(As a welcome distraction from everything going on at the moment, here’s a post I wrote a while ago to encourage and bring a bit of hope – enjoy!)
I’ve noticed something interesting over the last year. As an avid music fan (why buy fast fashion when you can go to shows?) I try and keep somewhat up to date with the movements of artists I like. And the movement I’ve noticed is a trend towards sustainability.
The first place I spotted this was the way some artists have begun to deal with merch.
In my eyes, there are a few reasons why people purchase merch. One is that the item functions as a memento, a physical reminder of the experience you had and the memories you made. Another is as a display of identity, showing the world what art speaks to you, and what values or tastes you may hold.
For some, more simply, it’s a really tangible way to financially support the artists they love.
In the age of streaming, where revenue from physical sales is in stark decline, merch is a significant portion of a musician’s income. During 2016 live shows worldwide grossed $4.88 billion, and the global market for recorded music was worth $15.7 billion. Merch, which is independent of the actual songs created, was reported to be $3.1 billion in this same period, up 9.4% from the $2.83 billion the year before. To generate the same revenue as a t-shirt a song needs 6,549 Spotify streams, 2,554 Apple Music streams, or 27,027 YouTube plays, according to a 2017 analysis by Digital Music News.
So, what is a person to do? If the artists they love aren’t huge mega-stars, then this financial support could be invaluable (I often think about Vulture’s 2012 profile of Grizzly Bear, where Ed Droste revealed that members of their incredibly successful band didn’t have health insurance). But if you also don’t want to contribute to overconsumption, unsustainable practice or exploitation, where do you draw the line?
It seems that some artists are actively pursuing solutions, which I’ve been watching with interest for a while now.
The first step I noticed was a small one. In June 2019 Sufjan Stevens released a handful of songs for Pride, alongside designing a Pride t-shirt, with a portion of proceeds from sales supporting two organisations that help LGBTQ+ homeless kids in America: the Ali Forney Center in Harlem, NY, and the Ruth Ellis Center in Detroit, MI.
This type of move isn’t unprecedented, but it normally makes me uncomfortable. More often than not, people and brands sell clothing ‘for a good cause’ that is unsustainably made and likely manufactured by underpaid and exploited workers, causing more harm than good. This t-shirt, however, was different. I noticed immediately that it was manufactured by Jungmaven; a sustainable brand I already knew, who focus on natural materials (namely hemp, a sustainable dream material) and ethical production. The Pride tee was made in the USA and comprised of a 30% hemp/70% organic cotton blend.
While I couldn’t find information on the dyes used in screenprinting, to me this was a significant step for an industry that is responsible for a lot of clothing, without receiving the scrutiny mainstream fashion does. And one of the most interesting elements was that this wasn’t particularly advertised as sustainable merch. If it hadn’t been for the mention of Jungmaven and responses to questions about the price on social media, I wouldn’t initially have noticed that this product was different. There was no hint of greenwashing, because there was no attempt to deliberately market the fact that the merchandise was made more ethically. For once, it seemed a social justice-oriented piece of merchandise was at least trying not to be steeped in hypocrisy without using it as a selling point, and that’s a good start.
As it stands, the rest of Sufjan Stevens’ old merch isn’t consciously created. However, with the release of new album Aporia comes new merch that is also manufactured by Jungmaven with the same materials! (50% of profits also go to food-focused COVID19 charities like No Kid Hungry and Partners in Health). I think there’s a strong chance that future merch will also continue in this direction.
Aporia merch, manufactured by Jungmaven
Soon after this, I started to notice what Bon Iver were doing. Right now, I think they’re pretty much the frontrunner in pursuing sustainable merch. In 2019 they teamed up with print shop Ambient Inks to sell conscious merchandise following the release of the i,i album. The line includes items that are manufactured locally, utilise renewable energy, pay workers properly, made with a range of recycled, sustainable, fairtrade and organic materials, and printed with eco-friendly inks, while pieces are shipped using compostable or eco-friendly packaging. In the store itself, like a conscious marketplace, you can see the sustainable credentials of each item for sale.
Most impressive of all is that Bon Iver have also released an impact report in regards to merch, something many fashion brands don’t even provide for the public, never mind musicians. In 2019 they estimate they saved just under 10 million gallons of water, reduced nearly 30,000 ounces of crude oil and approximately 74,000 ounces of harmful chemicals, and removed around 28,000 plastic bottles from landfills. While they aren’t perfect, this is a incredible level of transparency and commitment from a band who is so well known and respected in the industry.
