The trailblazers greening the music industry and why it matters

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Billie Eilish performing at Pukkelpop Festival
crommelincklars, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

By Professor Caroline Moraes
Professor of Marketing and Consumer Research
Birmingham Business School, Department of Marketing
Co-Director, Centre for Responsible Business

Billie Eilish is the latest artist to announce that she is taking action on sustainability issues by producing her upcoming album with materials that are environmentally friendly. Her plan is to use recycled or eco-vinyl for vinyl copies, plant-based inks for printing and packaging made entirely from recycled and reusable materials. This is a significant environmental action, as analogue technologies have seen a revival among consumers in recent years, with people investing significant work and resources for the enhanced consumption experience that such technologies can provide. Vinyl album sales in the UK alone increased from 210,000 in 2007 to 4.8 million in 2020, and research shows that the sales of 4.1m records produce the equivalent of the total footprint that almost 400 people produce in a year.

Further, while we might consider the music we listen to as something that has no material impact because, say, we might be streaming or downloading music, research shows that digital music formats have a significant environmental impact. This is because music files are stored in cooled servers, and transmitted via data networks and routers to our electronic devices, which have an environmental cost in terms of energy consumption. In fact, research suggests that, at an aggregate level, “music streaming has a far worse carbon footprint than the heyday of records and CDs.” Therefore, it is important to consider the environmental impacts of music production, marketing, and consumption.

Eilish is not the first artist to attempt to reduce the negative environmental impacts of their music. Back in 2019, more than 6,000 individuals and organisations such as UK record labels, key industry players, live music businesses and over 3,000 music artists signed a declaration of Climate and Ecological Emergency to signal their support and commitment to tackling environmental sustainability issues. Another example is Coldplay’s announcement, back in 2021, of their plan to reduce their carbon footprint by touring in the most environmentally friendly way possible. Their actions included planting a tree for every ticket sold and powering the tour with a kinetic floor, which generated electricity as fans moved and danced across the dance floor.

More recently, Massive Attack announced that their forthcoming Bristol gig will have “the lowest carbon footprint of any concert of its size”. The event will use battery and solar power, locally sourced meat-free foods and drinks, incentives for gig goers to travel by train, and electric shuttle buses to transport their audience from the rail station to the concert venue. In fact, the environmental footprint associated with audience travel is the biggest sustainability challenge for music gigs, so the band are giving priority access to tickets for people who live closest to the event. Massive Attack’s comprehensive approach to environmental actions is a result of the guide they commissioned on how to tackle the environmental issues associated with the music industry, which was produced by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Manchester. The live music roadmap recommendations made in this guide are extensive and well thought through, offering practical actions that various music industry stakeholders can take to reduce their carbon footprints.

These environmental champions of the music industry are significant for several reasons. For example, consuming music sustainably can be seen as a social innovation, and influential, catalytic leaders such as music artists can help social innovations to diffuse. In this way, Billie Eilish’s and Massive Attack’s actions can help raise consumer awareness about the environmental impacts of vinyl and those of music production and consumption more generally, helping consumers to understand and take action on some of the material impacts of their music choices.

Also, the aggregate effects of such actions can be transformative if additional industry players follow in their footsteps, as consumers alone cannot effect large-scale change without industry transformation. In fact, it can be incredibly frustrating for people to try and find “biographical solutions to systemic contradictions,” as our own research with consumers who are highly committed to sustainability suggests.

Ultimately, the music industry, its cultural artifacts and various agents are implicated in cultural meaning creation and circulation; they are involved in transforming “cycles of understanding and social agency” and can change material circumstances in the world. In this way, music can help influence environmental sustainability meanings and cultural practice transformations towards an environmentally sustainable future.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.

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