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Cleaning Up the Live Music Industry: Finding Sustainable Solutions for Shows - The YEARS Project

Cleaning Up the Live Music Industry: Finding Sustainable Solutions for Shows

If you consider the last concert you attended, what did the floor look like when you left? Most of us have probably known the sound of crunching beer cans underneath our feet, or the feeling of finding confetti in our hair hours after we’ve returned home. For me, this begs the question of the waste produced at concerts, and how much are we hurting the environment when we attend. “Sustainability” and “net-zero” are buzzwords we see on a swath of products on the market these days, but they seem to rarely appear in the music industry. 

As an avid concert-goer, I wanted to know the impact I was having as an attendee. However, stats on the environmental impacts of concerts have been relatively hard to pin down. According to one study U.S. concerts contribute over 115 million pounds of waste and 400,000 tons of carbon pollution. But what measures are included in these statistics? 

At events, food and drinks are purchased, rarely with reusable dining materials. There’s merch to commemorate the night, people drive, or even fly to see some of their favorite artists. Attendees are riding in ubers. Cars idle in the parking lot waiting for passengers. Artists travel from city to city, along with their band and crew, and all gear and instruments. Copious amounts of energy and gas are used for everything from lighting, air conditioning, to sound and refrigeration. Combined, these elements create waste and emissions that contribute to the climate crisis. In 2022, Live Nation promoted over 43,000 concerts and festivals. That’s a lot of people, a lot of shows and a lot of waste.

Concerts started as simple gatherings, often religious, yet these events have transformed themselves into the mega-productions we see now. Woodstock ‘69 holds the crown for the first true music festival with over 40,000 attendees, and brought together like-minded people over their shared love of music. Modern day Coachella hosts over 100,000 attendees two weekends in a row. Artists often rely on touring for their income as they make little money off the music they make. As these tours continue, we must incorporate sustainable standards into the industry. Just as the live music experience has evolved, so have climate smart practices, and solutions we can employ. So, is it happening? 

Yes, in fact some venues are taking the lead on sustainable practices. Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia is the first professional sports venue in the US to become LEED Platinum certified. The Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle is working hard toward carbon neutrality. Everything in the arena, from the heating system to the zambonis to the cooking materials run on electric power. CU Boulder’s Folsom Field is zero-waste through processes of waste diversion and an on-campus, student-run recycling facility. The Santa Barbara Bowl is another example, whose Greening the Bowl initiative cultivates native and drought tolerant plants in California. They’ve also reduced single-use materials, installed solar, and replaced wasteful lighting fixtures with LED instead. If these places can do it, others can follow suit.  

Still, sustainability in music comes down to a lot more than just stadiums. REVERB is an impressive non-profit that has been teaming up with artists, venues, and fans to shift events to greener alternatives. The group employs multiple avenues toward sustainability such as “eco-village” pop-ups that educate attendees on the climate crisis and provide opportunities to take action. They partner with venues to offer compostable, recyclable, or reusable alternatives to single-use items. Additionally with REVERB, artists have the opportunity to achieve their own personal sustainable goals. When working with artists throughout their tour they’re able to implement these practices and more creative ones on an individual basis. In the end, REVERB creates an impact report of the tour detailing climate actions taken and their environmental impact, or lack thereof.

Of course there are individual changes we can make as concertgoers. Attendees can carpool and/or take public transport. We can bring our own reusable water bottles or engage with new initiatives provided to find ways to make live events more sustainable. The Climate Gig is a digital tool for fans and artists alike to calculate their carbon footprint at a concert, and offer ways to reduce it. They supply alternatives like sustainable aviation fuel or contributing to a high-impact deforestation project. Sound Future is another nonprofit that claims to generate data-driven best practices to curate a more environmentally-centered event, while also providing a directory of climate-conscious vendors to choose from. Efforts like this make it clear an industry-wide shift is in order, and maybe already in progress. 

It could also come down to the artists we support. Do they care about the climate crisis? REVERB boasts an extensive list of artists who are utilizing sustainable practices. Just in recent years: The 1975 repurposed old concert tees for their merch, Coldplay used kinetic dance floors to generate energy for their show, and Billie Eilish fed her crew an entirely plant-based diet. Jack Johnson strictly offers reusable cups on tour and Harry Styles eliminated single-use plastic bottles backstage. The list goes on and on, but it’s proof that modern artists are recognizing the impact their concerts and tours have on the environment. 

And artists don’t just show they care through actions, but in their art as well. Just in recent decades, Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” still rings true as we “paved paradise to put up a parking lot.” Lil Dicky’s 2019 hit song “Earth” put a comical twist on the concept of climate change, bringing 30 major artists together with the sole purpose of educating the public about the environment. Even more recently, Dolly Parton called out greedy politicians in her song “World on Fire,” which many interpreted as a critique of global warming and the lack of political action.

We can encourage artists who are not already standing up about the climate crisis to say something. Two of the biggest artists in the world, Taylor Swift and Beyonce, are on tour this year. They have the potential to make real change, yet we have not heard a word about sustainable touring from either one of them. The way Swifties have now taken over the NFL, they could do the same and channel this energy to advocate for climate solutions in the music industry. 

So what does the future of live music sound like? There’s no way to know for sure but it needs to be better. The music industry has changed dramatically just in my lifetime, with a phase out of CD’s to purchasing songs on iTunes, and from iTunes to digital streaming platforms like Spotify and Apple Music. The next step could be a more sustainable form of touring. Live music brings people together, exudes feelings of euphoria, and is a vital and historical part of the human experience. Artists rely on touring for their income. Touring feels like a benefit to all, so let’s include the environment as a beneficiary as well. Our escape from reality has become destructive