“I’d rather be called a hypocrite than do fuck all”: how music is tackling climate change

Music has finally woken up environmental catastrophe. But can an industry built on carbon emissions really make a difference?

“I’d rather not be 100 per cent sorted and be accused of being a hypocrite than do fuck all,” Matty Healy, iconoclastic frontman of The 1975, recently told NME. It’s true that there’s been no shortage of criticism for musicians and public figures who leave a carbon footprint but use their platforms to speak up about climate change.

“Because you haven’t got things 100 per cent,” he continued, “you’re not allowed to say anything about it? I’d much rather be called a hypocrite or champagne socialist than be an artist that isn’t talking about the most pressing issue in the on the planet.”

Californian rapper K.Flay, whose track ‘Not In California’, released last month, was accompanied by a video that imagined a planet ravaged by floods and covered in waste plastics, agrees: “I think it’s pointless to levy accusations and just shout ‘Hypocrite!’ at people.

“So much of human behaviour is governed by what’s the norm. The reason that people don’t smoke inside, and why it now seems insane when you’re somewhere where people are smoking inside, is that the norm was changed. That’s the role of a lot of artists and people who make visuals: to be part of the chorus of voices that that supports a change in the norm.”

Luckily, we’ve heard plenty of voices, in the past year, calling for the music industry to regulate its own environmental impact.

Artists such as Disclosure and Mystery Jets have performed at Extinction Rebellion rallies across central London, turning the protests into a kind of weird cross between a Green Party conference and Boomtown festival. Oxford rockers Foals appeared at the Mercury Awards with a banner warning that there’ll be “No music on a dead planet”.

And in July, The 1975 released a song (‘The 1975’) that featured a speech from 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, who’s become a figurehead for a youth-led movement around climate change. “We were thinking, ‘What is the statement of now?’,” Healy told NME. “I looked at [our manager] Jamie and said: “Well, it’s Greta, isn’t it?’”

The band also declined to release merchandise for their upcoming album, ‘Notes On A Conditional Form’, as it’s “not sustainable”. Instead they created a recycling hub at this year’s Reading Festival, inviting fans to bring along old t-shirts which were then screen printed with the band’s art work.

Importantly, too, July saw the launch of Music Declares Emergency, a music industry collective that’s been co-signed by more than 200 acts, from Radiohead to Robyn, imploring bands and fans to demand societal change.

Matty Healy and Greta Thunberg

It’s also true, though, that the music industry has been built on international travel and plastic production (be it CD cases or vinyl records) for decades. Why is climate change on the agenda now? The answer to that question – as is so often the case – might well be: David Attenborough.

Blue Planet 2 [the 2017 Attenborough doc about in marine life] set off that huge wave of public concern around plastic pollution,” explains Chiara Badiali, knowledge and sector intelligence lead at Julie’s Bicycle, a London-based charity that helps the industries to improve their environmental sustainability. “That was hugely influential in creating a big public shift in that direction.”

Badiali also cites an August 2018 report from The Intergovernmental panel On Climate Change, which warned that, at the time, we had only 12 years to prevent global warming from exceeding 1.5C, the point at which the risk of floods, droughts, extreme heat – and ensuing poverty – would increase. Even a shift of a half a degree beyond that temperature could have a devastating impact.

“It was unusual because a lot of the scientists that were involved in pulling together that report were talking about how alarming the data really is,” she says. “Traditionally they would speak about in objective tones and stay quite detached. Instead they really went all out with ringing the alarm bells. They were being a lot more emotional about it as well. That really set off a huge sea change of public shift in perception.”

That report was an influence on Music Declares Emergency [MDE], which receives advice and support from Julie’s Bicycle. MDE was co-founded by Fay Milton, drummer in the British post-punk band Savages, who in October told NME that the organisation was also inspired by Extinction Rebellion: “There seemed to be a lack of musicians and the music industry getting involved in the climate movement, and it felt like the movement would really benefit from that.”

