Reflections: how can the music industry learn from Covid-19 to become more sustainable?

Credit: Katia Mullova

Due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the music industry is facing its biggest collective crisis in living memory and has been forced to change the way it operates overnight. Meanwhile, as touring schedules are cancelled and airlines slow to a halt, the underground music community is one among many spheres whose carbon footprint is being significantly reduced. Even as we long for our event spaces to reopen, could this period of lockdown provide an opportunity to evaluate the globalisation of our scene? Katia Mullova explores the lessons we might learn from Covid-19 to create a more environmentally-friendly gig economy and community at large.

Among the ongoing flurry of Covid-related updates and instructions, one thing remains constant: the Coronavirus pandemic has changed what we deem to be possible. Global lockdown has forced us to reconfigure our daily lives in an unprecedented act of collective endeavour. That rings true especially within industries that inhabit physical, social spaces by definition. Where accountants and online marketers slide into remote work with ease, underground music professionals struggle to get a foothold on isolation. The entire infrastructure within which they operate pivots on getting people together in a single room; the work of performers, promoters, bookers, managers, agents, and venue owners (and a significant number of music creators) is arguably carried out in service to this one end.

Notably, rising flight cancellations were as much a source of unease for the music community as the preliminary gathering bans in countries like Germany and Denmark. We may have started out as anti-establishment renegades—carving out small humble scenes for local audiences—but underground music now relies just as much on the globalised pathways of 21st century free market capitalism to function normally. How many of us have travelled to a festival abroad to catch our favourite artists in new surroundings? How many others have flown to distant continents to perform alongside local DJs and residents with similar tastes? “DJing as a vocation is inextricably linked to flying,” says Chal Ravens from Clean Scene, a project she runs with Eilidh McLaughlin and Fallon MacWilliams to promote carbon offsetting and sustainability within dance music. It’s telling that even green activists define air travel as being woven into the fabric of our scene.

Recent conversations have made us aware of the ways in which our touring community contributes to the climate crisis. And while it’s good to see more discussion about the plastic in our records or the non-recyclable waste from our festivals, the artists and DJs pioneering 100% flight-free schedules—an approach also known as ‘slow gigging’—are still few and far between.

For Dutch artist Job Sifre, whose concerns around the environmental impact of DJing inspired him to write a thesis on the issue, the difficulties of slow gigging come down to scheduling. Sifre recognises the need for sustainable travel, taking the train where he can and using carbon offsetting when he can’t avoid flights. But he stresses that “carbon offsetting is not a solution … it is a band-aid, not the prevention of a wound.” Nevertheless, he would have found it too hard to begin his career as a DJ and producer travelling without flights, and though he urges artists to take advantage of good land transport links where possible, he remains sceptical about the bigger picture. “The electronic music scene is not yet logistically ready to accommodate and plan [flight-free] tours efficiently, especially if you’re more in the underground,” he says. However, “if it were possible to arrange the dates of a tour so you could travel (almost) solely by train, I’d be all for it.”

For electronic musician and environmental activist Matthew Herbert, trains have been a big part of his touring life, but still come with caveats. “Since 2005 I’ve been taking the train to European shows wherever possible and have massively reduced my long haul flying … it’s been hard to sustain due to economic pressures, family pressures and the needs of people I work for.” As well as incurring bigger costs, train travel “can sometimes add two days to being away from home, and when you have a young family that is a sacrifice that needs to be supported and agreed to by your partner.” He adds: “On the plus side, the trains themselves are comfortable and it’s a significantly more pleasant experience than flying.”

Even for the more environmentally-conscious among us, then, there’s a degree of acquiescence to existing infrastructure. Ultimately, radical challenges to the foundations of a global underground music scene are relatively unheard of, and deep change is dismissed as impossible. “We’ve designed and built a system that is designed to do the wrong thing,” Herbert says, highlighting the way fossil-fuel subsidies have set us up to live and work in carbon intensive ways.

Yet now, the tectonic plates of possibility and impossibility are shifting. Every big name on the performer circuit has been forced to stay put, and with their gigs being cancelled or postponed indefinitely, some of the most influential figures in the dance and underground music industry have no choice but to consider alternatives. What to do when there’s no dance floor? How do you respond when a rave has been prematurely called off, not by the local police, but by an apolitical infection sweeping through the planet?

The dizzying breadth of Covid-19 has reminded many of the climate crisis. Both issues demand radical change on a global scale, and in this sense the Coronavirus lockdown has instilled hope in those advocating economic and material downsizing to evade climate catastrophe. It is true that this dress rehearsal of sorts doesn’t come without massive implications for people’s health and income alike. However, through the difficult, non-negotiable circumstances it has presented to the world, Covid-19 has also demanded more selflessness, solidarity and cooperative potential from us than ever before. It’s hard to imagine another sequence of events that could have caused the music scene to fold almost overnight with as little resistance.

