In the next part of a series exploring the environmental impact of music, David Hatton investigates whether touring has become unsustainable.

After exploring the effects of streaming, as well as the comparative impact of physical and digital music, it’s just as crucial to explore the effects of listening to music as it was intended — live.

The existence of live music often requires a band or artist to tour, but on any scale, this appears to have negative consequences for the environment. Tours require moving numerous people and large amounts of equipment across a country or even the world, and with the energy required to power the shows, it can be tricky to see a solution straight away.

Why not just stop touring

Some big names may be lucky enough to have the option of stopping touring. But whether that’s having established a large enough following to make a regular income from their records, or having made enough from previous live shows, neither offers a solution for the future of grassroots music.

For music to be a financially sustainable career, a regular income is needed that the streaming era cannot provide for recording artists in isolation. Also, some musicians’ livelihoods are made purely from playing other people’s music live, making live music a financial pillar of the industry.

As very few people can afford to stop touring, the industry needs live music just as much as the fans do, but what is it that makes touring such an environmental conundrum?

How bad is it?

Making things more difficult, the environmental effects of touring are the focus of very little research. To find anything of note, we pretty much have to look back to 2010, where it was found that the greenhouse gas emissions from live music events in venues and at festivals in the UK were more than 400,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year, with around three-quarters of the industry’s emissions coming from the live music performance sector. This equates to nearly a billion miles driven by the average petrol-powered passenger vehicle.

“The greenhouse gas emissions from live music events in venues and at festivals in the UK were more than 400,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year”

The high burden of greenhouse gas emissions from touring can be attributed to the transport of large stage setups, instruments, bands and crews all over the world. Often tours are compacted into concentrated, tight timescales. To accommodate for this, private jets are frequently used, which on a 500-kilometre trip emit 4.5 to 14 times more CO2 than a commercial airliner.

On top of that, you have all the audience travel. As artists with bigger followings do tours with fewer dates in huge venues, emissions increase as people travel further to see their favourites.

Is there a solution?

Some suggest that we need to completely revolutionise the way we engage with music, including removing tours. Although this would significantly benefit the environment by reducing carbon emissions, an end to touring is incompatible with a thriving music industry.

There’s been a lot of talk recently about Coldplay’s decision to reduce the emissions of their current tour, pushing sustainability riders, flying commercial where available, and encouraging low-carbon transport for fans, among several other initiatives.

But is this enough?

Coldplay plan to cut their emissions by 50%, but half of the emissions of a world tour is still colossal. Not to mention their authenticity has been significantly challenged through accusations of greenwashing as a result of a tour partnership with oil company Neste.

They’re also in a very lucky position. Very few entities can demand this of venues and orchestrate such a large-scale enterprise, so at a grassroots level this just doesn’t work.

One option could be to push more local gigs. With an emphasis on localism — for example, through residencies — fans travel less as they see the artists from the area they live, and bands travel less as they are playing in their hometown.

This emphasis could lead to music being gatekept by location, and artists struggling to survive the intense competition of each individual region. All of the music we listen to today is the product of thousands of years of stylistic fusions, and even though in an intensely technological and globalised world this is somewhat less important creatively, we could be stuck with the same handful of names in each region, with smaller artists struggling to break through.

What do the existing options look like?

The music scene has been consistently vocal in terms of climate change for a long while, with protest songs galore like Joni Mitchell’s classic Big Yellow Taxi, or more recently the 1975’s collaboration with Greta Thunberg in which she urges the world to act to avoid a potentially disastrous future.

As a result, it should be no surprise that there are several different options available to artists, promoters, festival runners and everyone in between offering alternatives that reduce emissions.

For example, Julie’s Bicycle offers a handy carbon calculator, where those in the industry can assess their emissions while learning how to reduce them. On top of this, groups like Reverb and A Greener Future offer advice in terms of reducing the environmental impact of festivals.

Music Declares Emergency is another advice platform aimed at artists, and there are also several initiatives such as EarthPercent that encourage musicians to donate a fraction of their income to environmental charities.

In 2021, trip-hop group Massive Attack commissioned the Roadmap to Super Low Carbon Live Music from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, where recommendations included supporting smaller venues and festivals that may struggle to meet improved standards, discouraging the use of diesel generators at festivals and combating the narrative that private jets are central to touring.

While research like this does raise awareness of what needs to be done, it is up to those in the industry to be proactive and make these changes. But is there anything the average gig-goer, weekend raver, or live music enthusiast can do to help lower the impact that touring has?

What you can do?

Fans as a collective have the most power in the entire industry. Sometimes we can be drawn into thinking that we rely on the artists’ music, but even if true, musicians rely on their fans financially. Voting with your feet can make all the difference.

Help build local scenes by visiting the smaller venues, not just huge stadium shows, and even then, encourage proactivity. If a festival shows disregard for their carbon footprint, go to one that cares. If artists are going on constant world tours and not doing anything about their emissions, find someone who does. Even the tiny 200-cap venue round the corner can do better.

The music doesn’t have to stop, but we can no longer pretend we can’t hear the noise.