Sounds of Sustainability: How the Music Industry Is Tackling Climate Change

A primary goal of Music Sustainability Alliance is to bring the music industry together as a unified whole to do its part in saving a warming planet

By Karen Peterson | From the May-June 2024 issue of Strings Magazine

An atmospheric river of rain was battering Southern California in February of this year, with forecasters warning of life-threatening flash flooding. Only a few days earlier, the Los Angeles Times reported that the storms causing the havoc were being supercharged by a deadly combination of two excessive rain-producing events, El Niño, a Pacific Ocean weather pattern, and climate change.

Despite this deluge, 300-plus people traveled to the Novo Theater in Los Angeles’s L.A. Live entertainment complex to plot next steps in a historic mission: How the music industry—a monolith of power and creativity valued at $31 billion globally—could do its part in saving a warming planet through the organizing efforts of the newly founded Music Sustainability Alliance (MSA).

“I think it was the most rain in L.A. in a single day in I don’t know how many years, and everyone showed up, and everyone stayed,” says co-founder and MSA president, Amy Morrison. The event was MSA’s first North American Climate Summit. Going forward, it will be held annually on the day after the Grammy Awards. This year’s focus was on forming working groups to address myriad concerns, from eliminating plastic and serving plant-based food at venues to reducing greenhouse gas emissions produced by tours and concert halls.

“The conversation was vibrant and lively, and people paid attention to the panelists,” says a still-delighted Morrison, a live music and touring executive. “What we discovered is that we are not alone. There is community around sustainability. The tentacles are long.”

A primary goal of MSA is to bring the music industry together as a unified whole, ignoring the inherent competition that drives success. An example that Morrison applauds as proof of concept: the announcement last winter at the UN Climate Summit in Dubai that mega-producers Sony Music, Universal Music Group, and Warner Music Group have formed the Music Industry Climate Collective. Its mission is to track and reduce music’s carbon-heavy footprint.

While there are no figures yet for the full carbon impact of the US music industry, a UK study found that the industry there, as a whole, emits 540,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually, three-quarters of which come from live performances. That’s the equivalent of the energy emissions of 60,000 households.

The interior of David Geffen Hall with LED lighting
David Geffen Hall. Photo: Michael Moran – Cortex – NY Phil

From Rock to Rachmaninoff, the Message Is Sustainability

As the country eased its way back from the pandemic and into post-Covid activities like in-person concerts, it became apparent that climate change was not existential—it was tangible. Billboard magazine listed, by month, 30 concerts canceled due to extreme heat in 2023, the hottest year on record. A fan died from heat exposure during Taylor Swift’s Brazilian tour this past November, spring in South America.


Advertisement


Heather Noonan, vice president for advocacy at the League of American Orchestras (LAO), attended the MSA summit. “I was very excited to be there purely as a learner,” says Noonan. “And it was exciting to see how much momentum there is from leaders in the field. There’s real potential for [this effort] to continue to scale.”

The LAO is not a stranger to issues of sustainability. It is deeply involved in global efforts to protect endangered woods, like African rosewood and pernambuco, and it is active in monitoring illegal international trade in endangered materials, such as ivory and tortoise shell.

The desire to do more for the climate was made abundantly clear when LAO held its first in-person conference as the US emerged from isolation. “You can imagine the number of pressing topics we had to discuss,” says Noonan. “But what’s really significant is that when we came together, the talk was about environmental sustainability.” Shortly after, LAO partnered with UK-based Julie’s Bicycle, an influential nonprofit founded in 2007 to advise the music-and-arts world on sustainability and advocate for policy issues affecting climate resilience and justice.

The UK and European countries in general have made measurable strides in sustainability. London has pledged that the Royal Opera House will be “net zero” in its energy usage by 2035. Europe’s climate activists were especially pleased when the opera dropped longtime sponsor BP, the British oil and gas giant, in an act of fossil fuel divestment.

La Scala in Milan has switched to energy-efficient LED lighting, and its offices are soon to be powered by clean solar and geothermal energy. The Sydney Opera House built an artificial reef adjacent to the waterside complex to help revitalize the harbor, an example of environmental sustainability. At the Opéra Bastille in Paris, the rooftop is a “farm,” properly an “agroecology” project, that helps insulate the building while providing fresh fruit and vegetables for employees and the public. 

Davies Symphony Hall solar panels
Davies Symphony Hall solar panels, Photo: Davies Symphony Hall – Sean-Johnson

Green and Clean from Coast to Coast

In the US, only “a fraction” of LSO’s members own and operate their own buildings, and those who do tend to adopt solar and LED lighting as first steps in sustainable upgrades, says Noonan. In the Southwest, plagued by drought, orchestras are adding water-saving technologies in restrooms and for landscaping. Recycling and programs to reduce paper waste and plastic use are commonplace in venues and administration buildings.


Advertisement


New York’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and the buildings on its 16 acres are fueled completely by renewable energy, according to the center, which gives it “100 Percent Green Power User” status by the Environmental Protection Agency. Roofs on some buildings are energy-saving reflective, or “cool” rooftops; the recent renovation of David Geffen Hall includes LED lighting throughout. There are 88 trees on the grounds as respite from the concrete “urban heat island” that is Manhattan.

In San Francisco, the War Memorial Opera House is solar-powered and additional panels have been added to those already powering Davies Symphony Hall. In 2021, the minimalist composer Terry Riley played his In C composition on a toy piano snuggled between the rows of rooftop panels.

The Phoenix Orchestra benefited from a recent $618 million renovation of the city’s civic plaza and symphony hall. Water use has been cut by 42 percent for potable use and 56 percent for irrigation thanks to water-saving technologies, the orchestra reports.

At the outdoor Santa Fe Opera, where the grand New Mexico landscape is the backdrop, solar energy powers the operations and the buildings. The grounds have innovative rainwater harvesting systems that drain the rain from summer thunderstorms into underground cisterns, which then supplements irrigation in the dry months.


Advertisement


San Diego's Rady Shell at Jacobs Park-Courtesy of the san diego symphony
San Diego’s Rady Shell at Jacobs Park. Courtesy of the San Diego Symphony.

San Diego Rises to the Challenge

It’s not easy being green when you’re an existing, often vintage building. As New York architect and writer James Russell reminds me in our conversation, concert halls are built for the acoustics, period. HVAC equipment, fans for circulation, basically anything mechanical that hums can degrade sound quality. Renovations are delicate matters—and expensive. A UK survey by the Theatre Trust found that climate-friendly changes in buildings there would cost around $1.2 billion (US).

The results are different when starting from scratch. Completed in 2021, the Rady Shell at Jacobs Park along San Diego Bay is a model of sustainability. The summer home of the San Diego Symphony—a public park the rest of the year—the outdoor venue, with its showcase proscenium-style white shell where the orchestra plays, was built in concert with the Port of San Diego and the California Coastal Commission. 

The list of energy conservation, wildlife habitat preservation, and “reduce, reuse, and recycle” efforts is impressive and in keeping with the City of San Diego’s Climate Action Plan, approved in 2022. “We even have specific rules to make sure the lighting here doesn’t impact migrating birds,” says Laura Reynolds, vice president of impact and innovation, as she highlights the features and steps taken to date to create a public space with a sustainable future. Work hasn’t ended. Upcoming is a carbon-footprint audit to determine next steps.

“Climate change is one of the biggest issues facing humanity,” says Reynolds. “And it’s an issue that’s incredibly overwhelming to figure out. How can one person or one organization make a dent in the kinds of changes that we need?”

In one regard, that is a question best answered by musicians. “How do we get better at anything?” she asks. “How do we change anything? By developing habits—and practicing.”