Environmental for the people: How rock’n’roll found a new purpose by rallying around the climate crisis

The pandemic has changed the way we think about the future. Ed Power speaks to climate experts, musicians and campaigners on how the music industry is joining the fight to save Planet Earth

Wednesday 21 April 2021 14:14
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Top left clockwise: Wildfires in California, Greta Thunberg, Billie Eilish and The Weather Station
Top left clockwise: Wildfires in California, Greta Thunberg, Billie Eilish and The Weather Station
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fter the pandemic, things are going to be different, predicts The Weather Station’s Tamara Lindeman. “Covid has shaken us out of our false sense of security,” she says from her home in Toronto. “The world is ready now to face things.”

This wave of change will take many forms, she feels. One example is the “racial reckoning” in the United States and elsewhere that started with last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests. But she is talking, in particular, about how we respond to the climate crisis as we emerge blinking into a post-Covid reality.

Ignorance, The Weather Station’s extraordinary new album, is one of the more wrenching recent examples of artists addressing this clear and present danger to humanity’s future and to life on the planet. But Lindeman is by no means an outlier. As we mark Earth Day this week, it is clear climate change has become a catalysing moment for rock and pop. Billie Eilish, for instance, is perhaps second only to campaigner Greta Thunberg in articulating Gen Z’s anxiety and anger about being made to bear the brunt of previous generation’s short-sightedness.

None of this is new. Joni Mitchell was singing about the paving of paradise on “Big Yellow Taxi” in 1970. It’s been more 30 years since Sting set up the Rainforest Foundation. And however overblown they sound today, Michael Jackson’s “Heal the World” and “Earth Song” were fuelled by the same anger that drives Thunberg. The difference is, of course, that the climate crisis feels far more real in 2021 than in 1970 or in the 1990s. Hence the urgency with which both artists and the wider industry are confronting the issue.

It’s the emotive punch that gives Ignorance its power. As if foreshadowing the botched atrocity of the European Super League, Lindeman confront big businesses’ insatiable hunger for profit, singing on “Robber” about “looting at dawn, looting at dusk”. And she laments the destruction in plain sight of the natural world. “A tree in a city park / Standing as a symbol of / What we have blown apart,” goes one verse of “Tried To Tell You”.

Eilish has, for her part, backed the No Music on a Dead Planet campaign launched by industry action group Music Declares Emergency. She has worn a T-shirt with its logo and incorporated its slogan into the visuals of her live-stream concert last October. Thunberg has herself collaborated with The 1975 on the track “The 1975”, in which she delivers a spoken word warning: “It’s time to rebel.”

The 1975 have also embarked on an ambitious initiative of selling recycled merchandise. And Coldplay have declared a pause on touring until a way can be found to do so in a way that is “environmentally beneficial”.

“The obvious artist is Billie Eilish,” says Music Declares Emergency’s Lewis Jamieson. “She’s not the only one. Declan McKenna has been very vocal. Tom Grennan is quite vocal. K-pop fans have started to organise online for climate action. Once this would have been the preserve of Sting or of educated indie bands, for want of a better word. Now it is much more widespread and more engaged across music genres.”

No Music on a Dead Planet: Eilish wearing her Music Declares Emergency T-shirt at the AMAs

Music Declares Emergency counts Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and Foals as supporters, and Savages drummer Fay Milton as a founder. This week, ahead of Earth Day, it has been running a “Turn Up The Volume” campaign, urging the music industry to “reinforce its commitment to action on the climate emergency”.

“Whether it’s the Vietnam War or Rock Against Racism or Live Aid – or even things that didn’t seem political at the time such as Acid House – music creates massive cultural shifts,” says Jamieson. “Someone who was involved in the Free Tibet movement once said to me, ‘Music doesn’t change the world – but it does bring together people under one roof who then work out how to change the world.’”

“Climate change issues are playing out in real time,” says Will Hutton, head of sustainability at Beggars Group (labels under its umbrella include 4AD, Matador and XL and Rough Trade Records). “If you live in LA you know, if you live in Australia you know for sure [because of the wildfires]. The pandemic has reduced global carbon emissions, but by something tiny, like 5 per cent. If you think of the cost of that – untold economic damage and a few million deaths – it shows the scale of the challenge we have to face. It’s really important people with such high profiles as Billie Eilish are happy to speak about these issues.”

Devastation caused by wildfires in Australia

For The Weather Station’s Lindeman, writing about climate change isn’t just a case of bringing these subjects to the attention of fans. It’s about articulating our hopes and concerns around the future of the planet. Many of us are fearful. Ignorance is an expression of that anxiety. “This record is an emotional depiction of myself becoming less secure and less complacent,” says Lindeman. “I think that’s why it has resonated. The emotions we are feeling through the climate crisis have been neglected. I think music is here for our emotions.”

