Sustainable Music


Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Musical Sustainability, Permaculture, and the Democratization of American Folk Music

     Musical sustainability strategies are best off when nurturing the cultural soil. On this blog in 2009 I explained that meant “to concentrate efforts in musical and cultural sustainability on improving the conditions that give a life to traditional music and expressive culture, rather than simply targeting endangered musical cultures for support, as UNESCO (the major institution involved in cultural sustainability throughout the world) has been doing in its efforts to safeguard intangible cultural heritage.” I picked up on the same analogy in a paper delivered to the American Folklore Society in 2010, “Reconciling Ecology and Economy by means of ‘Nature’s Economy,’” published on this blog: “From organic agriculture to culture, apply the principle ‘Feed the soil, not the plant.’ Do not intervene to bolster specific expressive cultural genres—these will come and go naturally, and today in the internet age all are capable of staying in one form or another. Direct support to the social, political, and economic conditions or the cultural soil under which expressive cultures flourish and upon which they depend.”
The Land Institute: Research Plots on the Kansas Prairie
     Rather than discuss how scholars and practitioners have adopted and integrated that principle into their work in public folklore and applied ethnomusicology, I would like to trace one its sources, one that I didn’t fully acknowledge in my earlier writings: the work of Wes Jackson and The Land Institute. Jackson’s insights did not come from organic farming, as mine did, but I was aware of his radical agricultural work. A biologist and a professor in California, in 1979 he was struck by the ways in which industrial agriculture had all but destroyed the prairie ecosystem in his native Kansas, replacing it either with crop monocultures (corn, soybeans, wheat) or overusing it for cattle grazing. Overgrazing combined with weather events had destroyed and eroded much of the prairie land. Crop monocultures had replaced the original prairie ecosystem with an intensive agriculture on virtually all the arable land, one that required enormous amounts of energy to keep it going, all while the new ecosystem had to depend for life support upon chemical fertilizers and pesticides which destroyed the natural ecosystem and substituted an artificial one for it.
     In the next few years, Jackson developed a vision of a different kind of agriculture for the Kansas prairie, one based in principles of permaculture. Jackson wanted to restore the mixed perennial climaxed ecosystem that had been natural to that region prior to the arrival of industrial agriculture. But in addition, he wanted to find perennial crops that would grow in fields that would constitute agricultural patches within the surrounding prairie, a different agriculture and one that would be compatible with the prairie ecosystem. These would be perennial grains and legumes that would feed animals and humans. Once established along with companion plantings for mutual benefit, they would grow without need for much care until harvest. They would not need chemical fertilizers or pesticides, and they would not deplete the soil—rather, the legumes by gathering nitrogen from the air and moving it to their roots would enrich the soil. The grains and legumes would not need replanting every year, the way monoculture crops did.
     In 1981, in a lecture he presented to the Schumacher Society, he outlined his vision: “Our current agricultural system, which features annuals in information-poor monoculture, is nearly the opposite of the original prairie or forest, which features mixtures of perennials. If we could build domestic prairies, we might one day be able to have high-yielding fields that are planted, say, only once every twenty years or so. There would be mostly harvest after establishment, and from then on we would be counting on the species diversity that breeds dependable chemistry.” In the nearly 40 years since he founded it, The Land Institute has searched throughout the world for perennial grains and legumes that could be bred (by traditional methods and without genetic modification) for food production. Perennial grasses do exist, and animals feed on them; but they are not as high-yielding as they would need to be for human use, nor do they have the characteristics that humans want and need for their traditional uses as grains in food. If, for example, they are ground into flour, the flour needs to be able to work properly in breads, oatmeal and other cereals, and so forth. Jackson did not expect to solve these problems quickly and, indeed, it has taken all this time to find and develop a few promising perennial crops. One is the grain they are calling kernza; another is a potential substitute for soy, a plant in the sunflower family called silphium integrifolium. 
Kernza, courtesy of The Land Institute
Kernza grows successfully mixed into the prairie ecosystem, but its yields are not yet high enough. The sunflower plant is in an earlier stage of development, while they are still looking to identify potential species of legume crops for the mixtures of perennials that they want to introduce on a larger scale. Kernza is already being used in brewing craft beers, and The Land Institute is making seed available for farmers to test in other ecosystems besides the prairie, to see if it may be viable there. If I were twenty years younger I would plant a test area here on this island in East Penobscot Bay, where the natural ecosystem is a transitional area from deciduous to boreal forest. Meanwhile I’ll be in touch with the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association to learn if anyone is testing kernza in the state of Maine.
     The analogy between what Jackson has done, and musical sustainability, appears at first glance not to extend to methods in which perennial musics, so to speak, are found and developed and then introduced into the music culture in order to feed, as it were, the cultural soil. But on further reflection, this is what happened in the last century when American folk and traditional music gradually democratized to embody the nation’s cultural diversity and pluralism. In the first half of the century, the musical landscape consisted chiefly of popular and classical music. Folk music was thought to be chiefly Anglo-American, with ballads (particularly the canonic Child Ballads) the highest achievement. You could find lyrics to “Sir Patrick Spens” and other Child ballads in the American literature anthologies that high school and college students studied from. Negro spirituals also were recognized as major achievements. Efforts had been underway, though, to broaden the canon. 