And unsurprisingly enough, pressing pause on huge swathes of human activity has already led to some positive results for the planet. Air pollution heat maps demonstrate the cleanliness of the atmosphere in Wuhan compared to this time last year. China’s Hubei region, usually blanketed in a thick layer of smog, is seeing uncharacteristic blue skies after four weeks of lockdown caused a 25% drop in CO2 emission levels. Similar changes are being seen in Europe as more countries go into lockdown. As British Professor Paul Monks notes, “we are now, inadvertently, conducting the largest-scale experiment ever seen” in terms of manmade pollutant reduction. “What I think will come out of this is a realisation … that there is considerable potential to change working practices and lifestyles,” he concludes.

In the spirit of change, vinyl-only label Klasse Wrecks announces digital access to their latest (and naturally covid-themed) record.

Indeed, countless industries and areas of life are reimagining their daily practices to accommodate social distancing, among them remote ballet classes, apartment block bingo, and even virtual travel experiences. In tandem with these previously unthinkable solutions, the music industry, too, is being forced to reckon with new approaches to working. Clean Scene notes: “we shouldn’t be surprised when creative people come up with creative solutions. This has been a chance to push the reset button and think about ways we can interact, gather and dance without putting unnecessary pressure on the planet.” How we answer these questions over the coming months will shed light on our collective needs. What really lies at the heart of our scene? In this sea of change, is the supposedly fixed relationship between performance and air travel one we want to return to?

Two priorities have emerged so far: one dedicated to supporting the livelihoods of musicians relying on gigs to survive (especially those from marginalised groups); the other discussing how to stay active as an industry when everyone is more or less stuck indoors.

The former raises some old questions about the economic imbalance between music performed in real time and music created and transmitted to listeners online. Many argue that streaming services like Spotify have not only failed to solve the piracy problem for the majority of artists, but even exacerbated it by creating an illusion of fair payment amongst their fanbase. If this sounds irrelevant to climate affairs in music, it’s not: financial dependency on gigs (as opposed to music-making)—even by artists with highly acclaimed discographies—leads to dependency on travel and an overinflated emphasis on globetrotting as a measure of career success. Now that gigs are off the table, these metrics have become meaningless.

In the absence of gigs, initiatives such as Bandcamp’s ‘fee-free’ Friday on the 20th March (as well as campaigns by Mixcloud Select, Soundcloud and Patreon) demonstrate the need to support non-touring artists within a system that does not sufficiently support them by design. And while the intention behind these strategies is admirable—Bandcamp saw a fifteen-fold increase in sales on the 20th, with fans purchasing 4.3 million dollars worth of music in 24 hours—deeper systemic changes are required in order to compensate and incentivise musicians who make music at home, or in the studio. The answers aren’t yet clear, but we can make a start by accepting Spotify as a financial dead end; and investing our attention in PRS and other royalty systems instead.

Were it not for these financial realities, wiping entire tours out of calendars might not be the worst thing for those who have long thirsted for more time to make music. Various artists on Twitter have joked about finally having time to finish their upcoming albums: in this respect it’s interesting to consider the creative doors that might be opened by the emergency government support we’re starting to see, which in some ways resemble a Universal Basic Income. Giving producers more support would also ease the pressure of having to travel to as many gigs as quickly as possible. Though he is equally happy to invest time in either DJing or production, Sifre observes that evening out the income gap between the two disciplines would give performers more control over the way they tour. “If you aren’t as reliant on gigs for your income, you can be more picky on which bookings you want to do, and so have room for more sustainable options.”

That brings us to the second priority in the wake of Covid-19 shutdown: what are we going to do for those who aren’t happy losing themselves in Ableton; who want to find ways to continue DJing, playing and dancing? One option that many have turned to is virtual gigging, a movement that’s never really taken off beyond providing a basis for the occasional eye-catching headline. Music theorists muse on the potential of virtual concerts in the same way scientists play with the idea of living on the moon, or travelling by hovercraft—we can imagine it as a distant manifestation of digital transformation, but not as a replacement for the methods we currently have in place. Ultimately, as music researcher Mat Dryhurst noted on Twitter, remote concerts are tricky as a long-term solution “because they are really hard to make not suck.” And while interested in the idea of remote gigs in general, he doesn’t consider live streaming as particularly important amid the other anxieties we’re faced with at this time.

The real power of virtual gigging and other inventive solutions lies in the way they confirm our adaptability and resourcefulness when it comes to sustaining the music community. They confirm that our priorities lie in sharing music, not in travelling to hear music (as a thought experiment, imagine if we could travel wherever we liked, but could only ever listen to music on our own?)

Of course, there’s no doubt we will bounce out of our homes and away from our computers once we’re allowed to congregate again. Truth be told, apps like House Party are no substitute for physical communal spaces. We’ve only been in lockdown for a few weeks and people are already waxing misty-eyed about the kinds of parties we’ll be having once lockdown is lifted. This gives me reason to think it is communal spaces, not flights, that are inextricably linked with the music industry. Shared experience, not fast travel, is the lifeblood of our scene.

