The Urgent Need for a Sustainable Music Industry – and the Innovations that Make it Possible

Every month this year has been the hottest in recorded history. Our weather is getting increasingly unpredictable, leading to more storms and floods in some areas and extreme droughts and forest fires in others.

The importance of selling music, or solving problems in the music business, pales in comparison with these issues.

However, these are not separate. We are the environment and our actions affect it. You can bet that last century’s vast record distribution networks made an important contribution to our CO2 output.

Can you guess how much of the CO2 footprint of a CD purchase comes from the ride between the consumer’s home and retail outlet?


Bit more.

Try something like 20-30%.


Still wrong.

It’s 50%.

CO2 cost of music sales
Comparison of six album purchase scenarios in GHG emissions (g CO2/album). Error bars represent 90% credible intervals from Monte Carlo analysis. (Source: Microsoft, Intel)

The good news is that consuming music digitally reduces the CO2 footprint of that music by 40-80%. So, sure, the decline of the CD brought a decrease in revenues for the overall music industry, but at least we get a less tangible benefit in return. And the industry appears to be recovering.

In economics, there is a concept called negative externalities which is defined as “economic activity that imposes a negative effect on an unrelated third party.” Take the CD trade as an example. It imposed a large negative effect on consumers, since the taxes levied around transportation do not raise enough money to reverse the effects of the associated CO2 output.

There are many remaining negative externalities in the music business, but technological innovation can help alleviate problems. It’s in our economic interest to care about these negative externalities. If we can prevent scenarios with cataclysmic weather events, consumers might be a little more relaxed to go see a gig, buy some merch, and spend money on music instead of sand bags to protect their house against a flood. I’m not exaggerating: floods in US coastal cities have more than doubled since the 1980s.


As highlighted before, transportation is one of the biggest contributors to CO2 output. What can we do besides driving hybrids or environment-‘friendly’ trucks?

The commute to the studio

Democratized means of production, such as production software and more affordable high quality digital equipment, have reduced the need for regular commutes to the studio. Studios may still be a necessity due to acoustics, sound isolation and for recording purposes, but you don’t need them every step of the way.

Bedroom producers are polar bears’ best friends.

Hawaiian polar bear

The commute to the office

What goes for musicians, definitely goes for most people with office jobs in the music business. If you want to be a sustainable company in this day and age, encourage everyone who’s able to, to work from (close to) home at least 1-2 days a week.

Dancing alone in the office
Less people in the office increases your chances of being able to blast your favourite tunes through the office sound system.

VR and concerts

Perhaps the biggest contributors to the industry’s carbon emissions are live touring and festivals. They require equipment to be shipped, band members to be flown, and fans to be congregated. In the UK, audience travel is estimated to account for 43% of the industry’s gas emissions. The rise of electronic dance music and hiphop have helped to reduce the amount of equipment, and band members, being flown around. Virtual reality could be a next step.

While VR won’t replace the concert experience, it will offer a new competing experience. Being able to host virtual performances for fans worldwide, at a much lower cost, won’t just help reduce emissions, but can also alleviate some of the stress that a lifestyle of always being on tour entails. There has been much attention for mental health in music recently: perhaps VR can help?

VR concert

VR, band practice and collaboration

Another reason why people come together a lot is for practice and collaboration. What if you could work together in a virtual environment, from the comfort of your homes? What if that virtual environment replicated a normal practice studio perfectly? What if that virtual environment could provide an experience richer, especially in terms of features, than a real world place?

Merch, 3D Printing, and distributed manufacturing

Another big cost to the industry, consumer, and environment: shipping merchandise. And let’s think beyond just the t-shirts. Some artists ship in large quantities, but most don’t have the scale to mass-produce. They produce small batches, and then ship them around the world from where they live. It would arrive at your home or a local pick-up point. What if instead, you order something, it’s produced at the nearest 3D printer and you can pick it up from there. Not only are there less emissions involved, but it might be faster too. There are still questions about whether the amount of energy required offsets the carbon emissions, particularly for mass production, but some printers are performing great.

Services like 3D Hubs are already providing over 1 billion people with access to 3D printers within 10 miles from their home.

Developments in commercial flight

Even if we don’t do anything, technology is being developed to make flight a lot cleaner. Biofuels may reduce carbon emissions by 36-85%. Longer term, lithium-ion batteries may allow for solar-powered flight. We’re not quite there yet, but as can be seen in the video below, Elon Musk is optimistic that it’s doable.


Now let’s tackle the impact of producing some of the equipment necessary for making music. Some instruments get resold, recycled, or re-used. A lot of hardware doesn’t, though. According to a UN study, only 15.5% of ‘e-waste’ gets recycled.

Furthermore, there is a lot of unused value sitting inside communities.

Self-driving vehicles promise to reduce the amount of cars we need to manufacture. Why? Because our cars are standing still 95% of the time. If cars are automated and shared, one car could service many more people on a day than it would normally do in a month.

Likewise, a lot of instruments and equipment go unused for vast amounts of time. What if there was a way to share this value with other musicians in your community? Think Airbnb for music equipment, which includes insurance. A startup called Demooz lets you borrow things to try before you buy. A startup with a broader use case, Peerby, lets you lend to and borrow from your neighbours. For free, or you can charge a fee.

So, maybe you don’t have to go to the studio to use a good microphone and there is also no necessity for everyone to own all of the equipment they might need either.

Why spend money when you can be like Kramer?

Festivals & events

A lot of festivals are powered by diesel generators, costing around half a billion euros each year, just in Europe. As much as three quarters of the UK music industry’s greenhouse gas emissions come from live performances.

Tents get left behind, a lot of water is used to clean, and cars queue up for hours to get into parking lots.

One of the most interesting music-related startup accelerators has to be Open-House. They look at how events can be made more efficient, but also how festivals can be used as a case study for how we organise humanitarian aid, or solving other societal issues.

Their startups include Kartent, a recyclable cardboard tent, Sanitrax, which makes the toilet experience more efficient, and Watt-Now, an energy monitoring system for festivals.

Each year, Amsterdam Dance Event organises a full day of presentations, panels and discussions about sustainability in events and dance music, called ADE Green. Other conferences should take note.


Music industry events used to be the only way to handle business for a lot of people. Now, with fast communication, video calls, etc. that aspect has lost its importance. Even for networking, Slack channels like the Music Tech Network or good old Twitter might be a n easier way to get in touch with relevant people, and especially more CO2 efficient. Sure, online networking doesn’t build the same trust relation as meeting face to face does, but collaboration does – and with such vast arsenals of tools at our disposal for online collaboration, there has never been a better chance to involve people from around the world in your projects.

And if you’re going to organise a conference that flies in a lot of people – at least dedicate some time to sustainability.

Using music to inspire

Music is powerful. When people come to a festival, for many, it will be an experience they’ll never forget.

Music is part of everyone’s life. From Fortune 500 CEO to high school student, from plumber to engineer.

This gives us a unique position. We get to dictate the standard. We get to influence what is ‘cool’, and what should be considered normal.

Consider a large-scale, ‘green’ festival, such as the UK’s Shambala. Implementing these solutions has a ripple effect.

Music has the power to inspire movements and new societal norms. It can ignite revolutions.

Let’s use music’s power to inspire people to build a greener world.


Extra resources

If you want to make the music business more sustainable, here are some amazing sets of resources to help you on your way.

  • Julie’s Bicycle: a global charity dedicated to making the creative industries sustainable. They have a vast set of resources ranging from guides, to fact sheets, and webinars.
  • Ouishare: a collaborative economy initiative that does research, connects people together, and shares advice and insight into how sharing can make us more resource efficient.