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Backstage: A Conversation about the Climate Emergency

Environment Podcast


A conversation about how culture can play a role in society’s response to the climate crisis.


Abigail Pogson (Managing Director – Sage Gateshead)

Scott Morrison (Environmental Responsibility Lead – Sage Gateshead)

Chiara Badiali (Music Lead – Julie’s Bicycle)

Dr Mike Tennant (Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial College London)

Learn more about our journey to net-zero

The climate crisis is a critical threat to our audiences, artists, region, and planet. That’s why environmental responsibility is at the heart of plans for our music centre and charity.

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Abigail Pogson: Hello. I’m Abigail Pogson, managing director at Sage Gateshead. In this podcast, we’re going to look at how musicians and the music industry are responding to the climate emergency. Sage Gateshead is one of the over 6000 organisations, artists and individuals, who have signed up to Music Declares Emergency. A group that’s taking a lead in making the changes necessary for a carbon neutral future. As the campaign slogan says, there’s no music on a dead planet. This topic can seem like an overwhelming challenge on a global scale, so we’re going to focus here on what’s local and personal to us. I’m delighted to be joined by three people to assist me with this conversation Chiara Badiali, who’s music lead at Julie’s Bicycle, an organisation that focuses on programmes and policy change that can tackle the climate crisis and indeed that’s made a huge difference to the cultural sector. Dr Mike Tennant, who works in the Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial College London. He’s director of their MSC in Environmental technology, and my colleague Scott Morrison, a member of the Sage Gateshead development team and our environmental responsibility champion. Hello to you all and thank you very much for joining today.

I wonder whether I could start by asking each of you to introduce yourselves with how you first became connected with this matter and secondly, what it is that you’re particularly working on just now. Chiara, perhaps I could start with you? Of course.

Chiara Badiali: I think there’s two parts of this story. Julie’s Bicycle got engaged in climate work in the arts because I think there was this moment when a lot of people wanted to do something in the music industry back in 2007, but no one was quite sure where to start. And it didn’t seem fair to just send artists out on stage to wag their fingers at people in the context of the Live Earth shows, the big concerts that were happening. And it felt like we needed to come together as an industry to also take practical action behind the scenes and kind of create a supportive environment for artists to speak out, but also to create kind of the context in which we could encounter and figure out how to deal with the climate crisis. And on a personal level, I guess I originally always wanted to work in conservation. I went off to university to study science. I’ve always really loved music and sort of felt at home in music venues more than anywhere else. So bringing those two things together and sort of figuring out how I can get the music industry closer to where we need to be, I guess that feels like my life’s work.

AP: Fantastic. Thank you. Mike, could I come to you next, please?

Mike Tennant: Of course. I work in the Centre for Environmental Policy down here at Imperial College in London and we tackle a whole range of different problems and try to understand what the environmental broader sustainability implications of contemporary practise are. And how we actually try to understand what better futures could actually look like. So you would think from someone like Imperial we’re a science technology university, you would think we only really look at those technological solutions. But a lot of the work that I’ve been doing tries to understand environmental issues from a more systemic or holistic perspective. So trying to draw on emotions that can be elicited from art, from music, is incredibly important to how we actually think of the future. In the context of that, this is where I’ve got the most current interest in.

AP: Thank you very much, Mike. And finally, Scott.

Scott Morrison: Yes. So, like, Chiara will maybe give you a personal and a professional answer. Personally, about ten years ago, I decided to change my diet and I became a vegetarian then. Initially it was mainly to do with animal rights and things, but as I went through that process, I learned the impact that that can also have on an individual’s carbon footprint. But I also became interested in the process because I found in making that change, it was actually quite an emotional one, it was a practical one, it involved creativity and me learning how to cook properly. And that was probably my way into when I became very interested in our experience of change, the positive benefits, the difficulties we have with it, and what are the factors and environments that can help people make change. So that was the personal slant. And professionally, before working at Sage Gateshead, I worked for an orchestra in Glasgow, where I’m from, and I became involved with tracking their carbon footprint for a year to do with their tours. And again, that allowed me to explore change and how different people experience it, but also practically, how an organisation begins to make change, which I find very interesting too.

