As It Happens

Massive Attack is working with scientists to reduce live music's carbon footprint

After being approached by the UK band Massive Attack, University of Manchester professor Carly McLachlan has put together an open resource for the music industry to reduce its carbon footprint.

The U.K. band commissioned a report looking at the environmental impact of touring

British band Massive Attack commissioned a report by the University of Manchester to measure the environmental impact of the live music industry. (Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images)

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The live music industry has a heavy carbon footprint. 

So when the popular British band Massive Attack reached out to Carly McLachlan about what they could do to reduce the environmental impact of their touring and concerts, the University of Manchester professor was all ears.

McLachlan is the director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the university. In 2019, she and a team of researchers were commissioned by Massive Attack to map carbon emissions in the music business and create an open resource for the industry to reduce its environmental impact. 

The full report and key recommendations from that research has now been published.

McLachlan spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about her research and why she hopes it will help bands lower their carbon footprint as they planning tours again. Here is part of their conversation. 

Do you really think that rock music stars would be willing to ditch their private jets and take trains?

Yeah. I do, actually.

In our workshop with industry people, they were saying some artists who would really struggle to give up a private jet. But actually, most touring is not done in private jets. It's done on commercial aircraft.

And what we're seeing is there's lots of opportunities to swap that for train travel, as long as you think about these things right from the inception of a tour.

The more you hear artists and people throughout the industry talking about wanting to make a contribution to avoiding the worst impacts of climate change, it seems actually pretty reasonable to me that these new practices would be adopted.

Carly McLachlan is a professor of climate and energy policy with the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Manchester. (Submitted by Carly McLachlan)

This study of yours came about after a phone call from Robert Del Naja of Massive Attack.

I love the idea and I kind of don't want to ruin the romanticism of the idea that Rob just rang me up one day. But actually, someone from his team rang me up, and we had a chat about how we would approach the work.

Then, actually very quickly, we did meet Rob and talk with Rob. And that's occurred throughout the work. We've reported back to him on what we've found and what we plan to do next.

And what are you recommending to music acts, music stars, who are doing these tours?

It's about the artists, but it's [also] about everyone in the sector. All the different elements of it — agents, promoters, venues, tour managers, audiovisual engineers — everybody's got a part to play here. And the key thing is to think about it from the very inception of the tour.

So low carbon is baked in to everything. How much stuff you move around? Can you adopt more plug-and-play approaches? Can venues do that in a more extensive way for you? How are you getting between places?

And then, also, how are you thinking about helping your audience make the lowest carbon travel option the easiest, most obvious, and funnest way to do it?

[Popular bands] have got the power to do it. So use it — and use that influence. Use your network amongst the industry to try and drive change.- Carly McLachlan, climate change researcher 

We've seen in other sectors, as well as in music and performance, that virtual performances have taken a much larger role during the pandemic. And so is that a possibility? I mean, people are anxious to get back to the mosh pit, back to the concert venue. They want to be there with all those people because you just get that energy and that vibe. But do you think that there is a place in this new reality for more virtual performances?

I think it's a really interesting question. It's not where we've gone with the research.

What we've been trying to say in this research is live music touring — how do you still do this beautiful thing that we all love? It's been something we've missed so much during COVID, and people are so desperate to get back to it. 

But I think it is interesting that people have trialled these things because of COVID. I think that's kind of fun to see where that goes. But it's certainly not our intention to say, you know, everything's going to be like that.

What we would like is the sector to really grasp this challenge, to say: We are going to get ahead of it; we are going to really transition to a much lower carbon way of doing things, very quickly. And so, then that becomes an obvious part of a sustainable future.

And for the things that you can't get the carbon out of, you know, aviation, for example, there isn't an obvious drop in technology. So you would still have some carbon going on. Then, if we say, actually, as a global community, a thing that's really worth the limited carbon we emit is live music — that's a value judgment.

But it's made much easier if the rest of the sector — the things that are easier to decarbonize, like your energy consumption — that that stuff has really been happening at pace.

Is it easier for a band like Massive Attack to do this kind of thing than those up-and-coming acts that are just going from festival to venue to town to bars, and all that?

I think you can see that in the really big artists that have come out and said that they want much lower carbon options. And some people have been critical of that because they're like, well, they've got the power to do that.

But I think, yeah, great. They've got the power to do it. So use it, and use that influence. Use your network amongst the industry to try and drive change.

And that actually helps people coming up. Because if you arrive at the venue, the plug-and-play stuff is there for you, as well. You don't have to fight this battle in 10 years' time when you're the megastar. It will already be sorted out.

We're really sensitive to the idea that there's really different kind of levels of power and influence. And what we are asking in the report is for where people have direct control, and they can do things differently, and they're able to do that, then great, do that. But also use your wider influence.


Written by John McGill. Interview produced by Katie Geleff. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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