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The COVID Effect: Isolation & the Music Industry’s Conscience

By TESS HOWAT

It may just be the folk in me, but the music I hold closest to my heart and identity has time and again asked me to protect the natural world. Iron and Wine’s “Fever Dream” transports me to the top of a mountain drenched in autumn tones, Stornoway’s “We Are The Battery Human” urges me to unplug and live “free range”, and every Gregory Alan Isakov song I’ve ever loved makes me want to throw my phone into a volcano and go camping.

My own folk-heroes aside, music of all kinds challenges us to engage with the world around us -- EDM thrusts us into high heels and night clubs to immerse ourselves in human connection, rock has been pushing people out of their comfort zones for decades, and R&B deepens our capacity for sensuality.

The one thing all music has in common is that it requires life—and for the time being, the only one we’ve got is here on Earth. Which is why the music industry’s recent trend towards sustainability, as late as it is, has offered me a glimmer of hope during the unoptimistic black hole that is 2020. In fact, the changes artists are making to adapt to COVID-19, while hard-hitting to the thousands of music industry workers who are all dressed up with no shows to put on, have the potential to transform the industry in a post-COVID world. So, how is the pandemic minimizing the music industry’s environmental footprint, and how sustainable was the industry to begin with?

A Virtual Revolution

Just like other business, COVID-19 took a large toll on the music industry. With half of its revenue generated through live show ticket sales, the music industry had to reinvent the way it functions in a world where gathering people in the thousands is no longer an option. And so, the virtual concert was born.

With the cancellation of entire tours and postponement of albums serving as the new trend for musicians, artists big and small took to social media in ways we’ve never seen before. Take Billie Eilish, who, like countless other musicians, is taking an entire tour to the world of livestreaming, and selling tickets too. Her "Where Do We Go?" Global Livestream aired on her website on October 24th at 6PM E.T. for $30 per ticket.

 

Livestreams allow fans a more intimate concert experience from the comfort of their beds, granting them the opportunity to actually communicate with the artists in real time. And while the environment is currently being spared all the waste and pollution that large concerts bring, tours will eventually resume—which is why artists are using their platforms now to start important conversations and amplify existing ones about what changes need to be made to touring habits, merch production, festivals and more to ensure a more sustainable future for the music industry.

Touring, Reimagined. Artists have been trying to tackle a new way of touring for a while now, but the conversation has taken off exponentially in recent months with the on-boarding of huge artists willing to take a stand and find new ways of touring that cut down on fuel emissions, single-use plastics and waste and can power shows on clean energy. Even before the pandemic rocked the industry, Coldplay announced a postponement of its next tour until it can offer carbon-free concerts, Billie Eilish vowed that her 2020 tour would be as green as possible, and hundreds of musicians teamed up with non-profit organizations to make their concerts and festivals as green as possible. And while important organizations are helping to make the shows themselves more eco-friendly, there’s a separate conversation happening about the need to minimize transportation from venue to venue, like the group DJs for Climate Action that proposes spending more time in each venue area to cut down on fuel emissions that rack up from traveling. This means that more artists are likely to follow in the footsteps of Radiohead, who have been touring by train for years and shipping their equipment by sea instead of air.

Conscious Merch. It’s not uncommon for artists to donate a portion of their merch profits to charities. But beyond that, the production and selling of merch carries a lot of environmental baggage that artists are shedding slowly, starting by sourcing materials sustainably. Justin Vernon of Bon Iver has taken his band’s commitment to sustainability the extra mile by teaming up with a brand that sustainably sources, produces, and fulfills merch orders from here in the U.S.. The 20,298 garments of merch sold for his 2019 album i,i was made from recycled, organic, sustainable materials and saved almost ten million gallons of water, removed 28,206 plastic bottles from landfills (six bottles per tee), and reduced crude oil use by 30,000 ounces and harmful chemicals by 75,000 ounces.

And while these efforts are a huge step in the right direction, the industry still needs to tackle the issue of overproducing merch that goes to waste. Overestimating demand for merch is a common issue, especially for artists who produce date or venue-specific merch, and The 1975 proved through the merch for their 2020 album Notes On a Conditional Form that production waste is avoidable. In August of last year, lead singer Matty Healy announced through an Instagram post that they’d be taking a new approach to merch, joining Jack Johnson, who has be repurposing old merchandise to save it from landfills for years, writing:

“We are not making new shirts for now. Unsustainable… This run is all old shirts (first album, early tours etc) that we had kept and have reprinted as your NOACF shirts. You will also be able to bring any old 1975 shirt or ANY bands you love shirts to Reading festival and have the same print done over the top there and then.”


When it comes down to it, the entire conversation around sustainability in the music industry relies on the artists’ use of their own voices to communicate what’s wrong, what the industry can do to create change and how we as the fans can participate—which is why artists are demanding change and educating their millions of followers on how to be more sustainable, and they’re doing it together. 1,625 artists , 825 organizations and 657 individuals have joined forces under the group name Music Declares Emergency to demand governmental response to the pressing climate and ecological emergency in hopes of making the cultural changes needed to save our planet. And on an individual level, artists are using their social media platforms to educate their followers on the realities of climate change and how they can make a difference. 

These changes are exciting, but it’s crucial that artists both keep these conversations going as well as make individual changes to the ways they tour, produce merch, and navigate the music industry on a day-to-day level in a post-pandemic world. As for the fans, it’s time we demand change on our end; start important conversations, challenge your favorite artists to be more sustainable and cut down your own environmental footprint. And in the meantime, let’s enjoy all the virtual music we can, educate one another, and do everything we can to ensure our future which is, after all, music’s future too.

 

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About the Writer

Tess is a folk singer-songwriter and freelance content creator with a lifelong passion of language and music. A student of writing and marketing, she uses her uniquely creative skills to discuss and amplify the work of folk/indie artists, start conversations about sustainability and write about everything from lifestyle to social media business strategy.

In her free time Tess works on her music, drives her ’81 Datsun with the windows down and listens to her favorite music by John Mayer, Gregory Alan Isakov and Tame Impala.

 

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Photo Credit (By Order of Appearance)

Picture 1: Jo Jo @hanness

Picture 2: rgmcfadden <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/11380191@N05/6311643834">Gregory Alan Isakov</a> via <a href="http://photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/">(license)</a>

Picture 3: dejankrsmanovic <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/155403590@N07/46795883802">Small Bedroom Studio</a> via <a href="http://photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/">(license)</a>

Picture 4: Raph_PH <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/69880995@N04/37665127202">ColdplayRoseBowl061017-15</a> via <a href="http://photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/">(license)</a>

Picture 5: danieljordahl <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/32683385@N00/6321549377">Bon Iver</a> via <a href="http://photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/">(license)</a>

Picture 6: thecomeupshow <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/22257051@N07/48008535687">The 1975</a> via <a href="http://photopin.com">photopin</a> <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/">(license)</a>