AP: Thank you very much. And thank you for those introductions. What a fantastic slide from personal, creative, policy and practical, which I’m sure will start to unpack in this conversation. I wonder whether we could start off with music and musicians. And I talked at the beginning about a couple of projects that we’ve had at artistic projects that we’ve had at Sage Gateshead in kind of recent times. When artists talk about climate emergency, either literally in interviews or in that kind of context, or perhaps less directly or even directly through their work, what does that mean for audiences? And I’m interested in the effect of that. Chiara, you have a helicopter view on the music sector. I wonder what your perspective on that is. And there are lots of artists that are very active in this. What does that mean?

CB: I think every artist has a different relationship with their audience and in some ways there is a level of trust there in terms of having that conversation about how we want to live and the kind of world we want to create in a way that you might not get from a more generic campaign. I think there is a conversation there that is part of that relationship and that can really positively reinforce, I guess, the messages that we put out there. But I also think we have a tendency sometimes to focus too much on the artists, even within the arts. When we think about the number of people that come through a space like a venue or a festival and the opportunity that we also have in telling different kinds of stories and how we run that space and kind of the ideas that people encounter when they come into that place, I think that’s really important as well. And sort of considering again that holistic view of those touch points and the message that we’re putting out there.

AP: Yeah, I’d like to come back to that, actually, if I may. I wonder, Scott or Mike, do either of you have anything you want to say on that matter? Mike?

MT: Yeah, I broadly agree. If you look at people, say, Tom York or Leonardo DiCaprio, and they’re well known climate evangelists and their messages have to have some impact, I think the issue comes in whether that impact has any permanence or whether it’s more of a transient thing. And you can imagine situations where people are being told one thing and yet the environment isn’t set up for them to actually enact those changes within their own lives. I think there is some influence, but I think unless it’s reinforced from multiple other perspectives so for a long time, then there’s always going to be other opportunities, other things that get in the way and kind of may fall down the line.

AP: I wonder whether we might move to something a bit more specific. Now, which Scott, the way that you introduced yourself made me kind of think of this about kind of making change and I suppose thinking about something really specific in music and kind of that question of how to make the right choices and the right judgments, either individually or as a kind of wider sector. I’m interested in the shift in the way that we consume music, if you like. So this change from the kind of physical production of something that we buy as an object to streaming and obviously there’s a kind of big sort of intersection there and knowing as a consumer or as an audience member what the right thing to do there is, I think, is a really kind of big question. But there’s obviously also a really specific change that we could, as individuals, make. I wondered what your observations are about that and kind of making change in that way. Scott.

SM: Yes, observation is a good way to introduce that. I probably won’t be able to give an easy answer, but I can tell you what I’ve observed. The first thing that might be of interest was there’s a very interesting study that came out of the University of Glasgow, actually, in I think, 2020, which specifically looked at the impact of streaming versus previous modes of music production. It was a very interesting paper that actually began with shellac records and beetles, as in insects, which is what is used to make shellac records all the way through to streaming, trying to estimate, and it was estimates for the earlier part of the recording history, the impact of this on the planet. And the results are perhaps slightly surprising in that the results that were produced show that streaming, as it stands now, is producing as much of a carbon footprint as peak plastic production around the times of CD and cassette. And I suppose for me that was slightly interesting and a good point to raise, because digital solutions can offer many benefits, but it’s important to realise that they don’t come without their own impacts. And I think that shows that quite clearly.

There’s also a myriad of other things you could get into about streaming in the music industry and whether it’s a good or a bad thing, but I would say people can be aware that streaming comes with its own footprint. That would be my observation on that topic.

AP: Thank you. Thank you, Chiara, I’m sure you want to chip in here.