Many of us have found that, without anywhere to be, things have slowed down an awful lot. (Even the Queen referred to the new pace of life in her address to the UK on Sunday, stating that lockdown “presents an opportunity to slow down, pause and reflect, in prayer or meditation.”) Certain industries, such as fast fashion, are being forced into slowing down at the behest of Covid-19. At this moment of slowness, I wonder how many performers would jump at the chance to play a single gig, even if it meant taking an eight-hour train journey each way. From an audience perspective, the prospect of returning to more regional scenes with a bigger focus on residencies seems like a gift, just as long as we could all be together in one room again. Finally, as Clean Scene points out, slow gigging “enable[s] deeper cultural and personal connections” between performer, place and crowd.

Coming back to the present, “there is a very real risk that many of the most valued people and institutions within dance music will be decimated by this crisis,” Clean Scene acknowledges. “But perhaps equally depressing is the idea that everything will go back to ‘normal’—or some kind of turbo-powered normal, with turbo levels of waste and pollution.” They’re not alone in advocating for change. In a recent newsletter, Shawn Reynaldo constructs a persuasive takedown of the existing music scene and its unsustainable mechanisms, describing the electronic music system as “rotting.” It seems that many of his concerns, including the disproportionate pull of the festival circuit, indirectly relate to questions of environmental sustainability.

And as Herbert points out, some of the effects we’re seeing from Covid-19, such as militarised borders, may become recurring fixtures in the face of climate change: “My advice would be to start to develop interesting artistic responses to the challenges of travelling less, and build new ways to make and share work that is less energy intense or energy reliant.” In other words, slow travel may be imminent either way. If we are to adapt, commercial relationships with big events and sponsors will have to be reexamined, and we may find ourselves diversifying the services we offer, or looking towards more grassroots-oriented channels for revenue.

So how could we initiate the transition to sustainable travel? Clean Scene stresses that local scenes are best placed to “react to this urgent need to reduce emissions and protect the planet. An increased emphasis on local music communities is probably a more radical approach to changing industry standards in response to climate crisis, overall.” In Sifre’s view, this might happen whether we like it or not. If the ban on gathering is lifted before airlines are operating at full capacity again, he points out, “that could be a problem for months. I think after the lockdown, scenes will be reliant on their own talent and own crowd for the beginning.”

Clean Scene frames a forced local scenario in a more positive light. “Community spirit isn’t limited to people forming mutual aid groups or clapping for the NHS on their doorsteps. If a shred of that attitude can be applied to the micro-communities we create around favourite venues, parties or residents—rather than far-away festivals and international DJs—it would be a solid result. Increased localism is also important for strengthening activism and making people feel like creative contributors rather than mere consumers.”

We can create a new moral code that values green events production, using the industry’s progress on equal representation thus far as a blueprint. In this case, we might ask promoters to be transparent about the air miles used by their bookings, so that distance travelled between gigs becomes as important as balanced line-ups. Were that to happen, the onus wouldn’t simply fall on DJs and agents to travel sustainably, but also on promoters and punters to organise and attend parties that embody sustainability in more effective ways than just stocking up on reusable cups. This would not only encourage slow gigging from all sides, but also incentivise booking more local acts as an industry standard.

On a logistical level, agents and promoters could work closely together to make flight-free tours a common reality, rather than just a nice idea; something that DJs can place on a tour poster as proudly as the number of gigs or cities. Certainly, the way we are compelled to band together on solutions in lockdown suggests that collective organising across the scene might not just be limited to a couple of labels collaborating on a single party, or five UK promoters working on a flightshare from Japan. There’s also space to learn from others who already know what it’s like to work around travel limitations, such as the American promoters curating line-ups without budget airlines. As Sifre remarks, “in times like this a lot of creativity and new ideas are born to make things work in a new way.” Herbert adds that venues will find it hard if the lockdown is lifted and then resumed, as some have projected might happen. If this is the case, flexibility and collaboration across multiple levels of the industry will be crucial to our survival.

Meanwhile, performers can read up on slow gigging and help raise awareness by talking to peers and fans about it. McLaughlin describes how, in setting up Clean Scene, they found “a lot of artists are concerned about their environmental impact, but they’re not sure how to talk about it given that their career depends on travel.” To that end, she recommends reading Only Planet by Ed Gillespie as a good entry point. “Slow travel gives you more time to relax, think, play, listen, read—all really important when you have a hectic schedule. So indulge in it!” She continues. Importantly, don’t feel as if you have to engage with the issue completely or not at all. “This will be a massive mind-shifting exercise across a whole population. We’re all so used to the convenience of low-cost flights that it will be hard at first.”

Regardless of our individual hopes and fears, Coronavirus finds us at a critical juncture in relation to the climate crisis. It is exercising our problem-solving muscles; opening new pathways of thinking even as we experience tension and stress about the near future. But as Jonathan Watts points out, we need to be vigilant and proactive to make sure things don’t just slide back into business-as-usual: something that will happen all too easily if we aren’t vocal about how we want to go forward.

For the music industry, finding meaning in self-isolation has the power to change the way we envisage togetherness, and what is truly necessary to uphold our communities. And while we wait with bated breath for updates on Covid-19’s progress, remember that we’re well positioned to listen not just to our own governments, but to one another, too. Now that the show(s) cannot go on, we have a chance to fix up our infrastructures; recalibrate the new normal and ask ourselves which definitions of the impossible still stand.

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