Analysis

The case for sustainability as a priority for the music industry


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“We’re treating the atmosphere like a sewer! Every day we dump a hundred million tonnes more of global warming pollution into the atmosphere… We are literally on a path, this might sound extreme, but frankly the new concept that people are talking about is ‘human extinction event’.”

As one of the world’s leading environmental scientists, Dr Allen Hershkowitz clearly doesn’t believe in unnecessary small talk. This was how he opened his appearance on the Music Ally TV Show’s sustainability episode last week, getting straight down to the business of the enormous challenge facing humankind.

“We’re already facing catastrophic impacts. Hundreds of thousands of people die already every year from climate-related impacts. Literally hundreds of billions of dollars in economic damages occurring every year. Literally tens of millions of environmental refugees: people who have lost their homes due to storms, droughts, sea-level rise, coastal erosion,” he continued.

“So whether you’re talking about the chemistry of the atmosphere; whether you’re talking about the chemistry of the ocean: ocean acidification; plastics pollution: trillions of pieces of plastic in the ocean, dumped every year; whether you’re talking about the proliferation of waste: literally tens of billions of tonnes of waste. So we have an urgent ecological issue!”

Actually, Hershkowitz is clearly good at small talk too. In 1997 he welcomed a new neighbour by turning up on their front porch with two six-packs of beer. That new neighbour was Mike Jbara, then a Warner Music executive, and nowadays CEO of hi-res audio technology firm MQA.

The pair have been friends ever since, and that’s how Hershkowitz ended up on the Music Ally TV Show, with Jbara to talk about how the music industry could and should respond to the climate emergency.

“It’s more than just the right thing to do. It’s an essential business obligation. There is a new management obligation in the 21st century corporation that relates to sustainability,” said Hershkowitz, noting that investors and consumers alike are paying increasing attention to companies’ policies.

“There is no one big answer to this issue… there is nothing too small to matter,” he added, citing the famous Mother Teresa quote that ‘Not all of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love’ as inspiration. “I’m literally working on large energy systems down to the plastic straw. Everything matters.”

It’s an important message to help people to take action, rather than feel paralysed and/or overwhelmed by the scale of the task. However, blunt words about that scale are also a necessary part of the debate.

“Global warming is not a resolvable issue in our lifetime. Cleaning up the plastic from the ocean, dealing with ocean acidification, is not going to be remedied in our lifetime,” he said.

“Deforestation is going to be a challenge that we’re going to have to deal with and manage forever. In the same way that we have been dealing with gender bias and structural racism for centuries, the ecological challenges that we face today are enormous. We’re talking about tremendously big numbers, and large landscapes, and we’re talking literally at a planetary level.”

“However, when you get before your maker, she’s not going to ask if you solved global warming! I think what she’s going to ask is: ‘How did you spend your time? What did you try to do?’ This is a long haul game… So that you don’t burn out, just recognise that every little thing matters, and we are here to keep the movement going.”

The conversation moved on to what companies can do, and it starts with measurement. Measuring their energy use, waste, water use and other key metrics contributing to their overall impact on emissions.

A lot of work has been done to provide the frameworks for companies to do this. The Greenhouse Gas Protocol, for example, which provides tools to measure emissions across three scopes. Scope 1 covers a company’s direct impacts; Scope 2 its indirect impacts (for example: from purchased electricity, heat or steam); and Scope 3 everything else (for example: staff travel).

“The boiler that is powering the heat for your building. If you own that building, that’s a Scope 1 impact. The cars that you own, that you are driving. That’s a Scope 1 impact. If you have machinery at your venue, a diesel generator or whatever, that is a Scope 1 impact,” said Hershkowitz.

“Measure that impact, and as quickly as possible, shift that impact. Reduce it, that’s number one. Shift it as much as possible to renewable sources. Get on wind, get on solar, and what cannot be reduced, then you need credible offsets. Offsets have evolved: they are now a viable and necessary tool in managing climate.”

When Jbara was at WMG, the company worked with Hershkowitz to design exactly this kind of audit, and take action. That included changes to its office environment, but also to its packaging of physical music, shifting from plastic CD cases to paper and board. That required a similar shift for WMG’s suppliers.

“We had to create the business case for them, including making commitments to get Warner Music’s business if you converted to a certain percentage of post-consumer [100% recycled] paper and board product,” said Jbara. WMG also had to sell artists and retailers alike on the idea, at a time when the plastic cases were perceived as being “a much more premium package” than paper and board packaging.

Jbara said that any internal resistance at the label group was “really just a matter of education”, including making the case that putting more effort into sustainability initiatives would make WMG a better company.

“The Dow Jones Sustainability Index outperforms the standard Dow Jones, which supports the idea that companies that pay attention to sustainability are just better managed companies generally,” he continued. “Therefore there is positive correlation.”

