report from UN agency, the World Meteorological Organization – the Provisional State of the Global Climate, published at the end of November – indicates that 2023 was about 1.4°C above the pre-industrial 1850-1900 baseline.

This now takes the world perilously close to the 1.5°C target established by the 2015 Paris Agreement to stand a chance of avoiding the more catastrophic effects of climate change.

We’ve taken a look at some of the organisations and artists working to deliver a sustainable vision for touring that charts a course to net zero – much of the time with impressive results.

But as Becky Hazlewood, environmental sustainability project manager at Julie’s Bicycle – a non-profit that mobilises the arts and culture sector to take action on the climate, nature and justice crises – indicates, there’s a long road ahead: “We have a lot of solutions and there are people who are leading on this, but overall there’s a lot more to be done.”

Projects and partnerships

Appropriately enough, LIVE’s interview with Hazlewood takes place during the first week of the COP28 climate change convention in the UAE, where Julie’s Bicycle was among more than 1000 cultural organisations to contribute to a global call to action to urge climate negotiators to embed culture into climate policy, ensuring that ‘culture-based solutions to climate change are recognised and implemented’.

One of the primary mechanisms that Julie’s Bicycle has for doing this is its International Touring Environmental Responsibility programme, led by Hazlewood.

Now in its third year, the programme supports artists and organisations to develop sustainable approaches to touring, with an emphasis on forming international collaborations that strengthen connections between the participating countries.

With Arts Council England, Danish Arts Foundation and Arts Council Norway as partners, the initiative encompasses online seminars and mentoring sessions that explore the solutions to challenges facing the sector in terms of sustainability.

“At the end of the programme, participants form collaborations between countries and put forward project proposals related to different aspects of touring,” says Hazlewood, who cites projects that have variously focused on areas including ‘deep community engagement’ by artists that want to work closely with the environments they appear in, and ‘slow touring’ via train.

The thorny problem of travel – both by touring productions and their audiences – is inevitably a priority for many projects. Among the tools offered by Julie’s Bicycle are bespoke online carbon calculators that help different types and sizes of organisations calculate the impact of their tours. “As a general rule, travel is the aspect that has the biggest impact, and the calculations regularly show that if you travel by train or over land, you’ll automatically see a huge reduction compared to a plane.”

The organisation’s work across different artistic disciplines means that Hazlewood is well-placed to observe that ‘different sectors have sometimes taken quite different actions’.

That said, smaller productions and organisations have often proven more agile and responsive to change than larger ones, suggesting global touring could be the last to reach its sustainability potential.

Despite profound challenges, there is reason for optimism.

The financial crash and pandemic meant “there was a bit of a drop in momentum, but interest has really grown again in the last few years, and there are a lot of innovative projects happening at the moment,” according to Hazlewood.

Artist-led initiatives

Intriguingly, some of the most exciting projects at the moment are actually being spearheaded by the artists themselves. Having sworn off touring for a while until it could be made more sustainable, Coldplay’s latest Music of the Spheres World Tour has so far produced 47% less CO2e emissions than its previous tour between 2016 and 17, while 66% of all tour waste has been diverted from landfills, according to an update reported in June 2023.

In October, The 1975 announced that its 2024 performances at the London O2 would be the venue’s first-ever ‘carbon-removed’ shows, with organiser AEG Europe saying that it had calculated how much carbon would be produced by staging, catering and band travel – along with an estimate of the emissions created by audience travel.

The contribution to environmental impact made by crowd transportation is also the target of a one-day festival recently announced by Massive Attack.

The Bristol-based group has announced that its 25 August 2024 event at Clifton Downs will be 100% powered by renewables. In addition to giving local fans priority for tickets, organisers will encourage train travel and lay on free electric buses to Bristol Temple Meads station. Food vendors will have to use locally sourced produce, and a ‘climate-resilient woodland plantation’ will take place subsequently.

The impressively holistic approach adopted by Massive Attack is in keeping with the history of the band, who have now been arguing for a more urgent approach to climate change for many years.

