Everyone has to start somewhere, and a
lot of rock musicians have done exactly that. Your Earth Day begins NOW.
BY GILLIAN G.
causes might seem an anomalous concern in the realm of rock ‘n’ roll. After
all, when it’s Saturday night and you just got paid, the next step usually
involves heading out in your Rocket 88 for a night on the town with all the
desire to consume that implies – “carbon footprint” be damned!
And in truth,
it’s taken a while for musician to take up the green banner. Until the
mid-‘60s, most entertainers eschewed making any kind of political statements,
in order not to alienate anyone in their audience. That changed as the era of
protest rock began, though the songs primarily concerned themselves with war
and social injustice, providing a musical backdrop to debates about the Vietnam
conflict and the emergence of the modern civil rights movement. Feminism and
gay liberation followed. But interest in environmental causes lagged behind.
that began to change after the first Earth Day event, held exactly forty years
ago tomorrow, on April 22, 1970. Throughout the decade, environmental issues
became increasingly mainstream – and a topic increasingly addressed by
musicians. Pro-green songs from artists as diverse as Marvin
Gaye (“Mercy Mercy Me [The Ecology]”) and the Beach Boys (“Don’t Go Near The
Water”) were released early in the decade. Even cuddly suburbanites The Brady
Bunch went eco-friendly on “We Can Make The World A Whole Lot Brighter” (with
its lament “Birds flying high, in search of a clear blue sky/While they’re
choppin’ down the trees below them”) on their 1972 album Meet The Brady Bunch.
benefit show became a staple for activist musicians. Bonnie Raitt played her
first benefit for the Sierra Club in 1974, and went on to co-found MUSE
(Musicians United for Safe Energy) in 1979. The organization hosted a series of
“No Nukes” concerts the same year, which were filmed and released as a
documentary. One of the biggest stars of the ‘70s, John Denver, provided a
subtler form of pro-green commentary in his paeans to the beauty of the
environment (particularly his beloved Rocky Mountains), but was increasingly
outspoken offstage, eventually co-forming The Windstar Foundation
(www.wstar.org), dedicated to promoting awareness of environmental issues. In 1989,
Sting expanded his political activism into the green realm by co-founding The
Rainforest Foundation Fund (www.rainforestfoundation.org).
green causes would seem to be non-partisan – bad air and water will harm
anyone’s body, regardless of political affiliation – they were often tagged as
a “lefty” issue because many of the artists making pro-green statements were
known for their liberal views, and rock
star activists are often on the front line for those wanting to take potshots.
But ironically, the one incident that really raised awareness about green
issues – as well as clearly illustrating what kind of impact on the environment
the consumption of music could generate – wasn’t something largely being
addressed by musicians at all. It was the eradication of the CD longbox.
When CDs first
came on the market in the ‘80s, they were usually packaged in 6-by-12-inch
cardboard boxes featuring the album’s artwork; they were designed so that two
boxes could fit side by side in record store bins designed to hold
12-by-12-inch album covers. No one had previously complained about how records
and tapes were packaged, but now, given that most people simply threw the outer
box away, the waste factor was obvious.
A 1990 article
in Entertainment Weekly claimed CD
longboxes generated 18.6 million pounds of trash per year (“roughly the same amount of garbage created daily by a
population the size of Missouri’s”).
The same article quoted a record wholesaler as protesting, “We don’t want to do
anything that will cause damage to the environment, but we don’t see any other
way to merchandise,” but music consumers were less attached to the longbox (and
even less so to the plastic version of the longbox, the much-hated “blister
pack,” which had an annoying tendency to slice open your finger when you were
trying to pry it off a CD), and by 1993 they were being eliminated. The
cardboard longboxes have naturally gone on to become prized collectors items.
more and more CDs are housed in paper sleeves instead of a plastic jewel box,
with an emphasis on using recycled materials. And in this age of rampant
downloading (legal or otherwise) CDs themselves maybe eventually become seen as
little more than “wasteful packaging.” Though
downloading devotees still have to face another environmental dilemma – how to
best dispose of a dead computer or iPod.
