Is It Too Late to Make the Music Industry Sustainable?

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Jake Blount is a singer, songwriter, musician and academic who has written about the folk traditions of Black and indigenous Americans. He’ll release his latest album, The New Faith, on Sept. 23, and perform songs from the LP at this week’s AmericanaFest in Nashville. In this essay for Rolling Stone, he writes about how the climate crisis is affecting the touring industry and how both musicians and fans will need to change their behavior to save it.

I bought a new car in August of 2021. After a year and a half of stasis due to the Covid-19 pandemic, I was champing at the bit to get back to touring — this time with a full band in tow. The abrupt realization that my beloved Honda Accord was not going to cut it with such a large ensemble drove me to the purchase. I am a homosexual; ergo, I bought a Subaru Outback. I named it Tie, because the dashboard looks like the TIE Fighter combat system shown in the original Star Wars trilogy.

About one year later, I pulled into the long-term lot at the Pittsburgh airport and decided to check my odometer. The number stunned me: close to 35,000 miles. If I had driven in a straight line along the equator, I would have circled the Earth nearly one and a half times. I feel fairly sure that my total mileage, inclusive of rental cars, amounts to at least two full circumnavigations — and that’s before factoring in air travel.

Like most young people, I worry about the future of our climate. I feel responsible for my role in the overlapping environmental crises that threaten all life on our planet. And while activists and educators rightly point out that corporations, rather than individuals, account for the vast majority of carbon emissions, voting and protesting are the only ways most people can participate in the struggle for broader structural change. What can we do on the other 364 days of the year? Our individual choices are the only things we can fully control — small though their impact may be — and we all need to pitch in.

This puts full-time, touring musicians in a tough spot, because the music industry limits the choices available to us. We have to tour constantly in the streaming era, because most people don’t buy music anymore and streaming platforms barely pay us. We have to play more gigs than ever before because the average pay per gig has been the same for 40 years, failing to rise at all in the face of inflation. We often fall back on merchandise to cope with stagnant wages and soaring costs: mainly cotton and plastic products that use up water and emit carbon during manufacturing and transport. And inevitably, those shirts and stickers and CDs wind up in landfills or oceans. Even if streaming companies paid us what we’re worth and we could afford to tour less, the emissions problem would remain: in 2017, streams of Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito” alone reportedly used as much electricity as five African countries combined.

While guides to sustainable touring do exist, their suggestions are often unaffordable or impracticable for most musicians. There’s no way for us to make money with a small environmental footprint in today’s music industry. By the same token, there’s also no sustainable way for audiences to consume music within that industry. We are all implicated.

Jake Blount will release his new album ‘The New Faith’ on Sept. 23. Tadin Brown

The music industry’s climatological malfeasance renders us all — performers, audience members and otherwise — complicit in both the destruction of the natural world and systemic discrimination against those who are already most vulnerable to that harm. A small minority of countries is responsible for the vast majority of carbon emissions, yet the whole world suffers the consequences. The impacts of climate change will not be felt evenly. Women, people of color, and people with low incomes will — as usual — bear the brunt. We are starting to improve our behavior, but slowly and incompletely.

I find myself surprised that the Covid-19 pandemic has not inspired music lovers and music professionals to act with more urgency. Our sector was barely able to weather one viral outbreak, and climate change is expected to cause more of them — in addition to a variety of other, more obvious obstacles. How can musicians tour successfully as intensifying weather cancels flights, washes out roads, blankets large sections of the country in fire, and destroys our homes? Tie the Subaru’s maiden voyage was in late August 2021. I don’t know that I’ll ever forget the long drives at the end of that tour, watching my bass player mourn and make several weeks’ worth of emergency housing plans as Hurricane Ida devastated his home in Louisiana.

On the other hand: should saving our industry be the objective? Selling and consuming music in the way we do now may be inherently unsustainable. Even if all electricity came from renewables and we relied exclusively on electric vehicles and sustainable mass transit for touring — a far-fetched hypothetical — there would still be environmental damage and labor exploitation associated with mining the necessary materials and building the infrastructure

So, what can we do?

I would personally advocate for regulating the current music industry out of existence, and reinvigorating the communal music traditions that met humanity’s artistic needs for millennia before recording technology was invented. I’m talking about small-scale, local and regional performances, ideally using instruments built by local craftspeople out of local materials. These still exist, mainly in the form of DIY house shows. I learned my craft and launched my career at house concerts and community jams, and have enjoyed some of the best music of my life — both as a performer and an onlooker — in those crowded rooms.

A more moderate approach is easy to envision, and even small steps can have an impact. What would it mean if concertgoers bought 20 $15 tickets to see local bands in small or medium-sized venues, instead of one $300 ticket to see an arena show with a massive carbon footprint? If more people put on house shows? If bookers and event producers put more effort into spotlighting local talent, and the government provided us all with the means to power shows with renewables?

These are small changes to an industry that plays a relatively small role in the climate crisis, without a doubt. Even the more radical changes I have proposed would only withhold a few drops from the bucket of global carbon emissions.

But we cannot lift the whole bucket just yet. For now, the drops must do.