Dance Music: Eco Friendly?

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It wasn’t long ago that global-warming “alarmist” Al Gore was mocked as “Owl” Gore or Ozone Man by his Republican opponents. It’s a sign of how much popular culture has embraced the environmental issue that Gore, this year’s Nobel Peace Prize recipient, is basking in adoration that would make Bono jealous, while our current President is derided for his anti-environmental stance. Responsibility for the environment is now part of economic and social debates, a trendy topic rather than a fringe concern. According to Brian Allenby, operations manager at Reverb, a company that helps musicians and labels adopt sustainable practices, a “paradigm shift” has occurred in recent years.

“It’s not just early adopters who care,” he says. “People are looking for answers. While people aren’t going to change if it doesn’t make financial sense, it’s finally starting to point towards profit.”

One of the dance-music community’s first to take action is Richie Hawtin, whose Minus label recently announced its own green initiative that includes using sustainable packaging, pushing digital distribution, and buying carbon-offset credits for artist travel through the Berlin-based company Atmosfair.

Electronic music, with its history of repurposing technology and imagining utopian futures, is naturally at the vanguard of change. But can serious environmental concerns really be reconciled with the genre’s hedonistic side–and the sizable carbon footprint left by jet-setting DJs and fans traveling great distances to attend festivals? Jet travel is the quickest-rising source of air pollution in the world, according to British environmental journalist George Monbiot. And, as Hawtin points out, the Rolling Stones are on the road for a few months, while DJs fly around the world year-round.

Even lauded environmentalists like producer Matthew Herbert, who has repeatedly addressed environmental issues and severely limits his own flights, sees the contradictions in his own lifestyle.

“If you wanted to pick my life apart in ethical terms,” says Herbert, “you could have a field day. While making music with supposedly environmental messages, I use a massive vintage mixing board that requires several power supplies.”

Herbert’s intricately sourced music, filled with hidden connections and unknown causes, is itself a metaphor for the environmental quandary. Even seemingly benign actions have a consequence–pollution from my flight to Ibiza causes the global warming that may someday destroy the island’s beaches–and something we enjoy, like his track, may have a sinister source.

“You start to unravel things and it all falls apart,” he says. “That’s the point that I want to make with my music. You tug on this loose thread, and it reveals itself.”

But criticizing the first small steps for not being dramatic enough shouldn’t diminish their importance, and the lack of a complete solution shouldn’t overshadow positive changes. Allenby is often asked if “green” concerts ultimately promote an unsustainable practice. “The shows will happen anyways,” he says. “We’d rather they be green and spread the right message.”

As Hawtin notes, this is only the beginning. As more labels, artists, and booking agents commit to eco-conscious practices, the more cost-effective and practical solutions will become. Those first steps, and constant advocacy, should become catalysts for sober analysis and serious collaborative efforts to change.

“One of the most important jobs of musicians is to tell stories,” says Herbert. “The war and climate change are the most amazing stories of our times, and the stories are being told by corporate media with agendas. I’m not sure why musicians [still] sing about the same [old] things.”