CB: Yeah. And I think that is the main takeaway. Whatever mode of listening we choose, it’s going to have an impact and it’s about understanding within that choice what your biggest levers of change are. I think that paper was interesting because it looked specifically at the plastic production from older ways of consuming music or physical ways, but within that, it didn’t include things like the distribution or people actually going to stores to buy it. And I think one of the things that is interesting is that we do tend to overestimate the carbon impact of streaming. So there’s a brilliant kind of source for climate news called Carbon Brief. They crunched some numbers and they reckon the average carbon footprint of watching half an hour of Netflix is roughly the same as driving 100 metres in a conventional car. So in that context, if as a music fan or listener, you’re trying to make a difference, if you focus on flying less or driving less, that’s going to have a bigger impact in terms of your personal ability to make change than maybe obsessing too much over whether you’re listening or streaming too much music. But of course, again, thinking about the impact that that digital infrastructure does have in terms of the energy it uses, but also the raw materials that we’re extracting to go into our devices.
If you are a listener, the biggest differences you can make is thinking about the electricity that you’re buying and trying to buy 100% renewable electricity if you can afford it. It’s about using smaller devices to listen to music on that use less energy. And crucially, it’s about hanging on to those devices much longer. So not replacing your phone every year and trying to make the most out of it.

AP: Fantastic. Mike, is there anything that you would like to observe in relation to this?

MT: Yeah, there’s a technique that we use here and is used to calculate these impacts called life cycle analysis. And what it actually shows you is that these questions are really quite difficult because defining what a comparable unit of analysis is, is really quite tricky. So Chiara’s example of looking at resources embedded within streaming devices, that’s vitally important. And if you consider the raw materials that go into creating semiconductors and a number of the other things that are embedded within your phone or your iPad or your Mp3 player, that has consequences that are well beyond just climate. And I think the using stuff longer, using less energy intensive material, but remembering that all of the AV equipment that we’re using contributes to that impact as well.

AP: A complex set of dynamics and an issue to navigate. As we were walking through Chiara, you touched on something that I want to come to next, which is live music. And performing live is super important to many, many musicians. That connection with an audience was something that I and many colleagues had hundreds and hundreds of conversations about during the depths of the pandemic when it just wasn’t possible. But of course, there’s all sorts of questions around touring and also around bringing audiences together and what happens there, there’s that sort of double whammy. I wonder, first up, Chiara, whether I could ask you about the green touring rider, because I know that this is this is something that Julie’s Bicycle has done an awful lot on.

CB: Yeah, of course. I think we did some research over ten years ago now, looking at touring in the classical music space, in the sort of bands touring and also theatre touring. And we spoke to people in all parts of the touring ecosystem. And I think one of the things that if you don’t work inside it, you might not recognise or know is just how many moving parts come together to make a tour happen. There isn’t kind of unlike in a business where you have one chief executive, what you’re actually talking about is kind of 50 different companies or groups trying to negotiate all of this together. And so what you do get a lot of the time is you might get a venue saying, well, we would make this change, but we’re not sure the promoters will accept it and we’re not sure the artists will go for it. And the artists are saying, well, we would do this, but actually we depend so much on the venues making this change. So one of the ways we suggested to try and open up that conversation, it’s not just us, it’s sort of quite a straightforward idea, was this idea of a green rider.
Any touring artist or orchestra already provides a technical and a hospitality rider to the venue that says, we need these things for the performance to go ahead. And so the idea was, let’s start riding in sort of green conditions into those riders so that this conversation starts happening and people stop pointing the finger at each other and pretending that no one else cares. And I think hopefully we are feeling that shift now. There is more of a conversation happening here.

AP: It’s becoming more and more common, isn’t it?

CB: Definitely, yes.

AP: Scott, when you were looking at this with Scottish Ensemble, what were the things that you were weighing up and what did you kind of take from that work?

SM: So the things that we were weighing up when we were looking at touring primarily, as you can guess, a huge part of it, particularly for classical music, is to do with travel. So within that, there’s domestic travel and international travel. As you can imagine, international travel usually at the moment involves aviation and flying, which is usually the largest part of the carbon footprint. I suppose orchestras, perhaps even more than bands, just purely because of their size, can often have a much larger carbon footprint when they choose to travel. So domestically, with simpler things like avoiding air travel within the UK wherever possible, prioritising trains and buses, avoiding individual cars and looking at car sharing, everything to make that more efficient. And internationally, I think it’s a more complex issue for a variety of reasons. One is the place that international touring has within business models. Some orchestras rely heavily on international touring and the generally higher fees to balance their business model. But the other one, which I think is perhaps slightly less logistical and more value based, is the role that international travel has, particularly in the classical sector, and how, at the moment is very much a marker of prestige.

