Sustainability and the Music Business: What does it really mean?

Sustainability and the Music Business: What does it really mean? By Jennifer Otter Bickerdike

The idea of being as environmentally conscious in daily life is not a new thing. As a native of Santa Cruz, California, I have extremely vivid memories of going to the recycling centre with my family on weekends, the Ford Ranchero lowrider truck heavy with different coloured glass, cans and cardboard, all ready to be put into the correct bin for re-use. My parents even had a compost bucket in our kitchen- something that I was mortified by in the 1980s- and a huge pile in the backyard that they used for gardening.


Things have radically changed since those trips in the back of the Ranchero, with ‘sustainability’ becoming a buzz word across various commercial industries. At Key Production, it is more than a fashionable trend; being ecologically responsible is a pillar of the company’s overriding values. Within this context, it was not surprising when our CEO Karen Emanuel was asked to chair a panel on the forthcoming Sustainable Innovation Conference. Hosted by The Centre for Sustainable Design at the University for Creative Arts, the event promises to, ‘enabl[e] businesses in the Creative Industries (CI) and wider Creative Economy to seize sustainability opportunities and tackle challenges through new thinking and innovation.’ I wanted to know what this actually meant, and how two of the participants that Karen was going to be talking to were bringing best practice for the environment into the music industry.


First up was Mike Walsh, UK Head of Strategic Partnerships at Serenade, a company using web3 technology and digital pressing to make music collectibles. Web3 was a term that has been in the media a lot, but I had no definitive idea of what it was; digital pressing was a new phrase entirely. Mike kindly explained both. Web3 is simply the fancy, all-encompassing way of ‘describing various uses of blockchain technology.’ Digital pressings allow for a variance of content to be collected onto one release, can be put onto the market in a matter of weeks from conception to creation and are artist friendly in that they have ‘a perpetual royalty on re-sales.’ In short, a digital pressing is ‘a digital download on steroids’. 


Next on my hit list was Marc Carey, CEO of Evolution Music. Fantastic company name, but what do they really do? ‘Evolution Music is bringing the music industry and other businesses together to accelerate the music industry’s shift to more sustainable, environmentally and socially responsible practices,’ Carey tells me. I ask Carey to break this down into actionable items that the uninitiated can understand. ‘Our approach has been simple: creation of an environmentally friendly alternative to traditional PVC based products,’ he says. ‘Allowing consumers, music lovers and musicians/artists to create and access great analogue products with a clear conscience – plant-based alternatives - that deliver the same great experience with none of the inherent toxicity.’


As a life-long conversationalist and obsessive music lover, I have always seen the political power and importance of both, but never thought of them as having a Venn diagram moment. ‘In some ways, music and ecology share a political standpoint, often rooted in conflict and harmony,’ Marc argues. ‘The heart of the political process is compromise: common ground or consensus to create change. Politics in ecology explores relationships between nature and society – e.g., use (or misuse) of natural resources, or inequality of resource availability and first world consumer effects in the global landscape. “Music” can be identified in a similar social-ecological context. Consideration for ways in which sonic ecologies are inevitably stimulated through conflict and/or dissent; and the ways in which musical ecologies offer opportunities for action and identity clear ways of being (together) in social worlds.’ 


Carey underscores the importance of everyone involved in the music business ‘to take responsibility and be fully accountable for its cultural, environmental, and social impacts on people and planet!’ The vigour of his answer makes me ask as a closing question: Are organizations actually stepping up and committing to make substantial change or is it simply lip service, using a global emergency for consumer profit? ‘“Sustainability’ is starting to appear on the top agendas, but it’s really time for the ‘big’ players to catch up!’