Flying High, But At What Cost? The Environmental Footprint of Touring DJs and Club Culture

“When was the last time you went to a party when the music was fully powered by the sun? Wouldn’t it be transformative to announce that to a room full of dancers?” There was a satisfying sense of closure finishing this article. Two months after my first interview in which Sammy Bananas, founder of DJs For Climate Action, had spoken the above words, I found myself with Kitty Barnes and David Whittall, owners of the entirely sustainable Birmingham venue Suki10C. With Sammy’s words still echoing in the air, we talked about the reasons behind their environmental overhaul in 2013. While their were financial hurdles to overcome, the benefit came “knowing it’s the right thing to do and watching peoples’ reactions when they read our posters about it.” Transformative indeed.

The subject of my enquiry was simple: how does the dance music economy affect the environment and is it possible to have a good knees up, while still reducing our impact? A small but increasing number of people from all areas of the industry are highly invested in answering these questions, and in many cases building whole careers around them. With their help, I’ll cast light on the environmental issues we face as a music community, demonstrating the many ways they can be addressed and, hopefully, stimulate a long-overdue conversations in mainstream media and popular culture.

Underground dance music has come a long way over the decades, abetted by globalisation, the rise of the Internet and cheap air travel. It’s now viable for a promoter in Sydney listen to a Soundcloud mix from a Bristol DJ, check a video on Facebook to confirm they can rock a dance floor then book them for a set over ten thousand miles away. With such an increased pool of promoters to appeal to, it’s inevitably shifted aspirations towards regular touring as the pinnacle of a DJ’s career. And why not? You’re being paid to travel the word and share the music you love to new crowds in foreign clubs. Local residencies are, with the exception of a few, a thing of the past. Regular touring is now widely perceived as a necessity to maintain relevance and build your fan base.

Yet this global outlook has environmental consequences, most notably the result of excessive air travel. Take a DJ regularly ranked in the top ten of RA’s annual DJ polls. A carbon calculator of his schedule for March 2018, shows that he generated around three metric tonnes of CO2. Not taking into account private transfers from the airport to hotel then venue, Co2 generated is around 550% more than the average UK citizen would generate in the equivalent time. This assumes he’s flying economy, if not the figure is tripled for business and quadrupled for first class, owing to the reduced passengers each flight can carry. In March, this artist performed largely in Europe but busier months would account for much longer distances.

When you consider RA’s blurb in the aforementioned DJ poll – “he squeezes in an extra set at the end of the weekend because he thinks that’s when he plays best – four cities and as many flights deep” – it seems that higher carbon footprint is contributing to greater recognition and success. And these figures are not unique. Another DJ we studied who enjoyed an even busier April in Europe, Asia and Australia will generate around 4.75 metric tonnes of C02 through flying alone. This is nearly 900% more than the average UK citizen over the same period. When ground transport to and from venues is taken into account this is fast approaching the equivalent of one year’s carbon emissions for an average UK citizen.

If one looks beyond underground music, the numbers become more shocking. U2, a band outspoken in their ecological thinking, have been found to generate the same carbon footprint in one year’s 44 date world tour as a return flight to Mars. That equates to flying all 90,000 audience members of their Wembley gig to Dublin. Back to more familiar soil and some slightly more manageable numbers.

These statistics are meant to illuminate, not cast judgment. As with any travelling businessperson, DJs are touring the world to make a living and, in the process, generate more happiness than other mobile professions. There is a balance to be struck though, and plenty of scope for improvements.

Freerotation. Photo: Matthew Oliver.

Some promoters, festivals and artists are already engaged with this debate and are increasingly taking steps to ensure their profession doen’t come at the cost of the environment. Freerotation (above) is among a small but growing list of festivals that has environmentalism at the heart of its operation. When asked what they’re doing to offset their environmental damage, co-founder Steevio admits the solution isn’t easy. “It deeply troubles us as environmentalists that we are part of the problem”, he states. It’s an issue they’ve given a lot of thought since their inception in 2004 and their conclusion was, “under the current conditions, all we can do is compensate for our flying”.

Compensating for flying can be done in a number of ways: offsetting the carbon generated through travelling is the simplest, and is now given as a checkout option bu some major airlines websites. Websites like www.carbonfootprint.com allow you to calculate your journey’s footprint, and then provides different ways you can pay to offset it. Freerotation’s method is to contribute to environmentally conscious charities like The Size Of Wales, which facilitates tree planting and protects an area of rainforest twice the size of Wales.

For Freerotation, the cost of long distance air travel has become a central factor in the curation process. “The first thing we can do is book less foreign artists, and concentrate on home-grown talent from the UK”, Steevio says. “This is something we are doing incrementally. We cannot just have no international artists, that would degrade the diversity”. They also have an added term with their bookings. “We never fly an artist in and out of Freerotation on a long-haul flight”, says Steevio, only allowing them to play if they have a minimum of three other EU gigs on their trip.

Meadows in the Mountains

Freerotation are not alone. Speaking about the added responsibility when hosting a festival in a country that isn’t your own, Meadows In The Mountains (above) founder Benjamin Sasse believes that “all international festivals should look hard at the impact they create.” This accounts for their global impact through air travel, as well as the mark they leave on their local environment.

This year, for example, Meadows have banned standard plastic glitter, which Sasse says, “is nothing more than tiny pieces of plastic, polluting our oceans and soil.” From now on, Meadows will only welcome and sell biodegradable glitter, in an attempt protect the pristine Bulgarian mountains that give the festival much of its appeal. Led by Ash Brown, the festival’s dedicated environmental manager, Meadows’ other environmental goals include completely eliminating single use plastic, offsetting their carbon emissions, turning organic food waste into soil and replacing dying trees on the mountain.

