The bands taking a stand against climate change: can we save the world with music?

Global warming is a thorny subject for the music industry, which has become increasingly reliant on gigs and global travel since album sales plummeted

SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 23:  Jonny Buckland, Will Champion, Chris Martin and  Guy Berryman of Coldplay perform on stage at CenturyLink Field on September 23, 2017 in Seattle, Washington.  (Photo by Mat Hayward/Getty Images)
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On the surface, the bands Coldplay and Massive Attack do not have a huge amount in common. Chris ­Martin’s quartet make smiley, euphoric indie-pop, while the Bristol trip-hoppers prefer a darker, more ominous sound. You cannot imagine them ­touring together, but they do now share a rare bond: both have recently become flightless bands.

They will certainly be flying less, anyway. Late last month, Massive Attack announced that their 2020 European tour will happen by train, rather than plane, to limit their carbon footprint. That follows ­Coldplay suspending their global jaunt indefinitely, until they find a more sustainable solution. "We've done a lot of big tours at this point," said Coldplay's Martin at the time. "How do we turn it around so it's not so much taking as giving?"

That noble stance has yet to inspire a flood of similar announcements, however. Global warming is a thorny subject for the music industry, which has become increasingly reliant on gigs and global travel since album sales plummeted. If your favourite star is oddly quiet about climate change, they may be treading carefully due to a large carbon footprint. Spouting spurious green ­credentials can cause embarrassment: note the online hilarity after designer Stella McCartney lauded actor ­Joaquin Phoenix as an eco-­hero for reusing his tuxedo.

BUNBURY, AUSTRALIA - May 11: Jack River performs on stage at Groovin The Moo 2019 on May 11, 2019 in Bunbury, Australia. (Photo by Matt Jelonek/WireImage)
Jack River is one of Australia’s major new singer-songwriters, and a significant eco voice. WireImage

There are popular musicians making a stand, though, around the world. The ­appropriately named Jack River – real name Holly Rankin – is one of Australia's major new singer-songwriters and a significant eco voice. River runs an annual event called the Grow Your Own Festival, which supports "local, sustainable culture", while her solo career is actively green. In June, she hosted a live discussion with climate experts before a gig in Sydney. Widespread change will take time, though.

“If we were to scold artists for touring, we would cripple the entire music industry,” says River. “Coldplay and Massive Attack are in a financial ­position to reduce travel, but thousands of bands out there rely on shows in other ­territories to make ends meet.

“However, I do believe that all artists can immediately explore more efficient touring routes, offset tours as soon as it’s financially possible and, of course, encourage all venues and festivals to take action.”

While Coldplay explore sustainable shows, Massive Attack are also aiding research: they have donated four years of gigging data to the University of Manchester for a study of bands' touring emissions. Those findings should emerge this summer.

CULVER CITY, CA - SEPTEMBER 22:  Annie Hart attends the screening of "Banana Split" during the 2018 LA Film Festival at ArcLight Culver City on September 22, 2018 in Culver City, California.  (Photo by Jerod Harris/Getty Images for Film Independent)
Annie Hart is best-known as one-third of Au Revoir Simone, but recently teamed up with the charity Oxfam for a solo single. Getty Images

Small improvements are important, too. Annie Hart is best-known as one-third of the Brooklyn indie-poppers Au Revoir Simone, but recently teamed up with the charity Oxfam for a splendid solo single: Longing to Care Less. "The whole song is about me trying to control global warming through my small actions," says Hart, who mentions ­energy-saving and cycling, "all the while hearing planes landing at LaGuardia flying overhead every five minutes".

Flights are necessary for her career, too, but “I generally ­donate a quarter to a third of the ticket price of a flight to The Nature Conservancy or Earthjustice, to get some trees planted and habitat conserved”, she explains. Those trips can also spread awareness.

"If you use your influence while touring to encourage people to make concrete ­choices against climate change, hopefully that more than offsets your own personal use," Hart says. "Because we make much bigger strides with collective action and musicians can reach a lot of people."

British Trip-Hop band "Massive Attack" performs on the main stage at the Big Chill festival near Ledbury in Herefordshire on August 6, 2010.  Running from the 5th to the 8th of August, the festival features some of the more popular bands and musicians from the underground music scene as well as more established acts such as Lily Allen and Massive Attack.      AFP PHOTO/Leon Neal (Photo by LEON NEAL / AFP)
Massive Attack announced that their 2020 European tour will happen by train, rather than plane, to limit their carbon footprint. AFP

One artist enthusiastically taking that route is Hart’s compatriot, Billie Eilish. The teenage superstar’s world tour from March will turn each venue green, bringing in recycling bins, plastic bans, and – ­intriguingly – a travelling eco-village, where fans can further explore ­climate issues.

You may wonder if that eco-village will drain resources, too, but Eilish is working with an organisation called Reverb to make her tour ­sustainable, and similar ­bodies are ­emerging worldwide. In the UK, Fay Milton from punk band Savages has co-founded Music Declares Emergency, which encourages the industry to be louder on climate issues. Meanwhile, the aforementioned River works with Feat (Future Energy Artists), which enables artists to offset their energy use, by investing in solar farms.

Feat was founded by Heidi Lenffer, keyboardist with the (also aptly named) band Cloud Control. She green-lit a study of their carbon footprint, and discovered that one two-week national tour was equivalent to an average household's ­emissions for a whole year. That lead to Feat, which launched last June. River signed up and meets Lenffer regularly to discuss how artists can contribute to "the shift toward renewable energy, progressive climate action and – most importantly – understanding the position we are in. And helping our audiences understand, too."

Another way to do that is to write something resonant; powerful songs can really help spread the word. River's 2018 track Constellation Ball "is about the planet," she explains. "It flowed naturally, and I was so thankful for that; I can't force it."

In the UK, popular indie band The 1975 have been ­particularly vocal about ­climate change, and secured the ultimate guest for the opening track of their new album – teenage activist Greta Thunberg. She calls for an uprising, over a rainfall-like piano backing: "There are no grey areas," she solemnly intones, "when it comes to survival."

In Canada, meanwhile, dance-pop star Grimes is working on an album that will "make climate change fun," she revealed last year, and hopes to raise awareness by mocking the ongoing debate. Celebrity pronouncements can sound preachy, so humour is an intriguing tactic.

That was certainly Hart's ­approach, with the video for her aforementioned eco ­single. It begins with the artist watching the ­documentary An Inconvenient Truth, then marching off to busk in stations and streets, behind a keyboard and a cardboard sign: "Raising money to fight climate change." It's fun, but is then followed by a slogan, "Nothing will change unless we act together," over images of icy landscapes, under threat.

"I thought I could do my part as a creator of culture by normalising the issue," she ­explains. "The more we create an avalanche of loud voices calling attention to the issue, the more likely it is that something will get done." Sometimes that avalanche includes cool songs, too. Even the darkest clouds have a silver lining.