And in my opinion, speaking purely personally, I think the classical sector would do well to re examine those values and not assume that international travel, for the sake of it, is prestige or value making, because sometimes it’s not economically value making, but as we all know, it’s got a huge impact as well. So, as well as thinking about logistics with these kind of things, I think we do well to think about the values behind them and why we’re making these choices.

AP: And I’m really interested in that thing with orchestras, which may come back to around. As you say, there’s all of those things in international travel or even kind of national travel, but there’s also particularly with those of us that are based in a very, very particular place, a thing about working in the same place every single kind of week, which is different from a band that just has to kind of move around. And there’s something there to work at. I think, in that question that you’re pointing to, I wonder, Mike, whether I could ask you. I know that some of your colleagues have worked with Coldplay and the idea of kind of carbon free touring, where that thinking has got to.

MT: Yes essentially it’s travel. Travel is a big problem, but also travel from the audience as well. The Coldplay go to Brazil or wherever, or whoever goes to Brazil and you’ve still got thousands and thousands of people who are travelling on independent transport to get to their venues. And what’s the alternative? They don’t tour? I think that’s somewhat ludicrous.

AP: It’s a very difficult question, isn’t it? Should we feel guilty about this? How far can we take this? I wondered perhaps to sort of wrap up on this aspect of things. Scott, I could ask you about audience travel because I know that in your current role, you’ve done a certain amount of looking at this and what the kind of challenges and the variables are, and I wonder whether you could say what the thinking is on this.

SM: Yeah, absolutely. So at Sage Gateshead, we’ve been measuring audience travel through surveys and factoring that in as a part of our carbon footprint when we work with Julie’s bicycle every year. And on average for us, audience travel represents roughly 25% of our carbon footprint, which is a significant chunk, I think it’s worth saying that right off the bat. As you’ve alluded to Abigail, we’re obviously based in a certain place and our audiences also come broadly from across the Northeast. It’s not just immediately in the surrounding streets. And when we get into thinking about audience travel, as with many things with the environment, it can become rather more complex the more you pick at the string, as it were. So things that are thinking about, as well as the choices individuals make to get there, how is that influenced by, say, the time that the concert is on? Local public transportation provision walking routes around places if they feel safe or unsafe, weather conditions, of course, can come into it. And so, I suppose, quite quickly, from a starting point of how are we putting our concert on, you begin to see the probably dozens of individual choices that people have to make to actually carry out a simple activity.

And so I think what organisations and promoters putting on concerts can do is try and make sustainable travel as simple as possible. And one thing that I’m really proud of at Sage Gateshead, and that I think is great, is we work with the metro providers to offer free rail transport with a Sage Gateshead ticket. And as we often know, economic factor is very often the deciding factor in our decision making at the moment. And anything that we can do to incentivize that, I think, can only be a good thing.

AP: Yeah, absolutely, Chiara.

CB: It all works on sort of levels of control that we can bring in as venues and festivals, to some extent. You might not be able to make the decision for your audiences, but you can make certain things easier and you can make certain things harder. You can make travel by car harder by charging more for car parking. You can make public transport easier, again, by looking at timings and making it cheaper. And I think the other thing we can do more of as a music community is getting involved in those conversations with local authorities as well. A few months ago, I think, the Royal Albert Hall wrote a letter in support of better separated cycle provision locally for their staff and artists. And again, sort of using that institutional voice that we have as well, to speak that truth to politicians is really important.

AP: It’s a kind of mix of things that should move things forward. I want to Mike, would you like to?

MT: Yeah, I guess the ultimate goal is for the audience to want to do this as well. Financial coercion, great. I use coercion in air quotes here. If we can nudge behaviour in particular ways, then great, but maybe only great for the particular activity that we’re in control of. Ultimately, though, we need to think broader and say, well, when does good climate behaviour, travel, whatever, become the norm? And that’s a much more complex question. Such as on all sorts of things like education and desires and norms.