Others in music are taking concrete steps. This week, the Beggars Group unveiled plans to go “carbon negative” and reduce emissions in its supply chain by 46 per cent by 2030. And on 19 April, Brian Eno launched EarthPercent, a campaign aiming to help fight climate change by raising £70m from the music industry by 2030. “Whether you’re a songwriter or an artist who is touring, everyone is used to including different people who need to get paid from each those activities,” says Adam Callan, one of the founders of EarthPercent. “Our idea is to include Planet Earth in there.”

Music Declares Emergency is, for its part, trying to change the world one incremental step at a time. On an individual basis, its greening strategies may appear modest. One of its initiatives, for instance, is to encourage independent record stores to mark down vinyl albums that arrive with superficial damage rather than send them back to the distributor.

It is also campaigning for rail cards for musicians, which would encourage the use of public transport rather than schlepping from venue to venue in a van. “The thing with the music industry is we are great innovators,” says Jamieson. “We were the first industry to be hit by the digital economy. We were also the first one to work out how to exist in the digital economy. The distance between the collapse of physical sales and the advent of streaming is relatively short. And it shows just how quickly we can respond.”

Bringing diverse perspectives to the table is essential, adds Ssegawa-Ssekintu Kiwanuka, who co-founded Clean Bandit at Cambridge before stepping away to pursue a PhD in chemical engineering. He is working with EarthPercent and London climate change charity Julie’s Bicycle on a project that will bring voices from the Black community in south London into the debate. “Within the music industry we have to have different voices,” he says. “For example, we know there have been floods in the UK. We don’t have bands or artists voices from those areas who can speak about it. We need to do a better job.”

Ssegawa-Ssekintu Kiwanuka onstage with Clean Bandit in 2014

The biggest challenge in the years ahead will revolve around the concert industry, which has a high carbon footprint. One academic study, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, estimates live music in the UK generates more than 400,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas annually – the equivalent of 88,000 cars on the road. “We don’t feel artists should stop their activities,” says EarthPercent’s Adam Callan. “But there is always a way to balance out the energy used.”

“Touring and even being in a band can be antithetical to the idea of rejecting capitalism and fighting for the climate since you invariably play into these systems,” adds Sam Treber, frontman of Pittsburgh indie band Short Fictions, who write about the climate crisis on their song “Cities Under Water”.

“But I feel like you can't beat yourself up for following your passions. You can feel guilty about taking up space in the world, and I sometimes do, but by that logic there’s almost no room for human existence on this planet at all. It’s really the powers that be, the corporations, the government etc, that need to change the ways they produce if we want a sustainable future. Every band in the world could quit touring tomorrow and it’d be a drop in the bucket compared to the output of any major corporation.”

Jamieson of Music Declares Emergency agrees any solution must allow artists to continue earning a living. “Without the music industry creating a green future and showing a pathway to sustainability, artists are going to be constantly exposed to negative blowback. ‘Well, you’re part of a polluting industry’,” he says “But artists can’t control what the industry does. Despite the public thinking artists have all the power in the music industry that’s not the case.”

Lindeman acknowledges that, as an artist who has performed around the world, she is part of the problem. However, when the current great pause ends, she hopes musicians will rethink how they bring their music to fans. She goes so far as challenge the received wisdom that touring is crucial for musicians trying to make ends meet.

“That’s a misconception. It’s true the earnings from streaming are very low. The earnings from touring are also low. It’s not always as simple as, ‘Oh you go on tour and get paid.’ A lot of musicians are going into debt to go on tour. It’s a very strong pressure from all sides of the industry. If you’re a young musician and you’re trying to make your name – the only way to do it is to become a social media influencer, getting hundreds and thousands of followers. Or by touring – opening for someone. It’s advertising. It’s getting out in the world.”

Tamara Lindeman: ‘Covid has shaken us out of our false sense of security'

Touring will continue in some shape or form, she predicts. The challenge is to find smarter ways of going about it, which may involve doing things on a smaller scale. “I would love touring to be open to anyone. But I wish touring was something we did less often but valued more. Why does every band have to play every festival? Why can’t it be more special that the band you love made it to England once and you go out of your way to see them.”

The reality with which we are all going to have to come to terms, she says, is that we simply cannot carry on as we did before the pandemic. That’s why the reopening of society should be seen not as a return of the Old Normal but as an opportunity to hit reset and take music to audiences in a more sustainable fashion. The environment will benefit. And so will all of the artists who were working themselves to the bone by touring too much.

“This abundance we were all upholding was doing damage to the health of musicians,“ she explains. ”It wasn’t actually working for many people. So what if we try to shift things in the future? I’m not saying musician should stop touring. That won’t save the planet.”

The solution, she says, is for the industry to find ways of making life on the road more sustainable. Chastising musicians for touring will achieve little.

“As I have toured, that would be hypocritical of me to say ‘stop touring’. I would love as a musician if I could go to my local enterprise down the street and get an electric van. And then, when I plugged it in, that the energy came from a renewable source. I would love all of that. As musicians we should think about that as being the future we want.”

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