In the north of England, The Tower Festival is situated at the base a giant memorial to the planting of 12.5 million trees and has taken on this impressive environmental legacy by planting a tree for each ticket sold (below). Last year’s festival producing 300 new saplings and a target of 1000 is set for this year. “Each tree absorbs on average one ton of CO2 by the time it’s 40!”, Will proudly tells me, meaning the festival leaves a lasting impact, “inspiring a more sustainable everyday life, both socially, economically and environmentally.” The use of temporary structures is something they have also chosen to address. With the help of award winning architectural firm Hesselbrand they will be building “sustainable quality timber structures that last for years to come”, Will says. “These will become part of the festival’s identity and will be re-used and improved each year.”

While Freerotation, Meadows and The Tower are setting a fine example of running festivals on sound environmental foundations, individual artists are also building careers around their environmental convictions. Hessle Audio and Hemlock producer Joe, for example, is going to great lengths to avoid flying and writing environmental suggestions into his hospitality rider such as avoiding plastic bottle use and, where possible, not opening his rider beforehand to avoid waste. “I try to keep ecological and ethical matters in mind in most aspects of my life”, he says, “but with particular regard to making and playing music.” This extends into the territory of new vinyl and electronic equipment.

Across a career that began with his 2009 debut for Hessle Audio, he’s only flown twice for gigs; Tokyo in 2011 and Berlin in 2014. “I’ve taken the coach and train once each to Berlin so that flight was only necessitated by an unusual personal circumstance.” These ecological advantages have its drawbacks though. “This generally implies I’ll earn less in the same amount of time as my peers”, he concedes, “but as long as I’m earning enough to live, then that’s OK.” Recent news that Eurostar are opening up a direct link from London to Amsterdam will be welcomed by environmentally conscious artists like Joe, and may encourage more to choose this option when gigging between the two cities.

Photo: Brian Clift

Venues run according to strong environmental principles are few and far between at the moment. While many have taken steps to minimize their environmental impact by, say, reducing plastic usage, few can claim to have achieved complete sustainability. One such venue is Birmingham’s Suki10C (above) who, five years ago, made the decision to use 100% wind farm generated electricity. “Obviously it’s more expensive to the business but it’s important to us that we we’re not using fossil fuels”, Kitty and David, the venues owners state. More recently, with the help of waste recycling company First Mile, they have managed to achieve a 100% recycle rate, with not a single item of waste generated through the venue going to landfill. Asked whether these environmental policies were significantly costly to limit other venues on a tight budget from establishing themselves, Kitty replied, “absolutely not. I really don’t think there’s any justifiable argument to not take these steps, unless they’re only interested in financial profit.”

The solution to a problem as large as climate change requires not only individual action but also a sustained and organised international response. One such attempt can be seen in DJs For Climate Action . A global collective of DJs and artists, it was set up by Brooklyn DJ and producer Sammy Bananas with the aim of getting DJs to “use a place of cultural visibility to raise awareness and provoke action on climate issues.”

The organisation has struck a chord with a large number of DJs concerned by their environmental impact and, as a result, boasts an impressive selection of ambassadors. Soul Clap are one of their better known, and have strived to ensure that adequate performance time has always remained focused on their hometown to avoid unnecessary flying. “I do think it’s possible to focus more on throwing regular parties at local clubs and private spaces,” Soul Clap member Eli Goldstein tells me. “The huge upside to this being part of the community where I live.” Hailing from Brooklyn, Eli has a wealth of venues and promoters to collaborate with as well as a diverse and engaged crowd to play to. “It’s important to make an impact locally, that’s how you can really facilitate positive change.”

As well as holding regular carbon offset drives to encourage DJs to balance their annual carbon emissions, Soul Clap and DJs For Climate Action worked with CO2 Logic this year to create a series of parties called Earth Night. Falling on 21st April, the day before Earth Day, it raised over $15,000 for their climate conscious projects in the developing world. As well as raising funds, the process is a form of Climate Justice, which Sammy describes as “redistributing wealth from the countries causing the problems to those most susceptible to the effects.” More broadly Sammy sees each party as “an opportunity to educate the attendees about the larger issue and their own responsibility”, This, however, “doesn’t mean getting doomsday and preachy on a Saturday night when people are trying to unwind.” Instead it means that clubs and DJs play a more subtle but equally powerful role in making people “think twice about their lifestyle.”

This can be done with a gesture of any size that gets people to consciously engage with an issue that all-too-often is ignored. One example Sammy mentions, which has started to pick up momentum in venues around the UK is replacing a plastic straws with paper. While Sammy admits its impact on the climate is negligible, it “may have a much greater effect on making people wonder why the venue took the effort to make the switch.” This creates a snowball effect where “individuals want to learn more and engage.”

Herein lies an important point, that the physical act of a small positive step creates a catalyst for conversation, debate, and eventually further positive action. Writing an environmental clause in your contract gets a team of promoters engaged in the issue and thinking about something they might not have considered. This may affect how they curate parties, which in turn influences a dance floor to engage in an issue once the lights come up. Festivals run on strong and passionate environmental convictions turn hedonistic weekends from environmental disasters into an opportunity to inspire and educate about our collective obligation to the planet. The dance music community has always been quick to respond to social problems, especially those concerning marginalised members of the community. The issue of climate change, however, transcends any kind of social classification and threatens the community at large. With the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere now at it’s highest point in 800,000 years it’s time for this to be recognised, discussed and engaged with in a way that befits its urgency.

If you’d like to discuss this topic more, connect with likeminded people or share any thoughts, jump on Twitter with the #GreenDJing hashtag.  

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