AP: Yeah, a much broader cultural canvas, really. I wonder, Mike, if I could just stick with you and perhaps broaden it out slightly to buildings. What we’re talking about, talking about touring or about audiences coming to a place to hear live music is arenas or venues like ours often kind of purpose built locations. Not always, but often. And I wonder, through your work in a kind of broader perspective on buildings, what you’re seeing about what the thinking is about how to have environmentally responsible spaces.

MT: There are a number of environmental standards. Breeam is probably the most well known standard for building, and that dictates everything from the materials that buildings are constructed from all the way through to the environmental performance of those buildings. Those are things that really need to be considered in new builds. But a lot of the venues look at the Royal Albert Hall just across the road from me, sort of difficult to refurbish or refit, retrofit that. So making sure that buildings will last for an incredibly long time is absolutely essential. These new builds, just looking at my flat, for example, that’s going to be derelict in the next 20 or 30 years, but Victorian houses hundreds years and they last for another 100 more. And that’s how you reduce carbon footprint on a per capita, per day basis.

AP: So thinking long term and making decisions that have a long life in them is a really underpinning factor.

MT: Yeah, and thinking modularity as well. We may not be able to predict exactly what the future is going to be like, but we have to provide opportunities for redesign and design to come in as appropriate.

AP: Thank you. Chiara, what are you seeing on this.

CB: I think the other really important thing is around people on that. We work with so many cultural venues, a lot of them are unlisted buildings, retrofitting and energy efficiency investments are expensive. They’re not all impossible, although you do sometimes have to have a bit of a fight around the listed status. And again, I think that’s where some policy change could be useful. But then a lot of it is also people. Quite often the first thought that someone has is, oh, we have to spend loads of money to bring in all this new expensive building management system stuff to better manage energy and actually just changing the way that some of the venue managers or facilities managers, the skills and sort of time that they have to focus on energy efficiency and actually making sure the building runs properly, that can already make a huge difference. And really that’s what we’ve been spending a lot of our work on as well.

AP: Yeah, that’s interesting because we’ve been looking at our capital plans for over a kind of ten minimum, ten year horizon and doing that through a prism of responsibility and sort of bedding that in so that hopefully those that are then kind of leading on that, it’s just part of the mix. I’m going to start to wrap up now and I wonder whether I could ask you what your vision is for the music sector or industry in ten years time. Where would you like us to be? Chiara.

CB: I think in ten years time, more than anything else, I would love to be at a place where we really, truly feel environment on a par and on a level with artistic considerations and financial considerations in the music industry. That it sort of figures into every decision we make on everything that we do, with a real recognition as well of how it ties into so many of the other issues that we would like to be doing the right thing around in terms of social justice, in terms of making better communities and being very active participants, I guess in terms of shaping the world that we are making now in the context of having to face up to the climate crisis.

AP: Yeah. So this matter being deeply embedded in the way that we think about things and ultimately act.

CB: Exactly, yes.

AP: And Mike, perhaps I can give you the final word on this. What’s your vision for where we should be in ten years time?

MT: I think music is too tribal at the moment. We don’t see people from, say, an opera background enjoying Stormzy or Stormzy going after Charlie XCX or artists like that. Ten years time, more eclectic people having more eclectic interests, learning from the more individualistic things that others have to say and appropriating it to make it their own, to create better ideas.

AP: Fascinating. Which it strikes me might be a factor in what Chiara was saying about this being embedded in our thinking. If we’re thinking in an open way and always looking for ways to connect with others and to see things from others perspective and be empathetic, have a wider lens, if you like, which I think is, in a way, what you’re talking about there. Possibly there’s a connection between the points that you’ve made. What a fantastic way to end the phenomenal power of music. Thank you to my guests, Chiara, Mike and Scott, for a really fantastic and interesting conversation. Thank you very much for your time and your insights. And thanks to you for listening to this podcast on environmental responsibility and the music sector.