Music has existed since before the first oil rig was built and the first pipeline was laid. Before spinning discs of plastic were used to convey sound and metal mined from the Earth was shaped into something that could fly from one stadium concert to the next.
At its simplest, music can still exist without all those things. All it takes is the human voice, the result of breath shimmying gently across the vocal cords. When made and shared this way, music requires no inputs but the water and oxygen the human singer needs to live, and it leaves nothing behind but a vibration. Or perhaps it would be even truer to say that music doesn’t require our species at all: as the Lakota songwriter and producer Frank Waln pointed out, “Whales write songs. Birds compose songs.”
Music, then, doesn’t just have the potential to be the most “eco-friendly” form of creative expression. It is ecology in motion. It is nature making itself heard.
We most commonly experience music as an intangible force that leaves no physical mark behind on the world. Touch a button on a screen, and suddenly an orchestra is spilling out of your headphones. But the ease with which we can access the songs we love obscures the truth that music-making and sharing as they exist today draw tangibly on the Earth’s resources.
How did the creative medium that could theoretically have the smallest negative impact on the planet become so shot through with environmental contradictions?
In 2007, Alison Tickell set out to quantify that impact. She founded the nonprofit Julie’s Bicycle to mobilize the cultural sector around climate, and the organization’s first big project was commissioning Oxford University researchers to measure the music industry’s greenhouse gas emissions. The resulting report concluded that the U.K. music industry was responsible for the equivalent of over 590,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually—that’s like burning around 1.3 million barrels of oil, according to the EPA’s greenhouse gas equivalency calculator.
Later reports expanded on those findings. One by Clean Scene found that flights taken by the top 1,000 DJs to gigs in 2019 emitted the equivalent of almost 39 tons of carbon dioxide (“equivalent to running 20,000 [U.S.] households’ electricity for one year”). For more proof of the industry’s impact, look at the shows themselves. While indoor shows may be able to draw from clean energy sources, outdoor gigs tend to run on portable, gas-powered generators, according to Lewis Jamieson, a longtime manager and music PR person who cofounded the U.K. collective Music Declares Emergency. The aftermath of a festival all too often looks like a graveyard for single-use plastic. And concert merch contributes to the growing piles of disposable fashion clogging the ports of cities like Accra, Ghana with waste exported from the U.S., U.K., and Europe. The list goes on.
These consequences may not reach the scale of sectors like transportation or agriculture, but they ought to put to rest the idea that music has no tangible impact.
There’s also the messaging embedded in the music itself, which has lagged behind the need for urgent action on climate. Though references to climate change in the lyrics of Billboard-charting songs have been increasing in the last decade, popular music in the U.S. has been dominated by a focus on romantic and sexual relationships far above anything else since at least the 1960s. (One study found that 64.6% of U.S. top 40 songs in the 2010s were about relationships or love and 41.7% were about sex or sexual desire. Only 7.9% were about social and political issues—climate and the environment were too infrequently mentioned to even register as a category.) In contrast, traditional Indigenous songs across a wide range of cultures often focus on transmitting ecological knowledge—a reminder that a musical fixation on romance and sex isn’t the only option.
“Music has always been at the forefront of social movements, whether it’s gender rights, racial politics, or LGBTQ+ issues. It’s always found its voice in these campaigns and social changes,” said Jamieson. “And that really wasn’t happening with the climate emergency.”
So how did the creative medium that could theoretically have the smallest negative impact on the planet become so shot through with environmental contradictions? As Tickell put it, “What would it take for music to power action on climate?”
For centuries, music required proximity to a music-maker. You couldn’t hear the steady beat of a drum or your niece’s wordless humming—or the bird’s melodious chirp or the whale’s deep baritone—unless they were nearby.
Recording changed all that, and it made music curiously dependent on one thing: insects.
Early recordings were made of all kinds of surprising materials, including tinfoil, rubber, beeswax, spermaceti (a waxy substance found in the heads of sperm whales), and chocolate, according to Decomposed: The Political Ecology of Music, a book by Dr. Kyle Devine. But “recorded music has been connected to three basic commodities since the introduction of sound recording and reproduction,” Devine said.
The first of those forms was shellac, made from the secretion of an insect native to South and East Asia, which emerged as an essential ingredient in audio recording around 1900. Shellac is named for lac, the resin that lac beetles secrete as shelter for their eggs. The lac was chipped off of trees, heated and refined, and mixed with other materials like crushed slate and limestone to make records. To listen to a record in 1945 was literally to listen to rocks and bug secretions.
“Natural” as it may seem, the process was rife with incidents of environmental injustice, from sweatshop-like conditions at lac processing facilities to damage sustained by the host tree populations.
Around 1950, shellac was replaced by plastic. As a result, the “recording industry’s geopolitical and environmental center of gravity [shifted] from the forests of the Southeast to the oil fields of the Middle East,” according to Devine.