While Bon Iver may have been fighting general waste going to landfill, an interesting factor to consider is also that waste created from merch isn’t just an environmental problem, it’s a problem for musicians too. Overestimating demand and overproducing stock can rack up unsustainable losses for a band which is, for all intents and purposes, a small business.
Artists, often working on limited budgets, have developed smart approaches that reduce costs and avoid waste. Former Maccabees frontman Orlando Weeks embarked on his first solo tour in September 2019 (I went and can confirm, it was a great show). Instead of selling large amounts of cheaply made merch, he sold a limited run of t-shirts sourced from charity shops, with designs screen printed by hand by Weeks himself. He followed this up in early 2020 by collaborating with Farah menswear: they provided existing, surplus t-shirt stock, with designs screen printed by a small London studio, saving pieces from landfill and eradicating the need to produce new fabric, which will inevitably have also kept costs lower.
While certainly working on a larger budget than Weeks, The 1975 have also taken a similar approach to waste by repurposing old merchandise. For the release of Notes On A Conditional Form, they printed new logos over some of their oldest t-shirts, dating back to 2013. In singer Matt Healy’s words:
View this post on Instagram
OK! So here is the first drop! We are not making new shirts for now. Unsustainable. SO, AND I’M SO FUCKING INTO THIS. This run is all old shirts (first album, early tours etc) that we had kept and have reprinted as your NOACF shirts. You will also be able to bring any old 1975 shirt or ANY bands you love shirts to Reading festival and have the same print done over the top there and then 🥾🌍 EDIT: Reprinting is FREE if you bring your own 1975 shirt at both LEEDS and READING!
At Reading & Leeds festival fans were also able to take their own band t-shirts to receive the same print update (for free if the shirt was from The 1975 originally), encouraging them not to buy new clothes at all.
Beyond this, another exciting option is the potential for any excess stock to become more than something for landfill, which also incurs losses for artists. Instead, it can take on a new life as an upcycled product:
“We have done a chunk of products using recycled material,” says Munro. “For Jack Johnson we did a surfboard cover, cushion covers and blankets. For Radiohead’s crying minotaur [on the cover of Amnesiac] we turned that into a soft toy using excess T-Shirt stock. We couldn’t sell them quick enough!”
Bon Iver are, unsurprisingly, already doing this. In February 2020 they announced their collaboration with Looptworks, a Portland-based company that upcycles abandoned, pre-consumer and post-consumer materials into limited edition products. Bon Iver were left with excess merch from previous tours which they didn’t want to send to landfill, and so Looptworks used these materials to create backpacks and pillows. They estimate that each backpack saved 95 gallons of water and kept .3 pounds of excess materials from landfill, while each pillow saved 20 gallons of water and saved .25 pounds of material.
Merch is, of course, not the only area musicians are starting to consider. For most artists touring makes up the bulk of their income, even the highest-earning, making it a particularly tricky area. A well-established artist may make enough money from non-touring income streams to enable them to give up live shows. Smaller acts, however, are rarely in this position.
There are a few approaches and perspectives that artists are considering when it comes to touring:
This makes the cost of environmentally-friendly measures, such as squeezing fewer dates into a tour, harder to bear. Inglis contests the notion that artists depend more on touring than record sales to make money, arguing that the high costs associated with going on tour are often overlooked – “a four-piece hardcore band on the UK circuit isn’t paying their rent via £200 fees at the Prince Albert in Brighton,” he says. But, if anything, his argument highlights the issue of a profit pinch for musicians working today. And faced with that pinch, turning down an opportunity to earn becomes more difficult – not to mention that touring is supposed to be one of the highlights of life as a musician…
The issue is particularly acute for DJs, who by their very nature depend more on live performance fees than royalties or record sales. What’s more, the relative ease of getting from venue to venue without having to transport much (if anything) by way of gear means that DJs can often find themselves under pressure to attend multiple bookings within a single evening. DJs for Climate Action is a coalition of DJs that aims to raise the profile of environmental issues in the otherwise glitzy, global world of dance music. Sammy Bananas, who founded the organisation, argues that DJs “have a responsibility to engage with the issue [of climate change]” given the realities of their work…
Some have argued in favour of the concept of ‘slow touring’ – which essentially involves spending longer at each stop on a tour and, in its ideal state, using that time to engage with and feed back into the local community. “It would entail creating more residency-type opportunities, different approaches to performance and engagement of audiences and communities, perhaps greater integration of the journey into the experience,” explains Badiali, but she admits that it would also require the development of a whole new business model – something she believes people in the industry “should be exploring and experimenting with.”