It was a classic
example of how ideas once seen as “fringe” concerns become taken for granted.
From the ‘90s on, musicians have increasingly found new ways to jump on the
green bandwagon. Instead of simply performing benefits, letting pro-green
groups set up tables at shows, and making the occasional
let’s-save-the-environment statement, more musicians, and record companies, are
engaging in more direct kinds of action.
The Chicago offices of Smog
Veil Records feature solar panels and wind turbines. Sub Pop Records purchases
renewable energy credits, called “green tags,” from the Bonneville
Environmental Foundation (www.b-e-f.org) to
balance out the energy the company uses during the year. Planting trees has
become a popular way of giving back for musicians. Pink Floyd and Coldplay
vowed to plant a tree for each copy of Echoes (Pink Floyd) and A Rush of Blood to the
Head and X&Y (Coldplay)
that’s sold; The Police made a hefty donation to MillionTreesNYC following
their last tour (an organization plans to plant one million trees in the city
by 2017; www.milliontreesnyc.org);
Pearl Jam have announced that they plan to donate
money from their upcoming tour to plant trees in the Pacific Northwest. There’s
also an eye on how trees are used; Martin Guitars, for examples, only uses wood
from non-endangered forests to make their instruments.
Rufus Wainwright has found an imaginative approach to get his audience thinking
about the impact they have on the environment via his “Blackout Sabbath” events
“Sabbath” in question is the first day of summer (June 21), when Wainwright
encourages people to live without electricity from noon to midnight, taking the
time to write down “things that you will do in the next year to contribute to
the earth’s well-being.” He promotes the event (now in its third year) at an
annual “Awareness concert” performed by candlelight.
artists that want to make their tours eco-friendly now have a variety of
organizations to help them. Reverb (www.reverb.org),
founded in 2004 by Lauren Sullivan (who’d previously worked for the Rainforest
Action Network) and her husband, Adam Gardner, (guitarist/vocalist in the band
Guster), work with musicians to help find ways to offset the environmental
effects of touring. Their first clients were Barenaked Ladies and Alanis Morissette;
they’ve since worked with Phish, Sheryl Crow, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and
Bonnie Raitt, among many others (a recent client is this year’s Lilith Fest).
Some measures are obvious (biodiesel-fueled tour buses, recyclable cutlery in
the catering tent – set up to serve locally grown organic food, of course),
while others are designed to let nothing go to waste (Barenaked Ladies ended up
collecting their broken and used guitar strings to be re-worked into unique
jewelry). “Eco-villages” are set up at shows to educate attendees, and websites
set up for the tours not only tout the ways the shows are green-friendly, they
also offer resources like enabling fans to organize carpools.
“Being green is not all or
nothing,” says Reverb’s website. “Many people doing
some things will have more impact than some people doing everything.”
MusicMatters (www.musicmatters.net) also helps
musicians to green up their act. The organization worked with singer-songwriter
Jack Johnson on EnviroRider, a
handbook on how to make your tour eco-friendly, followed by the development of
a similarly styled program called Sustainable Minded Artists Recording and
Touring (SMART), which has worked with acts like Korn, Incubus, and OAR.
wags have pointed out that the efforts to offset one’s despoiling of the
environment aren’t necessarily designed to provide a quick fix. The climate
expert who worked with Pearl Jam on their tree planting scheme admitted to the Seattle Weekly it would take around 50
years for the 33 acres of trees the band wants to plant to offset the carbon
expenditure of this single tour, to say nothing of the subsequent tours the
band presumably plans to undertake.
even small steps are a move in the right direction. “As a touring band, it’s
our responsibility to start making a difference,” Korn singer Jonathan Davis
told Planet Green (www.planetgreen.discovery.com).
“We can’t save the planet overnight, but this is our way of saying everyone has
to start somewhere.” When even metal heads are going green, it’s clear that
being eco-friendly isn’t just a fad any more.
Bands, readers: tell us your
own stories of notable instances of eco-activism in the music world in the comments section,