Soon the music industry began developing ties to companies like British Petroleum and DuPont, whose direct impact on climate change and other forms of environmental harm are numerous and well-documented. It also became dependent on companies like California-based Keysor-Century, which both pressed its own records and supplied vinyl to other pressing plants. Devine described Keysor-Century as just one example of a “felonious pollutant” that “knowingly released toxic wastewater” and “emitted cancer-causing air pollutants” for years. The company was single-handedly responsible for supplying about a third of the U.S.’s total vinyl supply in the early ’70s.
To rebuild the way we make music from the ground up around a more equitable framework will require a million acts, large and small, of extraordinary imagination.
Against this backdrop, the switch from plastic to digital files that began around the year 2000, first in the form of downloads and then streaming, seems like a welcome shift. A 2019 study found that in 2000, around the peak of CD sales, the U.S. music industry used about 67,241 tons of plastic. By 2016, when downloading and streaming had thoroughly established dominance, that number was down to 8,818 tons.
But digital music isn’t quite the environmental panacea it first appears to be. “If digital files weren’t physical things on some level, then your hard drive on your phone or computer would never fill up; these files take up space,” Devine said. All that space requires more devices, many of which are designed to be obsolete within years, destined to join the planet’s growing pile of e-waste.
And as music increasingly migrates to the cloud or streaming, the most significant resource being used is energy—a great deal of which is needed to power the data centers that undergird these systems.
In 2015, Spotify received an “F” on its energy scorecard for a lack of commitment to and use of renewable energy from Greenpeace, which was rating tech companies’ environmental impacts as part of its Click Clean project. Since then, Spotify and many other tech companies have upped their climate commitments. But more recent reports show that the companies many streaming services rely on for their data centers and cloud storage—think Microsoft, Google, Apple, and Amazon—haven’t actually eliminated emissions, despite what their marketing might lead people to think.
That matters a great deal because according to the Recording Industry Association of America, streaming accounted for 84% of total U.S. music industry revenues in 2021. Anecdotally, it’s also how many people encounter music most often—even the most concert-loving fan likely spends more hours on Spotify or Apple Music than at a live venue each year.
What that all adds up to is an astonishing conclusion from Devine: “In a moment of online streaming,” he said, speaking on the phone in 2023, “musical listening is more taxing on the planet and its people than at any previous points in its history.”
If the mainstream music industry seemed to be largely asleep at the wheel for decades, in recent years, it has begun to wake up. More established nonprofits like Julie’s Bicycle, REVERB, and Hip Hop Caucus have been joined by newer groups like Music Declares Emergency—which provides guidance for everyone from artists to record labels to publishers about how to reduce their footprint—and Earth Percent—which partners with artists on tour to raise money for environmental causes.
Industry players are catching on. Peter Quicke, managing director of indie label Ninja Tune, is one such professional: Ninja Tune has lately installed solar panels and an air-source heat pump at its office, switched from 180- to 140-gram vinyl pressings to reduce the amount of material needed to make a record, and started working on a bioplastic option for vinyl.
Quicke has begun more fervently speaking out, too. He helped start a climate task force at the Association of Independent Music while he was chairperson and rallied behind initiatives like the Music Climate Pact, which has drawn commitments from major players like Universal, Sony, and Warner Brothers.
“In the grand scheme of things, we’re tiny—our footprint [as a company] is tiny,” he said. “I think the main thing is to be talking about it, acting, and encouraging others to act and talk about it.”
It’s a statement that could just as easily apply to the musicians his label represents. For years, the industry has been hesitant to fully leverage what many argue is its most powerful asset—music itself—to speak directly about climate change. And the few artists who did so openly were often “shouted down by a hostile media who weren’t receptive to anything but perfection,” said Tickell. Jamieson, who handled press for Radiohead for years, saw this firsthand: “when Radiohead spoke out about environmental issues, people would just say, Well, you go on tour, you get on planes.”
“[Musicians] need to be a sign of what’s happening now. And right now, this is the story that needs to be told.”
But as climate impacts intensify, a growing number of artists are lending their voices to the cause, with everyone from Billie Eilish to SZA to Bon Iver speaking out in recent years. Music Declares Emergency provides training for just this purpose—to help artists become more comfortable talking to the media about climate—and Tickell of Julie’s Bicycle believes that greening the process of touring and streaming and recording can help artists feel more empowered to speak out, too.
Frank Waln encourages artists who care about climate change to go one step further by writing that message into the music itself. He has intentionally stayed independent as an artist in part to have the freedom to talk about what’s important to him. As a Lakota man who grew up on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, Waln feels like he never had a choice not to address ecological themes in his music—it was a matter of “survival and necessity,” he said.
One of the most poignant examples of this is “Oil 4 Blood,” a song he wrote during the battle over the Keystone XL pipeline. “Knowing that this pipeline was gonna endanger the water supply for me and everyone I love, I couldn’t not do something about it,” he explained. “That [song] eventually led to me sharing a stage with Willie Nelson and Neil Young at a cornfield in Nebraska, when my tribe and Natives in the Dakotas linked up with white farmers and ranchers whose land was also in the path of the pipeline.”