Collections of folk music published in books by John and Alan Lomax, and by Carl Sandburg, were popular among the middle classes who wanted to sing folksongs in church, school, or home. African American worksongs, and blues, were included, as well as occupational and regional songs such as cowboy songs, and songs from various European immigrant groups. The folk music revival of the 1950s popularized blues further, while a few Jewish and Israeli songs (e.g., the Weavers’ hit song “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena”) were added to the mix, making it possible for folksingers like Theodore Bikel to entertain audiences with Yiddish, Hebrew and other songs, and for Pete Seeger to broaden his concert repertoire to include some African and Latin American songs.
     Arguably this musical democratization through diversity and cultural pluralism reached a climax in the 1976 American bicentennial, with at least two major events that cemented its legitimacy. One was the series of New World recordings. New World was funded by The Rockefeller Foundation to produce 100 albums of music representing not only classical music but also the music cultures of a great variety of ethnic groups. Of course this was not the first of these recording series—Folkways Records had presented music from a culturally and regionally diverse nation for thirty years beforehand—but as this series of recordings began to appear on LPs in every major public, college, and university library in 1976 and the few years to follow, it became a part of public culture in a way that it hadn’t before. The second major event was the 1976 Smithsonian Festival of American Folk Music (as it was called then), which took place on the Mall in Washington, DC, for the unprecedented period of two summer months, in which musics from various cultural groups and regions throughout the United States were presented, and in addition many were coupled with their sources and counterparts in a section of the festival called Old Ways in the New World. Musicians from Europe, Asia, and elsewhere were brought to the United States where they mingled with their American musical cousins and where connections between these musics were highlighted—and where some additional connections were discovered. I was fortunate to work at this festival as a presenter, and to experience some of it firsthand.
    I will have more to say about festivals and the movement toward a United States that recognizes cultural pluralism and diversity in future posts. Revisiting this movement, its fight for legitimacy, the ways it has been critiqued, and where it stands today in the so-called culture wars of American democracy, seems timely and appropriate.


Monday, November 4, 2019

Nested Sustainabilities and the US Withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement

     Today US President Donald J. Trump put in motion the Nation's withdrawal from the Paris Climate accords. Musical and cultural sustainability depends on sustainability of the Earth no less than does economic activity, a lesson that ecological economists understand whereas the neoclassical economists that run the US economy do not. In announcing the withdrawal, Secretary of State Pompeo justified the withdrawal on the grounds that the Paris agreement was bad for the US economy, never mind whether it might have been good for the Earth and the nations of the world as a whole.
       As reported, his justification advanced no propaganda against the climate science consensus, because this rationalization was unnecessary. It was purely an economic decision, based on narrow self-interest and incorrect knowledge of how dependent national economies are on global commerce and the Earth's resources. The nation's isolationist economic policies are reminiscent of mercantilism. The withdrawal decision illustrates "economic man" acting on a national level. Adam Smith believed that individuals acting in their narrow economic self-interest resulted in a more prosperous economy for all because competition and the marketplace acted as an "invisible hand" to ensure a good  outcome for all. The rising tide would lift all boats. Never mind that some boats were larger than others and would grow faster. But just as narrow national self interest led to centuries of conflict and war in international politics, so in economics the result was the exploitation of the Earth's natural abundance. Now the Earth is paying us back in the currency of mass extinctions and climate change. There is no invisible hand to ensure a good outcome for the Earth and all its creatures, including humans.
       Even though the Paris accords targets are insufficient to do more than slow down the climate emergency train wreck, as a step in the right direction they could have led to more and larger steps. The withdrawal of the world's largest economy will cripple those accords and the chance to do more to mitigate the worst of the climate dangers on the horizon. Given the US' withdrawal, it will be more difficult for other world leaders to keep their nations in the Paris agreement, as well. But US withdrawal is not a foregone conclusion. The US is set to withdraw officially on Nov. 4, 2020--one day after the next US Presidential election.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Music's Carbon Footprint (2)

