he sun has set, the band’s last lingering note has faded, and the fans are headed towards the exits. What’s left on the ground? Hopefully, just the sweat and emotions from a long day of outdoor music. That’s the goal of an increasing number of artists, venues, and companies working to reduce the environmental footprint of live music.
In the late 1980s, Michael Martin, CEO and founder of Minneapolis-based Effect Partners, was working as an investment banker on Wall Street when he began to recognized the negative impact capitalism was having on the environment. Wanting to make a change, Martin took a step back from his career and decided to invest in the earth, producing the first Earth Day Concert that took place in Washington, D.C. in 1990. The concert became an iconic moment in an era that saw environmentalism become an increasingly mainstream movement.
In the years since, the world has moved toward finding new ways to reduce and offset carbon emissions, and musicians have integrated many of Martin’s ideas into their tour riders. Early adopters, including Steve Miller, Dave Matthews Band, Black Eyed Peas, U2, and Jack Johnson, worked with Martin to green their time on the road and extend the message of sustainability, using his “EnviroRider” to reduce the environmental impact of their large tours.
Next, Martin decided to push things a little further and cut the use of plastic at shows. After spending a few years developing the idea, Martin was finally able to put his concept in place through U2 in 2017 with the r.Cup. The band partnered with Martin to make the reusable cups part of their U.S. tour.
“During an r.Cup concert, if you want to buy a beer, you also have to buy a cup,” Martin explains. “This cup is branded with the tour or festival logo. You use that throughout the day. At the end of the day, you can turn in your cup and get your money back. You basically are renting a cup. At the end of a concert, there is no waste on the ground. The concessionaire loves it because they don’t have to buy the cups; we provide the cups. The venue loves it, because they don’t have to clean up the cups; they don’t have to throw out the cups. The fans love it, because they get to keep a small hug from the artist. It’s a keepsake. It doesn’t affect merch sales. The artists love it, because they can give their fans a gift; they also get a percentage of [proceeds from] the cups that are kept. The cups that are not kept are given back to the company, washed, and used at the next venue. Our goal is to change the industry.”
Making a concert green is a complex challenge, says Ben Geffen, director of program services at the Walker Art Center, which has worked with Eureka Recycling for events such as Rock the Garden. “We do our best to make sure production items like banners and table coverings are reusable and we encourage using cell phones instead of printed tickets,” explains Geffen. “That said, music concerts of this size do use tremendous resources and it’s a challenge to figure out ways to keep our event as sustainable as possible. As technologies advance, I look forward to replacing diesel generators with portable electrical power, moving more of our lighting to LED, and replacing any fossil fuels with sustainable resources.”
Environmental concerns aren’t just for international superstars and big festivals. In recent years, Martin worked with CLIF Bar on CLIF GreenNotes, a grant-funded program that works with smaller touring artists, like Dessa and Astronautalis, to advance sustainability in a variety of ways. For example, there’s a toolkit that musicians can use to reduce their carbon footprint by taking steps like making sure touring vehicle tires are fully inflated and encouraging fans to carpool to venues.
Some artists are even ditching touring vans altogether. Minneapolis singer-songwriter Brianna Lane, along with Peter Mulvey, has been traveling around the country on bikes to showcase an example of low-impact touring. “It makes a statement when we show up to a venue and say, ‘We biked 70 miles today to be here.’ That becomes a conversation topic. As a general rule, we don’t do more than 70 miles in a day. We learned that the hard way when we rolled into Buffalo, New York one year after doing 85 that day and 143 the day before. We probably played our worst show of tour that day.”
Lane is pairing with Farmstead Bike Shop later this fall to host four events that will take place at different parks in St. Paul to bring attention to river cleanliness. Funded through a Knight Foundation grant, the concerts will feature artists commissioned to write river-based songs, and their sets will be performed on a pedal-powered stage. That’s right, volunteers in the audience will be pedaling throughout the events to harness energy to run the lights and sound system.
“By getting recruits to power the stage,” says Lane, “it will add more to the show. We want people to get so excited about it that they’ll want to contribute to the evening… We want it to be visible because we want to engage people.”
“I want to make it easy to do the right thing,” says Martin. “The more you learn about what is happening, the more difficult it is to ignore it. You’re not getting people to care by simply telling them to care. You’re changing the system to something that makes more sense environmentally and economically.”
This article was produced as a part of a collaboration between The Growler Magazine and 89.3 The Current, Minnesota’s non-commercial, member-supported radio station playing the best authentic, new music alongside the music that inspired it. Find this article and more great music content at thecurrent.org.