“What is the statement of now? It’s Greta Thunberg” – The 1975’s Matty Healy

So the desire for change exists among members of the music community. But what can actually be done about an ecosystem fundamentally built upon high-carbon activities? Fewer and fewer musicians can rely on record sales for their income, which means the emphasis has shifted towards merchandise and live shows, both of which are damaging to the industry’s carbon footprint.

“Actually, the music industry, compared to quite a heavy manufacturing industry, doesn’t have a massive carbon footprint,” explains Badiali. “Obviously there’s travel, but [that’s nothing] compared to really heavy manufacturing.”

Still, she says, there is a requirement for music to achieve a “just transition” towards an industry is less harmful to the planet while still supporting those who work within it: “How do we make sure different communities aren’t left behind by the changes we made to avoid the catastrophic results of climate change?

“When people talk about ‘just transition’ they’re often talking about coal mining communities or people who work in the fossil fuel industries. But what does a ‘just transition’ look like in the music industry? What happens when, say, international travel shifts? At the moment there’s talk about a progressive frequent flier’s tax, which would mean the tax that you pay on a flight goes up every time you fly. It’s a way of allowing people to have one flight a year but penalise financially those people that fly more frequently.

“That kind of tax could have a really far-reaching impact on a business like music touring. It’s about asking: ‘How do we prepare for those kinds of shifts?’ It’s not really a question of whether they will come – because they will. It’s just a matter of: ‘What shape they will take?”

Music Declares Emergency's Fay Milton

Music Declares Emergency’s Fay Milton

K.Flay has made changes that, while small, could amount to a significant shift if others followed suit. “We are actively, with every tour, trying to reduce that part of our footprint as much as possible,” she says. “We really need to try to reduce our plastic use because there is so much waste on tour in terms of food and containers. We need a total recalibration of the rider to eliminate that kind of waste, which is a huge part of the problem.”

That’s a fairly sensible approach – yet incremental change needn’t be as low-key and straightforward as cutting down waste and thoughtfully routing tours (important though that is). Just ask Canadian punks PUP, who recently hit upon an innovative approach to offsetting the planet’s carbon footprint.

For 24 hours, frontman Stefan Babcock offered to design unique tattoos, which fans could buy, with all proceeds donated to the website less.ca, an organisation that undertakes various projects – a Solar Cooker for use in rural China, for instance – to offset carbon emissions.

“I’ve been really overwhelmed with all the responses to the tattoos,” says Babcock. “I put 50 on sale and they sold out in 20 minutes. I’m feeling pretty great about that and the fact that our fans are so receptive to trying to make positive change and donate money. It’s nice to know that fans of the bands and the people coming to the shows are also concerned about the state of the world.”

Would he like to see other artists take a similarly novel approach to tackling the issue? “Well, the answer is not really to stop touring,” he says, “because bands have to tour if people want to see shows. But I do think everyone can start to explore ways that what they do for a living, or their hobbies, can be used to make a difference.”

Touring is one highly visible aspect of the music industry, as is the production of vinyl records. It was reported in April that American vinyl sales had increased 123 per cent year on year. The format now accounts for 3.6 per cent of all music sales worldwide. This, though, says Chiara Badiali, has less impact on music’s carbon footprint than you might imagine: “It’s actually such a small part of the industry if you look at the manufacturing footprint.

“People focus on it because it’s so visible and it’s a tangible thing. From a carbon footprint perspective the environmental impact doesn’t compare to the impact of travel. It’s so small that it’s basically a blip.”

Yet she does admit that there’s room for improvement in the manufacturing of vinyl: “People are looking at how you’d reduce the amount of energy that gets taken in pressing a piece of vinyl. There are people who are experimenting with the actual raw materials of vinyl. But that’s where it’s really tricky because at the moment vinyl is one of the best mediums that we have found to do what we want it to. The biggest problem is: what happens to it at the end of its life?

“The advice we would offer record labels is to be realistic about sale figures to try and prevent over-presses.”

“Everybody has a responsibility to get their own house in order” – Emily Moxon, Brownswood Recordings

Brownswood Recordings, the London-based jazz label founded by DJ Gillies Peterson, already has environment issues on its radar and is exploring the possibility of shipping records by boat rather than by plane. “Now we’re in an emergency situation, it feels like people are focusing on the problem – at last,” says the label’s managing director Emily Moxon. “Everybody has a responsibility to get their own house in order and do everything they can to improve that little bit of the world that’s under their control.”