        I've been thinking more about music's carbon footprint, and in doing so this month I prepared a short essay for possible publication on the subject. Corrections and suggestions are invited:

Music’s Contribution to Global Warming

            How much does music contribute to global heating? If ethnomusicologists are to contribute our understandings of people making music to discussions surrounding carbon emissions, greenhouse gases, and the climate emergency, it would be useful to know at the outset how much all the activities surrounding music production, delivery, and consumption contribute to the overall emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs) that have been heating the Planet.
            In the preindustrial era, of course, musical activities did almost nothing to raise global temperatures. Musical activities made a larger contribution to GHG output and climate change during the industrial, mass consumption era. Musical instrument and sheet music distribution, radio, recordings and television utilized energy resources on a larger scale, as did the shift to electronically amplified instruments. Ironically, in our post-industrial era, the delivery and consumption of music via the internet requires more energy than the manufacture, distribution and consumption of music on vinyl records, cassettes, and CDs did during their years of peak use (Brennan and Devine 2019).
Music GHG statistics are few and far between; much more research needs doing, but on the face of it musical activities contribute a very small proportion of greenhouse gas emissions to the world’s total. We do have reliable GHG estimates for all musical activities in the UK in 2009. We also have them for recorded music in the US from 1977-2016. With US figures adjusted upwards to include live performances, in 2009 the musical activities in the UK and US accounted for about 3 million of the then-total 48 billion tonnes of GHG emissions, or .00625%, a miniscule amount.[1] Extrapolating from the UK and US to the rest of the world, the contribution of the music industry overall in 2009 is unlikely to have exceeded .02% or two-hundredths of one percent; still seemingly insignificant. When only 90 corporations, the vast majority being fossil fuel producers such as Exxon and state entities such as GAZPROM (Russian Federation) and Aramco (Saudi Arabia), contribute more than 70% of GHGs annually (Heede 2014), one wonders whether ethnomusicologists’ time wouldn’t be better spent in convincing our institutions to divest from fossil fuels than in encouraging the music industry to reduce GHGs.  Here’s a more optimistic way to think about it: the US music industry contributes almost as much to the US’ annual gross domestic product (GDP) as the automobile industry.[2] Everyone knows that the auto industry is moving, however slowly, towards more efficient gasoline engines and hybrid and electric vehicles. Few doubt that an all-electric vehicle future would make a significant reduction to GHGs, so long as most of the electricity comes from renewable energy sources. The same could be said if the music industry moved to a carbon-neutral future.
            Let’s look at GHGs more closely (fig. 1).  

Those emitted by human activities consist of carbon dioxide (CO2) from burning fossil fuels (76%); methane from agricultural activities, waste management, energy use and biomass (16%); nitrogen oxides from fertilizer use and other agricultural activities (6%); and fluorinated gases from industrial processes, refrigeration and so on (2%). Considered in terms of energy source (fig. 2), global GHGs come from electricity and heat production (25%), industries that burn fossil fuels on site for energy (21%), agriculture, forestry and other land use (24%), fossil fuels burned for transportation (14%), fuel burned to heat and cool buildings (6%), and other (10%) (United States Environmental Protection Agency). 

