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Two Turntables and a Recycling Bin

Members of the music industry reflect on making their green good intentions a marketable proposition.

Here in Miller-McCune's home base of Santa Barbara, Calif., which has been known to take an outsize share of credit for sparking the American environmental movement, even the rock concerts are green. Eco-aware touring bands like Radiohead, Jack Johnson and Incubus bring their fervor with them — even while fretting over their tour's own carbon footprints — while local sheds such as the Santa Barbara Bowl offer bike valets and have goat groundskeepers.

So with that in mind, I trotted off down the street today to the debut panel of the first-ever New Noise Santa Barbara, a music conference and festival with eyes on being a sort of South by Southwest by the sea. The panel, "The Green Concert: Promoting and Producing More Sustainable Events," featured worthies from the local shed, nonprofits, the sustainability director for Red Bull, all moderated by attorney Lara Pearson, who said her legal efforts "protect the brands that are changing the world."

I bring a healthy dose of cynicism to what are essentially celebrity-driven causes — even if I happen to share their enthusiasm — for their ephemeral nature, routine lack of sophistication and bandwagon trappings. A lot of these efforts are so transparently symbolic — and oft times shambolic — that it seems hardly worth the candle, even if the goal is merely to light a single candle — or BIC lighter or cell phone screen, as the ballad may be.

But the less skeptical portion of me also realizes that the symbolism reaching a young audience, and opinion-leaders who influence the same, can be powerful forces for good. Plus, while one green event may not by itself change the tide of pollution, climate change, congestion, etc., that's a silly reason to curse the good in pursuit of the perfect.

With my Pollyanna-ish side pushing me forward, I was a little surprised to find the day's panelists came prepared to do battle with the cynical side. They stressed having the business case down pat, strong-arming vendors until the practice of greenery became habit and not chore, even — miracle of miracles — quantifying what you're achieving.

"If it's not economically sustainable, then you'll go out of business," Bob Hollis, CEO of the compost-minded Carnegie Partners, cautioned the well-intentioned. "Then what good are you doing?"

He and the other panelists stressed getting all the players — onstage and backstage — on the same page and bought in regardless of whether their passion is derived from dollars or daisies. "It's important that you are telling that story along the lines of what they care about," said Red Bull's Jamie Simon, whether it's people, planet or profit.

In the music biz, that focus on green-ness is abetted by the artists themselves who are willing to push the issue. Chris Baumgartner, a sustainability consultant with MusicMatters ("We Help You Do Good!"), explained that starting with guitarist Steve Miller, they've pursued what he called an "enviro-rider" to contracts with various venues. A "rider," as any opponent of brown M&Ms likely knows already, outlines the contracted amenities a band and its personnel require from a venue, ranging from food to power outlets. Now terms might also include having a recycling bin backstage, things that might move from the idiosyncratic to the routine if enough artists routinely insist on them. ("'What, another recycling bin question,'" he parotted a hall manager's response. "'Why don't we just leave that backstage?'")

Baumgartner's group is currently working with U2 on what he called the biggest world tour ever, and while the band has been tweaked both for Bono's pomposity and for flitting around in a giant private jet — oh how far we've traveled from the hedonistic '70s — they still have tremendous clout with vendors and the vendors' vendors.

"It's not greenwashing," he said, speaking beyond just U2, "but actually having an impact."

Which brings us to Jack Johnson, one of the greenest big acts in North America (insert marijuana joke here). The former champion surfer and part-time Santa Barbara resident has made a fetish out of being sustainable, as Jessica Scheeter, director of the newly established Johnson Ohana Charitable Trust, made clear in describing her work with the artist during his 2008 tour.

Before that tour, she said Johnson's attention was on greening the tour, knocking down the negative consequences of the event itself. Since that tour, he's pushed to do that but also to reach out to nonprofits in each tour destination, getting them involved both in setting up a table at the show as well as surfing the positive vibrations generated.

Johnson's people are also measuring their impact, Scheeter said, "calculating the big picture numbers" — and then making that data available to the public.

While there's stuff there about biodiesel and carbon offsets, some of the metrics looked at the personal commitments made by fans at the shows. While there's certainly a heat-of-the-moment aspect to that — "it might make people think twice about throwing that can on the ground at the end of the concert, although obviously we do have trash at the end" — the bully pulpit, I'd argue, may be the strongest legacy. Throw in an inexpensive incentive or two — downloads, anyone — and you may create the muscle memory needed to save the planet.

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