How To: Save the Planet (One Gig At A Time)

In 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."

Of course, not every musician interested in promoting the environmental message actually has access to 25,000 people, and while it’s awesome that the Barenaked Ladies will soon be touring in bio-fuelled buses and eating organic vegan catering, what can those of us in the lowlier ranks do? Plenty, as it turns out, and a lot of it costs little or nothing.
1. Get educated. To find out more about what you can be doing, check out the Green Touring pages at Air Traffic Control, a website that promotes music and activism (, or the entertainment portal Underground Online ( The Suzuki Foundation website has lots of good, useful information for all consumers (
2. Offer a discount or premium to fans that come to your shows on public transit. At the very least try to promote public transit wherever it’s available. As recently proven beyond all argument by the White Stripes, riding the bus is cool. Especially in Winnipeg.
3. Green the wheels. You can rent carbon-neutral touring machines in the U.S. ( and green bio-diesel vans throughout the UK. So far those resources haven’t become readily available in Canada (although Bandago vans can cross the border), but that may change soon. (Hint: green business opportunity, anyone?) If buying a hybrid or retrofitting the cargo van for bio-fuel isn’t an option, then at least make sure its in optimal condition before you hit the road. Ensure your timing and exhaust systems are clean and functioning, and that the tires are in good shape and properly inflated. Turn off the engine when loading and unloading. All this saves fuel consumption. For a directory of biofuel resources including where to fill up, go to the website for the Canadian Renewable Fuels Association:
4. Green the merch. Go with a manufacturer who offers alternative packaging such as cases made from recycled plastic or biodegradable trays and printed on recycled stock with vegetable-based ink, such as offered under Canadian CD manufacturer MMS’s Green CD program ( Offer organic cotton or hemp t-shirts and other environmentally friendly merch. Love the reusable shopping bags!
5. Green the venue. Encourage the places you play to provide biodegradable, recycled and recyclable glasses, cups and utensils. Bring your own reusable plates and cutlery on the road. If you have any clout, try making a greener venue part of your contract rider.
6. Host your band’s website on a carbon-neutral host site. The internet is a massive consumer of fossil fuels; carbon-neutral businesses buy their power from wind, solar or other renewable sources.
7. Use rechargeable batteries in your pedals, tuners and other gear.
8. Research the environmental impact of your equipment before you buy new gear. Guitars, for example, are often made from rare tropical woods like mahogany and rosewood. Many of the traditional sources of these woods are stands that are being clear-cut in central and South America and have become endangered. Organizations like SoundWood ( are working to protect the woods and raise awareness among instrument manufacturers and musicians. There are plenty of great alternative materials that are beginning to gain prestige among the notorious wood snobs that some guitarists can be.
9. Learn to love the digital. In spite of heralding the end of music as we know it, the shift to digital reproduction and distribution as the prominent music format has a positive knock-on effect in the form of a potentially massive reduction in the amount of material used to produce hard copies of CDs. Virtual concerts are on the rise, affording fans the opportunity to see the bands they love "live" without ever leaving the couch. On the downside, the shift to a digital universe means that computers, hard drives and related internet hardware are now the world’s largest energy consumers and energy wasters… see #6.
10. Since there seems to be a lot of willingness but not a lot of organizing among musicians to make green resources more available, why not take this on as your mission? Even starting a van co-op, or researching and promoting your local green resources by postering the jam space will help all of us start taking baby steps toward change.