From 1970 to 2011 global CO2 emissions increased by nearly 100%, with 3/4 of the increase coming from industrial processes and fossil fuel burning. In 2012 the total amount of GHG’s emitted as a result of human activities had risen to 53 billion tonnes from 48 billion in 2009 (The World Bank).
Three studies of the UK and US music industries help in understanding music’s contribution to global warming. First, the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University conducted a report for the environmental organization Julie’s Bicycle on the sources and amount of GHGs generated in 2007 by the UK music market (Bottrill et al. 2007; Bottrill et al. 2010). The report calculated an annual total of 540 million kilograms (kg.) ( = 540,000 tonnes) of GHGs, coming from the following sources: manufacture and distribution of musical instruments, books and sheet music, and recorded music, 138 million kg.; live performances (including audience travel which generated 231,00 million kg.), 402 million kg. This 540,000 tonnes applied only to the UK. Although it included GHGs generated by music’s share of distribution over the internet, in 2007 internet downloads and streaming were fewer than today while correspondingly more music was delivered via CD.
            A second useful study compared the amounts of GHGs required to manufacture and deliver music on plastic (vinyl, cassette, and CD) versus the internet. The study took into consideration that some albums delivered digitally over the internet were subsequently burned to CD-R discs for CD use and kept in jewel cases. The authors concluded that “Despite the increased energy and emissions associated with Internet data flows, purchasing music digitally reduces the energy and CO2 emissions associated with delivering music to customers by between 40 and 80% from the best-case physical CD delivery, depending on whether a customer then burns the files to CD or not” (Weber et al, 2009). Ten years later, consumers are burning many fewer CDs; indeed, most computers today no longer contain optical drives for disc burning.
            This second study predicted that a shift to internet music delivery would significantly reduce GHGs. However, as its authors acknowledge, it was conducted for two IT corporations (Microsoft and Intel) that had an interest in seeing that kind of result. What is the situation today, when most recorded music is delivered to customers via internet streaming on Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube, Pandora, and so on? The results are not quite so sanguine. In third environmental cost study, Matt Brennan and Kyle Devine chose to sample GHG outputs from certain key years from 1907-2016. Devine terms this shift from plastic to internet delivery the “dematerialization” of music. They reported total GHG outputs for the US only, from vinyl, cassettes, and CDs, versus GHG outputs from internet delivery via mp3 and streaming. They reported (fig. 3) on the years 1977, 1988, 2000, and 2013-2016 (Brennan and Devine 2019; Devine 2019). Figure 3 shows that in 1977 US CO2 emissions from the manufacture of and 

sale of music (chiefly on vinyl records) were 140 million kg. The first CDs appeared in 1982. In 1988 when vinyl records made up roughly 19% of sales revenues, CDs 20%. and cassettes and 8-tracks 60%, the total CO2 figure for the US was slightly lower, 136 million kg. In 2000 when CDs were at their peak revenue (and not many vinyl records and cassettes were sold) that number had increased to 157 million kg., almost all from CDs. And yet by 2016, when the revenue from CDs was 1/8 of what it had been in 2000, and when most music recordings were sold via mp3 downloads or by subscription streaming on the internet, the US energy costs of music delivery had increased to as much as 350 million kg. of GHGs, or 350,000 tonnes (Brennan and Devine 2019; RIAA US Sales Database).
            How could this be? It seems counterintuitive that the environmental costs of making plastic CDs and jewel cases could be about half as much as internet music delivery with little or no plastic product (and waste). It seems inconceivable that a shift from a manufacturing economy to a service economy for recorded music could result in double the CO2 emissions. Yet what drove up the cost of internet delivery was “the energy used to power online music listening. Storing and processing music in the cloud depends on vast data centres that use a tremendous amount of resources and energy” (Brennan and Devine 2019, 3).[3]
To be sure, Brennan and Devine did not calculate the environmental cost of distributing LPs, cassettes and CDs to consumers in record stores. Nor did they calculate the environmental costs of making the record, CD and DVD players. Doing so would have increased the GHG figures for 1977, 1988, and 2000. But they also did not calculate the costs of making the smartphones, mp3 players, and computers that consumers rely on today to download and stream their music. Moreover, as the US population grew from 203 million in 1970 to 307 million in 2010, it’s likely that there were proportionately half again as many music consumers in the latter year than the former, consuming 50% more energy, And of course, unlike the Oxford University study of UK music’s carbon footprint, Brennan and Devine did not attempt to calculate the environmental costs of live music which, extrapolating from the UK study (Bottrill et al. 2007), would have been for the US about three times more than for recorded music, or approximately 1.05 million tonnes of GHGs. Add that to the carbon footprint of recorded music and in 2016 the US likely generated around 1.4 million tonnes. If the UK’s footprint was 540,000 million tonnes in 2009, extrapolating to 2016 from that and then adding the US figures would result in a UK plus US annual total somewhere between 2.5 and 3 million tonnes ( = 6.6 billion US pounds) of GHGs for 2016.
            Efforts to reduce the music industry’s contribution to global warming have been underway for more than a decade. The Julie’s Bicycle-sponsored 2007 Oxford Study resulted in a variety of actions to lower music’s carbon footprint, such as the change from plastic CD packaging to cardboard digipacks. In 2013 REVERB was created and dedicated to reducing touring bands’ carbon footprints insofar as possible. On their tours, Dave Matthews Band, Phish, Dead and Company, Drake, Walk the Moon, and others reduce carbon use by employing solar energy, distributing reusable water bottles, providing solar charging stations at concerts, and handing out information about environmental issues, green products and tech, and so on. REVERB sponsors a Farm-to-Stage program that works with local farmers to provide artists and their crews with locally sourced food (REVERB). By 2018, Spotify had closed almost all of its data centers and reduced its carbon footprint by 1,500 tons of CO2 while switching to Google cloud services, which like competitor Apple has “gone green.” By converting to solar power and purchasing renewable energy certificates (that work like carbon offsets) they can claim their data centers are carbon neutral. In July, 2019 a group of music industry professionals formed an organization called Music Declares Emergency, calling for “the music industry to acknowledge how its practices impact the environment and to commit to taking urgent action” and to “work toward making our businesses ecologically sustainable and regenerative.” Some of the suggestions include reducing the energy used on tours, greening merchandise, using sustainable materials, and purchasing carbon offsets. Many musicians have signed on as supporters (MUSIC DECLARES EMERGENCY). And because music has the power to raise environmental consciousness and incite environmental activism its impact goes well beyond the boundaries of the music industry to galvanize the environmental movement more broadly, whether targeting fossil fuel corporations, agrochemical producers, or threats to species extinction.[4]