In this area, many larger bands are leading the way (as they should be). In 2019 Coldplay announced that they wouldn’t be touring until they could offer carbon-neutral concerts, Massive Attack announced that they would be touring Europe via train and teaming up with academics to track the carbon footprint of the music industry, Billie Eilish announced her tour would be ‘as green as possible’ and include an ‘eco-village’ with climate education resources at every venue, and The 1975 pledged to plant a tree for every ticket sold to their shows. And it seems these discussions are only the beginning.
For their day to day life as a band, Foals are hoping to make their own small differences by cutting plastic out of touring, as well as admitting that they’ll have to soon discuss “how we tour, how often we tour and where we tour”.
One thing that is slightly easier to plan is a festival. While the infrastructure and energy demands are huge, it also takes place at one location, at one time. And there are already a few industry frontrunners when it comes to making these events more environmentally conscious.
Bonnaroo, which runs annually in Tennessee, is a stand out in this area. Run from a farm, organisers have reduced dependence on the electrical grid by building solar panels, alongside commissioning an on-site composting facility to go with the usage of fully compostable food service items. It is now listed in the top tier of sustainability by Vice.
Coachella has also explored various sustainable ideas: it introduced ‘Carpoolchella’ to encourage attendees to car share to travel to the festival, rewarding them with chances to win things like backstage passes or VIP upgrades, introduced phone chargers that could be self-powered through riding a bike, and began an initative called the ‘recycling store’, which encourages attendees to pick up bottles, cans and cups they find and cash them in for points that can be spent on merchandise. Other festivals, such as Glastonbury, banned plastic bottles completely.
In this area, The 1975 are also leading the charge. They recently announced a July 2020 show in London’s Finsbury Park. While this may now be postponed, the plant itself remains impressive, including using hybrid-powered generators and running on Hydrotreated Vegetable Oil (HVO). Overall, it is estimated that the carbon footprint of the event will be brought down by 90%, while also hopefully paving the way for others.
Setting an example to artists everywhere, this will be the first time traceable, sustainably sourced HVO fuel is used to power an entire event. The concert will also be paperless, with only digital tickets available to buy online. Energy will be derived from solar panels and food vendors even plan to use a traffic light system to highlight the carbon footprint of each meal sold at the event.
Of course, nothing is perfect, and these steps alone won’t save us from the climate emergency. What it can do, however, is raise awareness while simultaneously pushing for systemic change from within the industry. And as change begets more change, hopefully, this will serve as a leading example of how other industries can and should shift too.
As time goes on, more and more musicians have also been joining the Music Declares Emergency campaign, a self-described ‘group of artists, music industry professionals and organisations that stand together to declare a climate and ecological emergency and call for an immediate governmental response to protect all life on Earth.’ Since its launch in July 2019 thousands of bands and artists have signed up, including Annie Lennox, Billie Eilish, Bonobo, Caribou, Foals, Hot Chip, IDLES, Imogen Heap, The xx, Jarvis Cocker, Johnny Flynn, Mystery Jets, Radiohead, Robyn, and The 1975, alongside countless labels, executives, and others working behind the scenes.
In under a year, the environment has started to move to the centre of the conversations we have around music, in a way it has never done before. Some of the musicians who are now becoming the most vocal, and most active, on this topic are those that I’ve listened to for well over a decade. To me, this seems like an unprecedented, encouraging and exciting place for the music industry to move into. I’ve never seen climate conversations so galvanised in this arena before, backed up by actions and real attempts to take tangible steps forward. My hope is that this becomes increasingly normal, to the point where other artists are obligated to follow the lead of those already doing something.
So next time you see concert tickets go up, or merchandise announced, why not take a moment to ask about the sustainability credentials behind it. Artists are starting to listen, and the more conversation we have around these topics, the more change we can see.
(In addition, now that live shows are postponed for a while, make sure to stream the work of your favourite independent artists!)