WORDS BY LUCY BOURTON
From audience travel to branded merchandise, music tours generate a huge amount of waste. But on London’s DIY scene, some insiders are leading the way for a greener future.
The connection music creates between a fan and its creator is undeniably powerful. Artists and their work can offer us a rare kind of personal development. Think back to the musicians that have touched your life: did they inspire your sense of style? Perhaps the book you read because it was referenced on one of their records? Or maybe their advocacy work, which so many musicians are increasingly adopting, influenced major lifestyle choices?
Artists hold a huge amount of power over their audiences, but in turn, fans expect artists to care about the things they care about; to yield the power they give them to make tangible change, and to be vocal on it, too. One of these battlegrounds is environmentalism—the most defining issue of our time—and there is a heavy weight on musical artists to play their part.
That’s in part because of the carbon footprint generated every time a musician goes on tour. The Green Touring Guide states that each fan visiting a concert generates 5kg of CO2. This means that even a medium-sized concert of, say, just under a thousand people creates 1.5 metric tons of CO2—approximately equal to that generated in a one-way flight from Berlin to New York. Then, there is waste accumulation. Piles of plastic cups tossed aside as an encore closes, uneaten food (both front of house and backstage), through to the production of merch, and the everyday factors touring has in common with tourism such as travel and accommodation.
In London, the music industry’s environmental impact is increasingly front of mind. October saw the city’s first Music Climate Blowout, a conference-cum-concert collaboration between the climate club Adapt and environmentally-focused organisation, Music Declares Emergency. One artist voicing their concern by playing was Dana Margolin with her band Porridge Radio. “The scenes I play in, like the DIY scene, are often a lot of people paying attention to what is going on in the world,” she says. “We’re all quite politically minded people. I mean, we read the news. It’s terrifying. It’s on people’s minds now, but it’s hard because you need quite a lot of resources to be sustainable.”
“I feel like it’s one of those things that when you become a bigger band, it becomes a bigger responsibility.”
Similarly climate anxious, is another London-based band, Goat Girl—a politically vocal group both as individuals and in their artistic output. Environmentalism has always been a personal passion. So it’s no surprise that the impact of touring is a concern that’s becoming increasingly urgent as the band grows in popularity. As bass player Holly Mullineaux told Atmos: “I feel like it’s one of those things that when you become a bigger band, it becomes a bigger responsibility.”
Both Porridge Radio and Goat Girl have acknowledged that the main aim of a tour is to recuperate financially. Even so, there are changes they’ve implemented with the environment in mind—and more to follow. For example: Goat Girl have altered the way they approach food by reducing their rider—the food and drink supplied for the band at each venue—to ensure as little waste as possible, requesting plastic-free items, while trying to only purchase food via smaller companies who don’t rely on industrialized farming. These changes may sound small when listed, but in the context of a touring environment, take hours of extra planning.
“Sustainable businesses you can buy from on tour are few and far between,” said Goat Girl’s guitarist Ellie Edna Rose-Davies. “People are priced out of the cities where we tour and you’re more likely to see a Starbucks than a small independent place. That’s something our government doesn’t favour, or any green ways of thinking.”
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Merchandise sold at shows also offers an opportunity for musicians to make more sustainable choices, but it’s a thorny subject for musicians trying to make a living. A necessary point of revenue, “it can be the difference between a tour breaking and not breaking even,” said Goat Girl’s Mullineaux. Investing in recyclable, organic or fair trade merch, as both bands have done for upcoming tours, is “suddenly much more expensive, and if you’re a band who don’t have the resources to invest in that you can’t afford it in the first place,” adds Margolin. “If you’re starting with a small budget, it’s much more cost effective to buy things that are bad for the environment. Once you have the resources it’s not that hard to find options, but it’s about wanting to find it.”
And although creating merch is adding yet another product to the market, both bands justify that a T-shirt picked up at a show holds a different cultural worth than that of fast fashion. For the creators—Goat Girl’s artwork is all made by Toby and Aidan Evans-Jesra, while Dana creates the majority of Porridge Radio’s visual output in her painting practice—merch is a cohesive extension of their artistic output. “It wouldn’t do the art or the idea any justice if we were to print Toby’s beautiful designs on a polyester T-shirt that is really itchy and toxic for your skin,” said Rose-Davies.
But the items we buy at gigs are also cherished tokens of memory, even long after fandom for the featured artist passes. “I’ve got so many band T-shirts under my bed,” said Mullineaux. “Even when I’m sorting through stuff, it’s not something I can bring myself to throw away.” With Dana equally arguing that, due to this connection, “it’s not the same as fast fashion,” she says. “It will mean more to people and they’re likely to keep it. It’s got a different emotional weight to it.”
“If you’re starting with a small budget, it’s much more cost effective to buy things that are bad for the environment.”
A company working towards making the merch space more sustainable is Version Tomorrow, a CDFA award-winning brand creating “first of its kind” options which are “eco without sacrificing quality.” Founded by Alan Mak, Version Tomorrow specializes in creating “blanks”—prefabricated garments with no decoration, offering a blank canvas for individuals. “Historically, the blanks industry has been a race to the bottom; one where the goal is to produce the cheapest product by all means necessary to drive down costs to the bare minimum so that brands can maximize their profits,” said Mak. “[But] doing so comes with a variety of environmental and social costs.”