Bottrill, Catherine, Geoff Lye, Max Boykoff and Diana Liverman. 2007. First Step: UK Music Industry Greenhouse Gas Emissions for 2007. Executive summary. London: Julie’s Bicycle.
Bottrill, Catherine, Geoff Lye, and Max Boykoff. 2010. “Carbon soundings: greenhouse gas emissions of the UK music industry.” Environmental Research Letters 5, doi 10:1088/1748-9326/5/1/014019.
Brennan, Matt, and Kyle Devine. 2019. “Music streaming has a far worse carbon footprint than the heyday of records and CDs—new findings.” The Conversation, April 7. Accessed 30 August 2019.
Devine, Kyle. 2019. Decomposed: The Political Ecology of Music. Cambridge: MIT Press.
ECOSONG. N.D. Ecosong.Net. Accessed 30 August, 2019.
Heede, Richard. 2014. “Tracing anthropogenic carbon dioxide and methane emissions to fossil fuel and cement producers, 1854-2010.” Climate Change 122 (1-2): 229-241.
MUSIC DECLARES EMERGENCY. N.D. Accessed 30 August, 2019.
REVERB. N.D. Reverb: About Us. Accessed 30 August, 2019.
RIAA U.S. Sales Database. N.D. U.S. Recorded Music Revenues by Format and U.S. Recorded Music Sales Volume by Format, 1977-2018. Accessed 25 September 2019.
Siwek, Stephen, and Joshua Friedlander. 2018. The US Music Industries: Jobs and Benefits. Prepared for the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America). Accessed 19 September 2019.
The World Bank. N.D. “Total greenhouse gas emissions.” Accessed 18 September 2019.
United States Environmental Protection Agency. N.D. “Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions Data.” Accessed 18 September 2019.
Weber, Christopher L., Jonathan O. Koomey, and H. Scott Matthews. 2009. “The Energy and Climate Change Impacts of Different Music Delivery Methods.” Final report to Microsoft Corporation and Intel Corporation. Accessed 19 September 2019.

[1] Calculated by combining and extrapolating from Bottrill et al. 2010 and Brennan and Devine 2019. A (metric) tonne is 1000 kilograms, or 2200 pounds, which is 1.1 times the US ton of 2000 pounds.
[2] Siwek and Friedlander 2018 calculated that in 2015 the music industry contributed $143 billion to the US economy, 4/5 of the auto industry’s contribution.
[3] Their study, “The Cost of Music,” was widely reported in the press in April, 2019. Devine’s book on the subject, Decomposed (2019) offers more detail. Some of these data centers now are powered partly if not fully by solar energy, however.
[4] Ecosong, a collaboration among musicians, media makers, scientists and community organizations, is one of many such efforts (ECOSONG).