Musicians have used poignant lyrics to make political statements for decades, particularly regarding environmental issues and climate change. No one can forget Joni Mitchell’s haunting voice and prophetic message in “Big Yellow Taxi:” “You do not know what you got ’til it is gone / They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”
While climate change is a prevalent theme in the music we consume, we often overlook the vast negative impact that the music sector can have on the environment. Understanding the impacts of the music industry and instrument production on climate change will inform our consumption decisions and empower us to combat these issues.
The problems span each sector of the commercial music industry, as well as within instrument manufacturing and the overall music ecosystem. Live tours are an environmental catastrophe, releasing a combined 405,000 tons of greenhouse gas per year. Meanwhile, the wood needed to produce the approximately 2.6 million guitars manufactured per year — among other instruments — contributes greatly to global deforestation. Finally, the music industry itself represents an endangered ecosystem, as many types of music beyond the radio mainstream are at risk of going extinct.
The collective change we need to improve the environment requires action from every musical creator, producer and consumer. While there are important changes that consumers and listeners can make, certainly the most effective change in this realm must come from the top: industry executives, instrument manufacturers, venue coordinators and artists themselves.
Deforestation and the ensuing biodiversity loss is a well-known environmental calamity, but its connection to the music industry is rarely mentioned. Some instrument manufacturers like Taylor Guitars have recognized this issue and have begun exchanging highly coveted, foreign tonewoods like Guatemalan mahogany and Indian rosewood for less valuable wood like the “urban lumber” found on the side of the Los Angeles highway.
This highway wood comes from Shamel Ash trees that need to be chopped down as they near the end of their life cycle, making it a very sustainable alternative in the production of mid-range guitars and other wooden instruments.
While professional musicians typically have a preference for the sound of a rosewood or mahogany body, most beginner musicians do not. If you’re in the market for a new instrument, an “urban lumber” guitar is the responsible choice. If you are partial to a certain wood quality and sound, you can buy a used or vintage guitar, and thereby contribute to the community upcycling process.
The music industry can also minimize its footprint by reducing the carbon impact of live touring. One way to reduce emissions is to partner with sustainable touring organizations like Reverb. In 2004, Reverb started a program called the “Music Climate Revolution” with artists like Jack Johnson and the Dave Matthews Band. They have facilitated over 350 climate positive tours where they “eliminated 5x more greenhouse gas emissions than the tour created including fan travel to and from shows.”
Reverb focuses on increasing intersectionality in environmental causes by partnering with the Black Music Action Coalition, Greenpeace and the United Nations Environmental Programme. Celebrity musicians have raised over four million dollars for environmental charities in partnership with “Music Climate Revolution.” Reverb is proactive, not only minimizing emissions, but also trying to repair the environment.
Online streaming is an accessible and eco-friendly listening option. But research shows that there is a synergistic relationship between music streaming and live music resurgence; this is all the more reason for musicians to embrace sustainable touring. This is a pivotal moment for musicians to hold each other accountable to a new ecological consciousness.
When we dive into a more meta approach about the relationship between music and the environment, it is clear that music itself is a fragile ecosystem. In order to preserve diverse styles of music for everyone to enjoy, ethnomusicologists emphasize a partnership between folklorists, musicians, community leaders and scholars.
The preservation of music is rooted in four ecological principles: the adaptive value of diversity, an understanding that continuously expanding growth is unsustainable, connectedness and stewardship. Like a natural ecosystem, we must actively foster the long-term growth and vibrancy of musical tradition.
For example, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization is defending the musical heritage of Cambodian traditionalists, which has been on the edge of annihilation since the 1970s. The stewardship of music is essential to preventing homogenization and the loss of cultural biodiversity.
Consumers must hold the music industry to ever-increasing standards of environmental innovation and restoration. By approaching change from various angles, musicians and listeners are demonstrating a commitment to protecting the Earth. As young consumers of music, we must be active participants. It’s time to chip away at the pavement that has grown to cover paradise over the years since Mitchell wrote those fateful words: the modern music industry is capable of leaving a legacy of healing rather than destruction.
Stella Peters is a sophomore in the College. Climate Matters appears in print or online every third Friday.