However, they are by no means the only act with a long track record of translating ideas into actions, as Chris Spinato, manager of communications at Reverb – a US-based organisation that promotes a ‘turnkey, custom, scalable’ approach to sustainable touring and fan engagement – can attest.

“There are veteran artists like Dave Matthews Band and Jack Johnson who have been doing this for decades and working really hard [on the issue],” he remarks. “Then there are newer artists coming up, so cross-generationally there are plenty of performers who really care and recognise that they have a platform to make a difference. [More recently], I think that collectively they’ve started to realise that, too.”

Perhaps the most influential of the younger artists is Billie Eilish, who has partnered with Reverb on the subject of tour sustainability since 2019.

For her most recent tour, Happier Than Ever in 2022, Reverb worked ‘from conception through execution’ with Eilish and her team, as well as partners such as promoter Live Nation, plant-based food initiative Support and Feed, as well as marketing and management company Wasserman.

A commendable list of statistics featured in the tour’s impact report includes the elimination of 117,000 single-use plastic bottles, neutralisation of 15,000+ tonnes of CO2e via certified climate projects, and saving of 8.8 million gallons of water through the serving of plant-based meals to artists and crew.

“Billie Eilish has been a wonderful partner,” says Spinato. “She’s sincere in taking action on sustainability, and wants to use her music as an empowerment around environmental issues. It’s been very inspiring to work with her and, in a great way, she and her team have pushed us to find new ways of doing things.”

Fight the power

Two components of touring never to be overlooked are the travel and power implications of the technology used to produce the show.

Several longer-term trends have definitely helped here, including more compact and power-efficient loudspeakers and amplifiers.

But those are not always the most cost-effective solutions, especially in an era where multiple other factors – not least the dramatic drop in income from recorded music – have meant an ever-increasing focus on revenue.

Jonathan Reece, global sales director at manufacturer KV2 Audio, says: “In our experience, while there is definitely an increased awareness and consciousness around sustainability by audiences and artists, other factors relating to cost and margins remain more prevalent, which can sadly conflict or sway some of those ethical decisions.”

Nonetheless, there are specific areas of tour specification where a general industry awareness of sustainability continues to grow. “Power consumption is definitely a serious consideration in the majority of projects we deal with; form factor less so for us because we are already considered a much more compact solution,” explains Reece.

He notes that the VHD range of products – offering reduced footprint and power consumption, but with long throw and high output – complement the ‘basic concepts and philosophies of sustainable touring extremely well’.

Production-wise, the company has moved to recycled materials in both products and packaging where possible, and has been ‘running almost waste-free production for many years now’.

Though, certain issues can be out of a vendor’s control.

“The sourcing of raw materials for the last three to four years has been largely dictated by geopolitical issues like the pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

The semiconductor shortage has also affected us – along with most other manufacturers – so the choice of supplier and if they’re ethical can be dictated by what is available and from where on a needs basis.”

Klaus Hausherr, concert series product specialist at K-Array – whose Firenze-KH7 system was just recently deployed for reasons including its sensitivity to the environment at the No Borders Music Festival in Italy’s Friuli Alps – says: “The expectations of tours have undoubtedly grown.

Technological advancements have allowed endless innovative ideas and artistic possibilities, but productions still have a lot to do about sustainability.”

The magic of live

So what of the longer-term future, as climate change intensifies and the potentially nightmarish scenarios that have been projected come to fruition? What steps might the industry have to take then?

One option, of course, might be for the online-only model that became familiar during the pandemic to be readopted – this time for environmental rather than medical reasons.

As Hazlewood tells us, the Covid-19 period “changed people’s perception of what could be done online versus more traditional ways of having performances in person.

Certainly, online live performance can be a nice way of making art accessible to everybody, especially those who might not have the means to travel.”

A number of productions involving some degree of remote attendance facilitated by VR and related technology have already taken place – and it seems likely that this will account for a greater share of ticket sales in the future.

“But, of course, there’s a magic to experiencing art in real life,” adds Hazlewood. “The community and shared experience is a powerful thing that we wouldn’t want to lose entirely.”

This feature was first published in the Spring 2024 issue of LIVE.


Latest posts

bottom of page