How Can Artists and Events Tackle the Climate Crisis?

BY Adam Corner

The events industry and the climate crisis


Live music, like every other sector of society, has to cut its carbon footprint – and fast. Adam Corner, a writer and researcher on climate, communication and culture outlines some of the changes we can make.

During the depths of the pandemic – with flights grounded, gigs postponed and festivals cancelled – the future of live music suddenly seemed uncertain. With live shows assuming an ever-more important role for artists unable to pay the bills through streaming revenue alone, the panic was palpable. And for the millions of fans who draw meaning and connection from the irreplaceable energy of live shows, their absence was keenly felt.

But the disruption also provided a space to reflect on the sustainability of the music industry. Some long overdue conversations around how music should respond to the climate crisis snowballed into a cluster of new initiatives, campaigns, pledges and announcements that have started to shape the post-pandemic live music landscape.

It was during this time that Brian Eno launched the new charity EarthPercent, which was designed to provide artists and the wider industry with an avenue to support environmental organisations. Artists and industry workers were asked to pledge a small percentage of their income to EarthPercent, which funnels this to organisations working on the climate emergency. The charity is aiming to raise £72 million by 2030. LIVE Green was activated, which, for the first time, provided a coordinated sustainability drive for the UK’s live music industry. And Music Declares Emergency, armed with the stark slogan ‘No Music on a Dead Planet’, picked up influential backers like Billie Eilish as they invited artists and promoters to take their climate responsibilities more seriously.

The travel associated with live events, festivals and touring has been a particular focal point, and the Clean Scene collective took aim at the travel emissions of touring DJs. A report titled Last Night A DJ Took a Flight crunched the numbers on Resident Advisor’s most popular DJs before the pandemic, calculating air miles based on tour dates and listings. They found the average DJ from the top 1,000 had double the impact of even the world’s frequent-flying "super emitters", which at 35 tonnes of CO2 per year was over 17 times higher than the recommended personal carbon budget of approximately two tonnes of CO2.

Even stadium stalwarts like Coldplay got the travel emissions memo, introducing a raft of new sustainability measures for their Music of the Spheres tour. Despite being branded “useful idiots” for partnering with Finnish oil company Neste (campaigners claimed the company’s biofuels were unsustainable and linked to deforestation for Palm Oil plantations in Indonesia), the tour included an app where fans could plan the most sustainable route to gigs and receive a discount code for their efforts. Initiatives like this are important because audience travel really matters.

In research commissioned by Massive Attack, scientists at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research created a roadmap for what they called “super low carbon live music”, with some forms of artist travel (like the use of private jets) receiving criticism. But although the stereotype of the hypocritical megastar urging crowds to do their bit as they casually fly around the planet isn’t entirely unfounded, the Tyndall Centre research found that the single biggest contributor to most live events’ carbon footprint was audience travel.

Perhaps this shouldn’t be all that surprising; the collective journeys made by millions of fans add up. Whilst there are some good examples of events offering fans more sustainable ways to travel – like incentivising coach tickets, coordinating gig times with local train timetables, and in the case of one Dutch festival, offering a collection service for people’s camping equipment and luggage so they wouldn’t need to drive – for most live music events, the conversation with audiences about travelling more consciously is only just beginning.

That’s why the recent report I wrote with Briony Latter (from the centre for Climate Change & Social Transformations) and Chiara Badialli (Music Lead at the culture and climate charity Julie’s Bicycle) focuses on ideas for better communication with audiences on travel choices, and suggestions for how to make audience travel innovations more likely to be implemented.

Coming out of two roundtable discussions with sustainability specialists representing some of the biggest venues and festivals in the UK, the report makes recommendations for connecting with audiences on travel choices. The first recommendation is actually less about the individual behaviours of audience members, and more about artists and events working in partnership with audiences to demand the changes needed. Firstly, events in remote locations need more public transport options, and events in cities should have enough late-running options to get people home safely. Audiences can’t make more sustainable travel choices if the options aren’t there. Furthermore, these options should be affordable too. There’s power in events, artists and audiences using their voice together. Some artists have started taking this responsibility into their own hands. For example, Aitch recently offered free train tickets for under-25s in the UK to make it easier for them to attend concerts and cultural events in other cities. The scheme was called Aitch-S2, parodying the long-debated new English train line HS2.