Both men praised senior WMG execs from the time – John Esposito and Edgar Bronfman were mentioned – for giving the changes their support. Hershkowitz also pointed out that WMG made some notable savings as a result of its office changes.

“When I did the first paper use audit at Warner Music Group, they were at 75 Rockefeller Center, they were spending a few hundred dollars per square foot. Every cubicle had its own printer, and each printer was two feet by three feet. They literally had hundreds of them!” he said.

“We redefined the paper budget. By centralising printing… by double-siding the printers, we saved close to a million dollars in a year just on paper reduction costs… Pollution is a function of waste. The more waste you produce, the less efficient you are.”

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It’s obviously a strange time to be having conversations about offices and energy, with music industry staff in many parts of the world still working from home due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

For some companies – Spotify this week for example – this is triggering longer-term changes in their policies around remote working. Jbara said he hoped this moment might also be a spur for change in the offices that people *are* going to go back to, once the pandemic is under control.

The discussion shifted towards artists, and the role they might play both in tackling their emissions (particularly once they are back on tour) and inspiring fans to engage with climate issues and make changes in their own lives.

“We absolutely have folks who care deeply, and we probably haven’t equipped artists with all of the tools to talk beyond just the personal experience into how maybe their companies or their labels or their studios and their engineers could be doing things,” suggested Jbara.

He’s keen for music industry conferences to make the climate emergency a standard strand of their programming: a regular chance to share case studies and check on progress. “It impacts everything we’re doing.”

Hershkowitz returned to the overriding priority. “We have to get off fossil fuels. There’s a lot of individual things… nothing is too small to matter, everything has to be looked at,” he said.

“That being said, the big picture is we’ve got to get off fossil fuels. We’ve got to stop burning fossil fuels for transportation, we’ve got to stop burning fossil fuels for energy production.”

“We’ve got to shift to renewable sources. If at the end of the day it results in some kind of flame, you don’t want that fuel… So when you’re producing music, get your power from renewable sources. Tell your local utility you want it to come from renewable energy sources.”

What about the environmental impact of the way people listen to music? There is a lively debate about streaming on this score, for example, with the emissions from storing and distributing music for hundreds of millions of people globally.

Jbara cited the Vilvit project as an example of innovation here, with its ambition to build central repositories of recorded music for streaming services to use, rather than each hosting their own catalogues.

He warned that any moves to make the digital music ecosystem more sustainable cannot come at the expense of the quality of the experience for listeners, however.

“We shouldn’t kid ourselves that we’re going to get consumers comfortable with less, meaning experiences getting worse, quality getting worse. Music, more than ever we need to be innovating faster and creating more experiences, because frankly we’re competing with other entertainment categories that have historically outflanked us,” he said.

“We need to be innovating in every step of the chain. We need to find the opportunities where we can. Transportation and electricity production are the two biggest categories of greenhouse gas emissions. Every person watching and listening to this [the show] in the industry has a role in that.”

Beyond streaming, this extends to work-related travel – “what is going to force us to jump back into airplanes or cars to travel, when we’ve learned how not to?” – as well as touring. “It’s about breaking down the ways and means where the music industry is an emitter.”

“Everybody that is making an energy demand in the music industry should identify opportunities for shifting towards renewable,” agreed Hershkowitz, with a particular message for company leaders about supporting change from the top.

“If they say this matters to them, then the institution moves in that direction. But remember, the ruthlessness of the market does not go away because you have good intentions, so we have to outcompete the bad stuff.”

Making the case for sustainability as a way to outcompete rivals who don’t make it a priority is key to that, and was a strand that Hershkowitz and Jbara returned to as their segment of the show drew to a close.

“Investors are increasingly looking that the companies they invest in are environmentally responsible. People do not want to invest in or be associated with companies that are killing tigers and raising the temperature of the climate!” said Hershkowitz, adding that in a growing number of countries, regulators are also requiring companies to include environmental liabilities in their reports.

He thinks that young people will play a crucial role in nudging companies down the right path, however. “The climate movement in particular is being led by young people… They are assuming companies are environmentally responsible, and if they find out that you’re not, they’re shocked,” he said.

“And remember, the most visible person in the global climate movement right now in the world is a 17 year old girl. Extinction Rebellion or Sunrise Movement or 350.org: these are organisations that are run by young people, and these are the consumers.”

Pressure from this quarter, along with the business case, is what Hershkowitz and Jbara hope will inspire the music industry’s sustainability efforts.

“If you’re wasting energy, you’re burning up money. If you’re wasting water, you’re burning up money. If you’re throwing away more waste that has to be managed, you’re wasting your money,” was Hershkowitz’s parting shot. “Remember: nature is the ultimate source of all economic value.”

The show’s next guest was Chiara Badiali, knowledge and sector intelligence lead at Julie’s Bicycle. You can read our report on that segment here.

Photo by Callum Shaw on Unsplash

Stuart Dredge

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