A live issue
Radiohead have refused to play Glastonbury this summer, claiming the festival has poor environmental practices. The band have developed their own radical model for eco-friendly rock concerts, but will other bands sign up to their plan? Richard Brophy repo
RADIOHEAD’S decision to pull out of this year’s Glastonbury is probably the first time that a band has refused to play a festival because the public transport facilities were lacking, but they did not do so on a whim. Cynics will argue that they are just another big act with a guilty conscience keen to raise their profile by championing a feel-good cause, but Yorke has a track record in this area.
While others try to make poverty history yet shelter their assets in tax-free locations, the Radiohead singer’s work as a spokesman for the Friends of the Earth campaign The Big Ask – a role he carries out in a more lowprofile manner than that other great rock lobbyist, Bono – has yielded results.
Last year, they successfully lobbied the UK government to introduce a draft climate change bill, which seeks a radical reduction in carbon emissions by 2020.
Radiohead have also commissioned a report investigating how they could make their tours more eco-friendly and reduce their carbon footprint (see panel).
One of the report’s findings – that most fans drive to big shows – caused the band to look at public transport infrastructure at big festivals. This ultimately led to their potentially career-damaging decision to turn down an appearance at one of the world’s highest-profile music events.
For the festival organisers, Radiohead’s conscientious act is an especially cruel blow. Glastonbury originated from the independent UK folk festivals of the late 1950s and early 1960s, and would share the same kind of selfsufficient, sustainable ideals that the band espouses. Glastonbury offers a “green field” with solar-powered facilities to fans and the festival is closely aligned with Greenpeace.
Radiohead’s pulling out of Glastonbury could send out the signal to other bands that they need to reduce their environmental impact. Radiohead’s report includes an ecofriendly touring template that other bands could easily replicate.
To date, the music industry hasn’t been particularly environmentally friendly or quick to embrace change – witness its snail’s pace response to illegal downloading – and dealing with climate change will require a fundamental behavioural shift.
With music sales in freefall, touring has become an increasingly profitable part of the business, but it is also has a detrimental effect on the environment. Bands and their sizeable entourages zig-zag the globe, often in private jets. And a sizeable proportion of the fans who attend music festivals and concerts travel to the events by car. Even Live Earth, last year’s series of high-profile concerts to raise awareness about climate change, was criticised for the massive carbon footprint its performers created.
In Ireland, the live music sector is in rude health. Last year, there was a record number of outdoor music festivals – 70 in all – which, along with a busy concert schedule, provided a lucrative revenue stream for local and international bands.
However, with oil prices set to increase due to growing global demand and declining supply, the cost of commercial flights and freight will make it more expensive for bands to travel to Ireland. Faced with this prospect, will bands merely pass on higher costs to fans through increased ticket prices – or will they look at Radiohead’s approach?
Declan Forde, head booker for Pod Concerts, one of the Republic’s biggest music promoters, doesn’t see ticket prices rising. “Most bands travel here by ferry and a rise in the price of oil will make delivering equipment
and the cost of electricity and even the price of food for bands more expensive, but I’m not sure that can be passed on to consumers. Ticket prices are at their peak and there is such a wide choice of events on offer now that the market just won’t accept more increases.”
Not everyone agrees. Mark Hamilton, bass player with the heavy-touring Northern Irish band Ash, thinks that consumers will end up paying for bands’ rising travel costs, even though ticket prices are already higher in Ireland than in many European countries.
“If we were to make our next tour carbonneutral, there would be some extra cost for people going to the concerts, somewhere in the region of an extra euro,” he says.
Despite the possibility that ticket prices will continue to rise, Oisín Coghlan, director of Friends of the Earth Ireland, believes that live music has a healthy future.
“We will have to reduce global carbon emissions by 50 per cent by 2050 – that’s despite the fact that economies like China and India are growing,” he says. “Within that timeframe, we have to look at every aspect of society and prioritise what we want to do. We will see lifestyle changes, but I hope we will choose to facilitate music events for as long as possible. The contribution to civilisation and
the enjoyment we get from live music are highly valued in Ireland. People will have to sacrifice long-haul holidays to go to music events and art exhibitions, but these are cultural high points and we will continue to cherish them,” he adds.
Apart from using energy-efficient tour buses, Ash have no concrete plan to reduce their carbon footprint. Hamilton offsets the emissions from every flight he takes and says that “it’s up to individuals to take responsibility for their actions”.
He also believes that governments should be more proactive about tackling climate change, making it compulsory for passengers to offset carbon emissions from flights – “a nobrainer” – and by improving public transport infrastructure, which would make live events more sustainable.
However, even if these measures were introduced, he thinks that travel costs may become prohibitively expensive, especially for smaller bands.
If Hamilton’s predictions sound ominous, especially for bands that lack the financial clout to snub environmentally unfriendly festivals, Angela Dorgan, director, First Music Contact, a State-funded independent advice resource for young bands, offers a more positive picture. She says that some smaller artists are already tackling these issues, albeit on a smaller scale.
“Touring is one of the few areas that is still profitable, but our anecdotal evidence suggests that bands have thought about the changing landscape,” she says. “They are not doing as much flying, are using boats and trains and are on the road for longer periods. We find that more bands are visiting Galway and Limerick because once they are in Ireland, they don't want to miss
any opportunities, which benefits fans and local bands that support them.” Dorgan also doesn’t believe it will become prohibitively expensive for a band to come to Ireland “if a booker wants them badly enough”.
Oisín Coghlan believes one solution is for big acts to play city-centre venues where transport is not such a big issue. He cites Croke Park as a large-scale venue that concert-goers can easily access by public transport. “It’s an example of Friends of the Earth’s policy of finding a way to do something by polluting less,” he says.
Declan Forde says climate change does not affect his “day-to-day” gigs in Crawdaddy, but he has noticed a growing awareness about the issue in the industry. However, he believes that the music industry’s business model will merely adapt, like other industries, to the challenges that climate change presents. “The industry is in a state of flux anyway and it’s an exciting time.” One of Pod’s flagship events is the annual Electric Picnic festival in Stradbally, Co Laois. While it has some way to go before it can emulate the 225,0000-capacity Paleo festival in Switzerland, which is powered entirely by renewable energy, last year’s Electric Picnic introduced a range of eco-friendly initiatives, including re- cycling over 7,500kg of rubbish. Forde agrees that the beneficial effect to the environment may have been minimal, but it nonetheless “sent out the right message to the people who went to the festival”.
Forde says climate change was one of the main topics of discussion for the first time at this year's International Live Music Conference – an annualmeeting of music promoters, agents and bookers – while the UK government and the major record labels have set up Julie’s Bicycle, a not-for-profit group. Tasked with developing sustainable, eco-friendly practices for the industry, it has commissioned research and its recommendations are to be published next month.
“There is consensus that the industry needs to sort itself out in an intelligent way,” says Alison Tickell, director, Julie’s Bicycle. “Our research is about responding in the most effective way and coming out with long-term, sustainable solutions. The industry is in a weird place and there is trepidation about the future, but there is also huge opportunity. It faces a number of dilemmas, but there is also a real desire to understand what is a huge issue.”
Let’s just hope that these recommendations are actually implemented and don’t end up gathering dust on a shelf, next to all those reports from the 1990s that outlined the opportunities that digital downloading presented.