Live music, like every other sector of society, has to cut its carbon footprint and fast. There is much that events can, and should, do themselves – not only with travel emissions but reducing waste and switching to renewable tariffs or power generations. But unlike most industries, live music has the platform and cultural leverage to do more than look down at its own carbon footprint; it has the power to shift societal attitudes. This is where change can happen. Festivals and live music events have an opportunity to ask their audiences to create this much-needed progress with them, to set the right example and to communicate how social norms around travel choices should be changed. As the Show Must Go On report puts it, live events have “a unique opportunity to model the kind of world we want to see… cultural codes, values and behaviours we set together with our audiences that can resonate long after they return home”.

For touring DJs, the Clean Scene collective recommends tours could be routed more efficiently, so that artists are not criss-crossing continents but instead taking a more logical and lower-carbon route. Local scenes and artists could be better nurtured to reduce the pull of foreign superstars, thereby reducing their carbon footprint. Furthermore, exclusivity clauses – where artists can’t play more than one show locally – are coming in for increasing scrutiny from the perspective of local DJs who can’t necessarily be expected to turn down other gigs. But removing them would also allow visiting artists to spend more time (and play more shows) in areas where there was enough demand for it, and reduce the need to be in three countries in one weekend. The new initiative twogigs is designed for electronic artists and launching in 2023. It offers promoters, clubs and festivals a way to pair up bookings in order to reduce travel emissions for shows, and increase the chance of artists moving between local shows overland.

The live music and sustainable travel consultancy ecolibrium provides guidance and training for festivals and events looking to reduce their travel emissions, and recently shared a sustainable travel guide, covering the actions that agents and bookers can take to the ways that artists can use their voice to influence audiences. The new Green Events Code, launched by the Vision2025 group, provides “clear and robust minimum standards and shared targets for sustainability”, including asking events to sign up to a 50 percent reduction in onsite fossil fuel consumption by 2025 – although it’s notable that there are no hard targets for transportation and travel, reflecting how much there is still to do for the industry.

And while there is progress in the right direction,  and an uptick in events  taking climate commitments more seriously, many have also struggled with ticket sales. No-shows have been higher and less predictable; some events have had to be cancelled altogether – a result of the cost of living crisis paired with rising production costs. Some festivals might consider they have enough on their plate without creating any other barriers to audiences attending their events.

But to survive and prosper in the coming decades, live music has got to be part of reimagining and updating our expectations around international travel. None of this will be possible without audiences playing their part too. So as the industry sets its targets, makes its pledges, re-routes tours and starts incentivising the ways to travel more sustainably, audiences need to step up too.

It’s important not to get fooled into thinking solving the climate crisis is all about micromanaging individual behaviours or obsessing only about personal carbon footprints, and there will be plenty of people who don’t currently feel they’re in the position to pay a little more to travel more sustainably. But there are also some who can – so it follows that the collective choices some people make really count. In the UK, for example, 15 percent of the population accounts for about 70 percent of the emissions from flights. Changes in collective behaviour seem improbable, impossible – until they’re not.

So what does the future hold for festivals and live events seeking to become more sustainable? As with much of the discussion around the climate crisis, the problem isn’t a lack of ideas about how artists and audience travel can be more sustainable. If a critical mass of audience members show events they want and expect sustainable travel options to be part of their offer, they will listen. Audiences need to persuade events that there's an appetite for taking sustainable travel more seriously. Events need to step up and show audiences that travelling low-carbon doesn't mean a sacrifice, and that collective changes at scale can move the needle. If events and audiences use their combined voice to push for the structural changes needed to make low-carbon travel choices possible, this will be much more effective than campaigning alone. In an era of increasing climate consciousness, influential cultural events need to embrace the reality of responsible travel, rather than see it as an existential threat.