Brownswood’s adjustments included a shift from thicker 180 gram to 140 gram vinyl, a move mirrored by The 1975’s label Dirty Hit. “There’s been a fetishisation of vinyl,” says Moxon. “It’s become more a luxury good. People want their records to be completely pristine – it’s the Discogs thing of people being worried that if the corner of a record is bent, it’s worth less.

“People should think about what they actually want it for – to listen to and enjoy. Going from 180 gram to 140 doesn’t affect the sound quality, but it means you’re using less materials and reduces the carbon footprint because it reduces the energy needed to transport the record.”

Dirty Hit recently launched their own environmental plan that ranges from branded water bottles, which will be used on tours, to biodegradable shrink wrap. As Brownswood said on their Twitter account last month: “Record labels are not running the worst businesses in the world but we are all in the mood to try and do better.”

Disclosure perform at an Extinction Rebellion rally

For all the talk of industry wide innovation, though, the biggest steps towards reducing music’s environmental impact could come from fans like you and me.

“The question at the moment is about how audiences are getting to shows,” says Badiali, who encourages punters to use public transport as much as possible when travelling to shows. Sometimes it’s up to fans and musicians to get together and look for the way forward: “[American singer-songwriter] Jack Johnson works with venues to see if they can stop using single-use plastics by making sure water refills are available to the fans, and makes sure there’s space for local environment charities to come in and speak to the fans.”

Here’s where festivals really come into their own: a fan can make one return journey to catch tens – if not hundreds – of acts. And recently festivals have been exemplary at considering their environmental impact. Glastonbury, which went plastic-free this year, announced that 99% of punters’ tents, a record high, were taken home when the party ended.

The likes of Green Man and End Of The Road have implemented an effective reusable cup system – and they look nice, too, so you can keep yours as a souvenir – while, over in Helsinki, this year’s Flow Festival invited punters the opportunity to donate the deposit for their reusable cups. Every single donation resulted in the planting of a tree to offset the festival’s carbon footprint.

“We’re all doing this sort of cultural double-take at the moment” – rapper K.Flay

Happily, there is a desire among fans for serious change, says K. Flay, who sees it in the response that erupts when she performs ‘Not In California’ live: “It’s been interesting because I’ve seen it connect with younger fans, in particular, which I don’t think is any coincidence. It goes off! That song is resonating with people in the way that I’d hoped it would.

“It’s sort of the feeling of doing a double-take. I think we’re all doing this sort of cultural double-take at the moment. We’re seeing something and going, ‘Wait – what?’ The younger generation are double-taking at a world that they did not create. That’s the spirit in which the song was written, and I think it’s a sentiment that really registers with younger listeners.”

There will inevitably be those rolling their eyes at the idea of a well-travelled musician talking about a “cultural double-take”, which brings us back to the points Matty Healy and K.Flay made earlier.

Yet Chiara Badiali insists: “What music is best at is breaking down boundaries, bringing people together – that intangible feeling. And it’s about setting the aspirations are in terms of role models and who people look up to, who we care about. It is a huge force shaping all our cultural awareness and what we value and what we think is important. That is so much more important than the fear of being called a hypocrite when speaking out.”

K.Flay agrees: “I personally don’t feel like I have the ability to have massive political leadership, but I do feel that I have the ability to be at least part of the chorus of voices that supports a change in the norm.”

This is why The 1975 asked Greta Thunberg to guest on their self-titled track, Healy told NME: “Because of the world that we live in, being supported by amnesty international is great, but to make a real difference to young people, you need to be in pop culture. It’s an idea that [Thunberg’s people] had been exploring for a while: ‘How do we get this message to more young people?”

So, can music actually do anything to affect climate change?

Well, it can make tiny changes, as all of us can, but music really excels at forging an empowering message for the public and those in power to pick up and run with. K.Flay speaks for many music fans and musicians when she says: “There is a sea change and I want to be a part of the solution.”