Waln has seen the power music can have as a uniting force, and he believes music is medicine—not just for the people that hear it but for the land itself, too.
Dawn Richard is another musician who isn’t shy about encouraging other artists to make the connection between their creativity and what she described as “environmental turbulence.” Richard’s big break was about as steeped in mass entertainment culture as it could be: she was a member of Danity Kane, a girl group formed on the MTV reality show Making the Band and signed to Diddy’s label.
But almost two decades since Danity Kane first united, Richard is still making music as a solo artist for millions of fans, and these days, she’s finding ways to tell her own climate story. Richard hails from New Orleans, and she was deeply impacted by Hurricane Katrina. Though she evacuated her hometown the day Katrina hit, she lost a grandfather who had stayed in the city in a hospital that was impacted by the storm. After living in a car for a month, Richard and her family evacuated to Baltimore.
“My relationship to climate and environmental justice has evolved through the years,” she said. “It is not only a concept to me.” As she’s matured as an artist, she’s channeled the pain of Katrina as well as her love for her city into songs that use metaphors about color to explore climate feelings and music videos that use imagery of the levees that broke. She has also joined environmental justice organization Hip Hop Caucus as artist relations director to encourage other creatives to leverage their work for the sake of planet and people.
“As artists, we tread a thin line with people being turned off by being yelled at or preached at,” she explained. But she often thinks of a quote from Nina Simone: “an artist’s duty is to reflect the times.” In order to truly live up to the title of artist, Richard said, you can’t be scared to directly address the turbulent moment we’re in. “I think we need to be a sign of what’s happening now. And right now, this is the story that needs to be told.”
Ultimately, there’s no turning back the clock to recapture humanity’s relationship with music as it existed pre-industrialization. But there is the glimmer of a dream that music could find some way to not just minimize planetary harm but actually bring about healing.
There is the glimmer of a dream that music could find some way to not just minimize planetary harm but actually bring about healing.
Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, a 22-year-old Xochimilca artist and activist, believes deeply in this vision. Having spent his teens and early twenties suing the government over inaction on climate as part of the suit Juliana vs. United States, addressing the UN, and becoming a fixture at youth climate strikes, Martinez’s time in the “nonprofit-industrial complex” has made him all the more passionate about pursuing music.
“I’ve gone to climate conferences and events and spoken at schools and universities and given TED talks,” he said. “But the level of connectivity that you experience with your community when you’re using art to tell stories and bring people together is unparalleled. That needs to be celebrated and leveraged.”
For him, that means centering the voices and stories of Indigenous people and advocating that those on the frontlines of the climate crisis be at the forefront of decision-making. He’s realistic about what music can and can’t do: “the role of art shouldn’t be overglorified or overstated,” he said. “We aren’t going to change the world or shift consciousness solely with our music.” But he thinks artists have an important job nonetheless: amplifying the knowledge of those on the frontlines who are doing the work and in turn offering them art that can “light the fire” that helps sustain that work.
When compared with more polluting sectors, a discussion of music’s impact on the climate can seem unserious at best, or a distraction from more pressing issues at worst. But a deeper look reveals that the question at the center of music’s impact is in many ways the same question at the center of any climate discussion: how shall we structure our society, our businesses, our culture for the good of all?
On one level, solar-powered festivals and bioplastic vinyl and climate charity concerts and merch made from organic cotton are all good steps. On another, Devine argued, they’ll never be enough on their own. The “green transition” is ultimately not a shift away from capitalism and its accompanying class structure, which he said are the true culprits when it comes to climate breakdown. “It’s a shift in the type of capitalism, not a shift away from capitalism—which is the real reason for the issues we’re facing,” he said.
That’s a concept Waln understands intuitively. If popular music has failed to adequately speak about the crisis facing the land and the water, it is in part because the music system today is dependent on and embedded in the dominant economic system, which was built on exploitation and colonization.
For Waln, resisting that means resisting what he calls the “McDonald’s version” of music-making: the idea that success equates to being the biggest or most famous or making the most money, that it means being the one who benefits from exploitation rather than being the one who is exploited.
“Rooting my work in something older and more real than capitalism, in something more healing for me as an artist and as a Native person and as a human being, helps me navigate all that,” he said.
To rebuild the way we make music from the ground up around a more equitable framework will require a million acts, large and small, of extraordinary imagination. But perhaps that is exactly what art is for: to stretch our minds and hearts beyond their current limits; to teach us how to sing in concert with the airy trill of the bird and the deep bellow of the whale, who are no more nor less a part of nature than we are.
Talent Alimatu Yusif, Samuel Kwabena Twum, Mohammed Abubakar, John Nii Sakah Addo Photography Assistant John Nii Sakah Addo Styling Assistant Jasmine Opare-Darko Clothing Throughout Matchbox
This article first appeared in Atmos Volume 08: Rhythm with the headline “Making Music in a Warming World.”
Nature is an elaborate orchestra of interconnectedness, in which timing is everything.