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Unlocking Sustainability in the Music Business


What do steel, rubber factories, mechanics, gas pumps, freeways, and Detroit have in common? They all play a part in the ‘technological lock-in’ – as the academics say – of a less-than-green American car culture.

The music business, it seems, is locked in to huge stages, bright lights, semi-trucks, tour busses, jewel cases, power-hungry analog equipment and, perhaps most challenging, millions and millions of miles driven by fans to catch the show.

The notoriously resistant-to-change industry, however, is greening up, as more bands and fans take action to reduce their impact.

On The Road Again
Driven by economics and environmentalism, many bands are converting their tour vans to run on vegetable oil. For bands that can’t afford their own veggie rig,  GreenVans, a greasy green venture started by musicians, outfits touring bands with rental Ford E-350 vans converted to run on vegetable oil, and claims to help bands save both money and the planet.

“The nature of a band is to travel— touring is the major part of our business. This is a great way to reduce the carbon footprint from our bus, as well as help our business survive in a time of skyrocketing gas prices,” said Shaun Dolan, manager for neo-jamgrass-gypsy rockers, Blue Turtle Seduction, who travel in a veggie van. Other indy bands burning the grease include Pictures and Sound, The Ragbirds, and Mojave, just to name a few.

Willie Nelson, FarmAid President of the Board and American musical treasure, so enjoyed filling his tour buses with biodiesel that he started his own brand, BioWillie. These efforts by bands – both big and small –  help to take a little petroleum out of the national tour.

Toward a Greener Music Collection
There is also progress on the consumer side of music. Claims that digital music is greener than CDs are somewhat dubious, given the coal-powered servers that deliver digital content; the toxicity of MP3 players; and the fact that people buy more blank CDs to burn digital music. For greener CD production, Earthology Records and Oasis are just two manufactures using recycled paper and plastic, soy-based inks, and local production to minimize the environmental impact of physical CDs.

Studios, labels, and managers are also pushing the green agenda. Jack Johnson’s Brushfire Records is a solar-powered studio built with reclaimed lumber, and Green Owl Records, part of Warner Music Group, was founded on the idea that “great music can be sustainable—both economically and environmentally.” The Rosebud Agency in San Francisco, which manages acts including JJ Cale, Bill Frisell, and the Refugee Allstars, bills itself as the music industry’s first solar-powered facility. Even instrument makers are taking steps toward sustainability, a movement led by guitar maker Gibson.

Festivals and the Carbon Equation
The big U.S. music festivals of 2009: Bonnaroo, Rothbury, Outside Lands, Bumbershoot –  all featured numerous greening initiatives, from carbon offsets and compostable utensils, to rideshare networks, solar stages, and biodiesel generators. While these efforts help to spread awareness and reduce waste, it’s the music-lovers driving across the country in search of the ultimate set that present the biggest challenge to promoters’ aspirations for sustainable festivals.

Reverb, a non-profit outfit founded by Guster guitarist/vocalist Adam Gardner, estimates that 80% of a concert’s CO2 footprint is from the fans’ commute. In addition to helping green the summer tours of Phish, Coldplay, and John Legend, Reverb is working with the Dave Matthews Band to educate fans on environmental sustainability, and has coordinated an ‘Eco Ridshare’ program to reduce concert miles driven.

At the recent Wanderlust Festival in the mountains of California, Reverb was onsite selling raffle tickets, with proceeds helping to purchase carbon offsets through Native Energy, a wind power provider working on Native American lands. This was Reverb’s way of giving fans an optional way to neutralize their travel. According to Steffan Lesard, bassist for the Dave Matthews Band, the band and Reverb offset over 3 million pounds of CO2 during DMB’s 2008 tour. That’s the equivalent of one year’s emissions from over a half-a-million cars, and a good start down the road toward sustainability.


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