By Allison OuthitIn the wasteland of the music business, hundreds of truckloads of CDs wind up every year in the landfill. How does this happen? For starters, the practice is to manufacture in bulk, regardless of sales viability, because it’s cheaper. If half of the units manufactured actually ship to retail, a big chunk of those — perhaps half again — may end up coming back to the warehouse anyway. Add to this pile the promotional copies, many of which don’t even exit the shrink-wrap before getting chucked in the bin by whatever totally uninterested executive or editor they’ve been sent to… Well, that’s a mountain of plastic. A recent report in the U.K. Guardian claims that one million unsold copies of Robbie Williams’ last CD Rudebox will be shipped to China to be crushed (and hopefully used for road-surfacing). Dealing with product waste like this reportedly costs EMI millions of dollars a year.
That’s just the tip of it: the music industry is infamously wasteful in other areas, including paper (posters, press kits, all those inscrutable 100-page contracts) and promotional items, the cost of which in richer years spiralled out of control: EMI’s new chair Guy Hands has just chopped its annual $50,000 scented-candle budget to zero, and radically reduced its $400,000 fruit-and-flowers budget. Hard times are clearly upon us.
But probably the biggest area of environmental impact is in touring. Flying is of course a notorious CO2 emitter, but day-to-day driving is even worse. So imagine the impact that a wagon train of airbrushed, air-conditioned tour buses is having. Arriving at the venue, the buses idle outside for hours at a stretch, while the venue racks up thousands of kilowatt hours of power use for sound and light checks, beer coolers, smoke machines, and the gig itself. Then there are the tonnes of plastic and Styrofoam sold at concessions, not to mention the clouds of emissions generated by the 80,000 devoted fans driving to and from the show. And let’s not even mention the empty liquor bottles littering backstage after the show.
Something’s got to change.Now, musicians are some of the most disorganized people I know. You have to badger them for the rehearsal space rent. Who knows where their copy of the record deal is, let alone all those gas receipts at tax time. Hell, half of them barely remember to bring a guitar pick to a gig. And yet, the fate of the world has once again been handed to musicians, who are increasingly looked at to be role models in the environmental movement much as they once fed the world or led the fight against apartheid.In recent years, a number of Big Names, from Bonnie Raitt to Incubus, have undertaken the green banner, and they’re not merely talking the talk about everyone pitching in to save the world, but have been active and even militant in trying to get the music business to change its own noxious-fume-emitting ways. As a result, more and more bands are looking for ways to promote the message of the green movement while at the same time reducing their own carbon footprints.
"Classically, historically, musicians have been at the forefront of social change and environmental change for decades, so it’s something that I think comes naturally," says Lauren Sullivan, co-founder of Reverb (see Meet & Greet). "They’re oftentimes folks that aren’t being held back by anyone else in terms of what they can say. They’re artists; they’re their own person so they can speak into a microphone in front of 25,000 people and say what they want. Their ripple effect can be absolutely incredible, in a way that’s unlike almost any other person in our culture right now. Politicians are beholden to lots of folks and don’t necessarily speak straight from the heart. Musicians really have a unique position and are able to do that, and when they do it can have an incredible impact."