Skip to main content

Putting Sustainability to Music

Artists and industry insiders discuss how to make music green, both for fans and businesses.

The tradition of celebrities flitting from cause to cause is a well-engrained meme in the Western pop psyche. But a body of environmentally minded musicians and music industry types, while not abandoning the public face of action, are working to create institutional change behind the scenes.

Speaking Friday during the second annual New Noise Santa Barbara conference in California, a collection of businesspeople, artists and a conservation scientist outlined some of the structural improvements, current and speculative, washing over the music biz. The conference is a sort of “South by Southwest by the Sea,” meant to appeal to music fans and industry insiders.

On one panel, the focus was as much on pushing vendors, venues and promoters to do the right thing while still benefiting their bottom lines as it was on influencing fans. And while music or even entertainment may be but a portion of any region’s gross domestic product, actions taken there are amplified by what Jonathan Gelbard, the scientist founder and executive director of, called the “influential power of music to drive change.”

And it has, he said, starting with the halls where musicians play. While it’s been difficult at times for artists to get venues to change their wasteful practices, he noted that the U.S. Department of Energy now offers Energy Star ratings for hospitality and entertainment, allowing artists and fans to vote for the better venues with their participation.

Such friendly persuasion remains a priority, said Chris Baumgartner, who works on sustainable marketing and touring with so-called “artists of power” like U2, the Black Eyed Peas and Jack Johnson. While admitting “on-the-ground impact, we’ve come a long way,” he said there’s still “definitely a range” of sustainability at shows. His green spectrum ranges from the New Orleans Jazz Festival (“by Day 4, it ain’t pretty”) to green champions such as the High Sierra Music Festival or Michigan’s Rothbury Festival.

Although no one on the panel opposed anyone making green decisions purely out of principal, most argued that sustainable actions were good for business. “You can be values driven and have an effective business framework,” as Gelbard put it, adding later that data points like the “triple bottom line” and corporate sustainability officers aren’t outliers any more.

“It’s a decision to do better,” Baumgartner said, “but it’s also an investment to do better.”

“Green is generally cheaper,” said Steve Casper, the owner and chief fabricator of eco-friendly Zero Impact Guitars. “Green and frugal tends to go together.”

As an example, Baumgartner noted that on its last tour the Dave Matthews Band saved approximately $8,750 just by using fewer (or no) plastic water bottles for the band and crew.

Big acts, he said, have the power to say, “This is what I want,” and get it. One such artist is Jack Johnson, the grand young man of green musicianship. According to Jacob Tell, whose Oniracom manages Johnson, the singer-songwriter insists on fundamental changes at his venues, ranging from what toiletries are used and concessions handled to what light bulbs are installed and the sustainability of his merchandise.

But Johnson also leverages his influence with the fans to change their actions and hopefully their attitudes. Tell explained Johnson’s social action “passports” call on fans at his shows to make concrete commitments to benefit nonprofits or the environment. Prefacing that 17 percent of fans took at least three actions and logged them, Tell said, “Again, he’s preaching to the choir, but … an activated choir can make waves.”

Nonetheless, Baumgartner said, while educating and activating fans is important, artists don’t have to let the bully pulpit overpower their shows. “People don’t come to events to learn,” he said. “They come to party.”

But what if fans didn’t come at all and loved the show?

That’s the secret to the most revolutionary speaker on the panel, musician and virtual artist Craig Lyons, who currently gigs in the online world of Second Life.

Lyons was doing his apprenticeship in Los Angeles’ music circuit when one day he asked himself, “How much gas did I burn to get here? How much did the fans use to get here? And if I’m doing this much, what are others doing?”

So he now does up to three shows a day on Second life, streaming live video available at virtual halls online. “And I’m supporting myself!” he announced, explaining that he makes up to $200 a show. Plus, since fans don’t feel they’ve been fleeced the way they might at a live show after paying for tickets, convenience fees, parking, overpriced T-shirts and $8 beer, “they have enough money left over to support artists better.”

Lyons stressed that his carbon footprint-less gigs are not a replacement for live shows, and that, so far, no major artists are appearing alongside him, he’s still enthusiastic about the future of his career.

And that kind of excitement still animates self-described “eco-troubadour” John Lefebvre, a former lawyer and benefactor of the DeSmog blog who sings about environmentalism. Blasting corporate-sponsored entities that reject the existence of climate change, he laid down the law for green musicians.

“As loud as they speak and as huge as they preach, that’s how loud we have to sing.”