In turn, Version Tomorrow’s key product is made from a blend of GRS-certified recycled and OCS-certified organic cotton. It’s a “unique fabrication”—in Mak’s words—that doubles as a monofiber, meaning it isn’t blended with synthetics or plastic-based fibers and therefore does not contribute to microplastic pollution. Each piece is also biodegradable, mechanically recyclable, and uses Oeko-Tex Standard 100 certified nontoxic dyes. All pieces are then produced in WRAP Gold -certified factories in a lower impact supply chain, as part of a full custom platform offering from the brand.
“The most environmentally responsible thing to do is not create new goods, [but] we know that isn’t realistic and hence, our goals with Version Tomorrow were to flip and cannibalize existing goods that are made using irresponsible means,” Mak said. After all, “these companies were going to make merch and apparel anyway, and without our capabilities, they would likely have gone with less responsible options.”
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There is little that a band at Porridge Radio or Goat Girl’s level and reach can feasibly change. Both are beloved bands with pockets of cult followings across the globe; Porridge Radio’s second record, Every Bad, was nominated for this year’s Mercury Prize for example, while Goat Girl has two critically acclaimed UK top 50 albums. Yet each band notes financial constraints stopping them from implementing further sustainable choices. Both want to hire electric vans for their tours planned in 2022; Goat Girl is waiting to hear if they’ll receive a grant from Music For Change to do so, while Margolin is looking into sponsorship opportunities to do the same.
“It’s not even really accessible for us at this point,” said Mullineaux. “It’s a shame, but it’s something we’ll pursue as we’re aware of these issues and feel a responsibility to do what we can.”
For musicians with sturdier financial resources, one option is to hire Reverb, a nonprofit who partners with musicians “to green their concert events.” Reverb’s representatives join an artist’s team to “execute comprehensive programs to reduce concert and tour footprints by, for example, donating food after a show, ensuring a venue is handling waste management and implementing a presence to engage fans on the topic. It’s proved to be a hugely successful model since 2004, and Reverb’s clients now range from Harry Styles and Billie Eilish to Tame Impala and The 1975.
Driving these changes behind the scenes is Lara Seaver, Reverb’s director of projects. “Everybody has great ideas,” she says, “but it’s about figuring out what it actually looks like to put it in a road case, to set it up everyday, how to make it practical and important at the same time.”
“Everybody has great ideas. But it’s about figuring out what it actually looks like to put it in a road case, to set it up everyday.”
These options differ in scale and impact. Sometimes the focus lies in presenting alternatives to plastic waste—“one of the biggest things to tackle with an artist backstage is bottled water,” said Seaver— while other instances see the team brainstorming ideas on how to help make fans visiting an arena more climate conscious. These conversations often differ in outcome. “If we’re talking to an artist with young fans, there’s no need to say there’s a climate crisis—they [already] know. But if there’s an older or more conservative audience, there’s certainly different conversations to be had,” said Seaver.
However, all the work Reverb, Porridge Radio and Goat Girl are doing don’t touch on the largest contributor of emissions: audience travel. According to a report by Julie’s Bicycle, an arts non-profit focusing on the climate and ecological crisis, “audience travel is the largest source of carbon emissions for any performance.” It’s a terrifying stat Seaver is quick to confirm. The carbon footprint of a show is “largely 80% to 95% audience travel, depending on the amount of visitors,” she said. “It’s really significant. Even if we’re doing everything perfectly we’re only making a dent.”
Audience travel is also arguably the most difficult issue to solve. There are a myriad of reasons as to why a fan may drive to a show. It might be due to accessibility, safety concerns, or simply that they’ll have to miss the last song to run for the train home. Although there is no easy solution to solve the problem, Reverb’s first step is to communicate options with venues and artists and encourage them to share the information with their audiences. Then, there are ways to group journeys together such as carpooling or, for artists who draw large crowds, working with cities to ensure extra transportation. Some companies have even teamed up to create a “party bus.” Fans will meet at a bar for happy hour, before shuttling over to a venue like an amphitheater, which tends to be in the suburbs of cities. The main priority however “is a community deciding that it’s a priority to ensure that public transport is convenient,” said Seaver.
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That audience travel is driving the touring industry’s emissions output shows just how structural the issue is. “[Change] definitely needs to come from governments,” said Margolin. “I think if people have better options to travel in general, they’re going to use those better options. The responsibility is on all of us, but it needs to be legislative as well.” Goat Girl also supports a shift in messaging from those in positions of power to better support the music industry’s efforts to go green. Rose-Davies suggests a helpful step would be “if the government gave you some kind of subsidy for using more green vehicles or greener hotel chains,” she notes. “If they saw you as a green business.” The benefits of such changes would trickle down, too, directly supporting local economies rather than conglomerates each time a band passes through town.
But while such suggestions will likely continue to be ignored by our governments, Reverb, Porridge Radio and Goat Girl and other musicians have sworn to continue to utilize music to further the importance of environmentalism. A concert, after all, can be one of life’s great affirming moments. It’s a date in the diary longed for due to the singular buzz that comes with being amongst like-minded individuals with a common point of appreciation. Actions taken to organize such an experience shouldn’t have this negative effect on our planet.
And despite the despairing feeling offstage, “As an artist with a relatively small following but still a following, it is my responsibility to speak about things I care about,” said Margolin. “I can ask people to care about this because I care about it. Hopefully other people will care too, which will eventually lead to change.”