Massive Attack works with scientists to reduce the carbon footprint of live music

The live music industry has a large carbon footprint.

So when popular British band Massive Attack asked Carly McLachlan what they could do to reduce the environmental impact of their tours and concerts, the University of Manchester professor was all ears.

McLachlan is the director of the university’s Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research. In 2019, she and a team of researchers were commissioned by Massive Attack to map carbon emissions in the music sector and create an open resource for the industry to reduce its environmental impact.

The full report and the main recommendations of this research is now published.

McLachlan spoke with As it happens host Carol Off on her research and why she hopes it will help bands reduce their carbon footprint as they schedule tours again. Here is part of their conversation.

Do you really think rock music stars would be willing to ditch their private jets and take the train?

Yes. I actually do.

In our workshop with people from the industry, they were talking about artists who would really have a hard time giving up a private jet. But in reality, most tours are not done by private jet. It’s done on commercial airplanes.

And what we see is that there are a lot of opportunities to swap that out for train travel, as long as you think about these things from the start of a tour.

The more you hear from artists and industry people talking about wanting to help avoid the worst impacts of climate change, it actually seems quite reasonable to me that these new practices be adopted.

Carly McLachlan is Professor of Climate and Energy Policy at the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research at the University of Manchester. (Submitted by Carly McLachlan)

This study was carried out after a phone call from Robert Del Naja of Massive Attack.

I love the idea and don’t want to spoil the romance of the idea that Rob once called me. But actually, someone from their team called me and we had a chat about how we would approach the job.

Then, actually very quickly, we met Rob and spoke with Rob. And this happened throughout the work. We shared with him what we found and what we plan to do next.

And what do you recommend the music artists, the music stars, who do these tours?

It’s about the artists, but it’s [also] on everyone in the industry. All the different elements of it – agents, promoters, venues, tour directors, AV engineers – everyone has a role to play here. And the main thing is to think about it from the start of the tour.

So low carbon is baked into everything. How many things are you moving? Can you take more plug-and-play approaches? Can sites do this more extensively for you? How are you going between places?

And then, how do you plan to help your audience make the low carbon travel option the easiest, most obvious, and fun way to do it?

[Popular bands] have the power to do so. So use it – and use that influence. Use your network within the industry to try to drive change.– Carly McLachlan, climate change researcher

We have seen in other industries, as well as in music and performance, that virtual performances have taken on a much bigger role during the pandemic. And is this therefore a possibility? I mean, people can’t wait to go back to the mosh pit, to go back to the concert hall. They want to be there with all of these people because you just get that energy and that vibration. But do you think there is a place in this new reality for more virtual performances?

I think this is a really interesting question. This is not where we went with the research.

What we’ve tried to say in this research is live music tours – how do you still do this beautiful thing that we all love? This is something that we have missed so much during COVID, and people are so desperate to get back to it.

But I think it’s interesting that people have tested these things because of COVID. I think it’s pretty fun to see where this goes. But it’s certainly not our intention to say, you know, it’s all going to be like that.

What we would like is for the industry to really seize this challenge, to say: we’re going to get ahead of it; we’re really going to move very quickly to a much more low-carbon way of doing things. And so, it becomes an obvious part of a sustainable future.

And for the things that you can’t get carbon out of, you know, aviation, for example, there’s no obvious decline in technology. So you would still have carbon going. Then if we say, in fact, as a global community, one thing that’s really worth the limited carbon we put out is live music – that’s a value judgment.

But it’s a lot easier if the rest of the industry – the things that are easier to decarbonize, like your energy use – than those things have really been going at a brisk pace.

Is it easier for a band like Massive Attack to do that kind of thing than these up-and-coming bands that just go from festival to hall, to town and to bars, and all that?

I think you can see it in the really great artists who said they wanted much lower carbon options. And some people have criticized that because they say to themselves, well, they have the power to do it.

But I think, yeah, great. They have the power to do it. So use it, and use that influence. Use your network within the industry to try to drive change.

And it really helps people to come. Because if you get there, the plug-and-play hardware is also there for you. You don’t have to fight this battle in 10 years when you’re the megastar. It will already be settled.

We are really sensitive to the idea that there are different types of levels of power and influence. And what we’re asking in the report is where people have direct control, and they can do things differently, and they are able to do it, so great, do it. But also use your wider influence.


Written by John McGill. Interview conducted by Katie Geleff. The questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.


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