How musicians like Radiohead and Massive Attack are making their tours less stressful on the environment

Concertgoers are part of the problem—and the solution.

Fans at a giant concert
The bigger the venue and the band's itinerary, the heftier the carbon footprint of the tour.Deposit

The live-entertainment industry is a dominating force in music—just look at all the people flipping out over the My Chemical Romance tour this week. Fans bought 57.7 million concert tickets worldwide in 2019. By 2023, the global accounting firm PWC estimates live music ticket sales will generate more than $25 billion in revenue.

But there’s a longer-term cost to concerts that’s often overlooked. While data on the topic is still hard to come by, one 2010 study calculated that live music in the UK generated approximately 440,924 tons of greenhouse gases a year: the equivalent of 88,000 cars on the road.

It’s not a matter of quitting touring altogether but finding a greener way to perform.

Scientists have yet to crunch the cumulative cost of live music on emissions globally, but musicians have long understood the environmental costs of touring. In 2006 Dave Matthews Band announced a controversial partnership with NativeEnergy to offset the carbon emissions of all its tours since 1991. In 2007 Radiohead made changes to how it arranged the stops on its tours to reduce emissions. And in 2019 Coldplay took things one step further when it announced it would stop touring until its gigs were “actively beneficial” to the planet—a serious pivot from the band’s last concert spree, which took the performers and 109 crew members to 122 shows on five continents, grossing more than $523 million.

“Coldplay can afford to do this,” says Marie Connolly, an economics professor at the University of Quebec at Montreal who’s studied carbon offsets and ticket pricing. “But other bands might not be able to ... Your revenues are coming from your touring, so if you stop, you’re going to have to get a lot of Spotify plays to make up for it.” For those artists, it’s not a matter of quitting touring altogether but finding a greener way to perform.

Striking the wrong chord

The most visible issue with concert tours is the high burden of travel: private jets, a fleet of giant tour buses, whatever an artist needs to get themselves and their entourage from point A to B to Z.

Moving a stage set around the world poses a much bigger environmental challenge, however. From Pink’s Funhouse carnival stage to Lady Gaga’s Born This Way castle, sets today often include elaborate designs, custom lights, and other special equipment, which together weigh many tons. The backdrops have to be in place before the artist arrives, speedily disassembled after the concert is over, and then shipped to the next location pronto. Transporting such bulk isn’t easy. In 2009 U2 made headlines when its 44 shows that year had a combined “equivalent carbon footprint of a return flight to Mars,” according to The Guardian. The band could have reduced its emissions by 75 percent if its set, which weighed 429 tons and included a 165-foot-tall claw, had been shipped by boat instead of plane.

Once the stage is in place, venues have their own footprint to consider. In the US and Europe, some sports stadiums, like the Philadelphia Eagles’ Lincoln Financial Field, have invested in renewable energy. This benefits big acts like Taylor Swift or The Rolling Stones, who can sell out 20,000 tickets in a single night. But most artists play in smaller venues where such investments are harder to make. Some organizations are putting in the work: In London, the Village Underground, which describes itself as a “cultural center” and “ecological project,” operates on 100-percent renewable energy. It plays host to everything from mid-day yoga sessions to established acts like the rapper Danny Brown. But many other venues and promoters lag behind.

For eco-conscious artists, laying out their tour schedule with carbon in mind is critical. Right now, the primary goal of a live tour is to make money, so musicians maximize profit by doubling back for additional shows when a city has a high enough demand. But that bumps up transportation emissions. “You see these tours that people are, like, one night in Berlin, then one night in London, and then one night in Hamburg,” says Carly McLachlan, a professor of climate and energy policy at the University of Manchester. “And you’re like, ‘Oof, that doesn’t feel good.’ ”

Radiohead lead Thom Yorke perform in Taipei, Taiwan.

Radiohead hit fans in Taipei

Radiohead lead Thom Yorke performs in Taipei, Taiwan, in 2012. The band has since adapted their tour schedules to minimize emissions.Ray Chen/Deposit Photos

Still, in every analysis of live music’s environmental costs, the largest contributor is fan travel. In 2007 Radiohead teamed up with a consultant organization called Best Foot Forward to produce a report on the environmental costs of two of its tours. The researchers analyzed the carbon footprint of the band’s mileage, merchandise and catering, and fan travel. They concluded that Radiohead’s 2003 amphitheater run generated 10,000 tons of carbon, while its 2006 theater circuit generated about 2,500. In both cases, the artists had roughly the same impact: 330 tons of carbon, primarily from their own transit. But the 12-stop amphitheater tour, which played to 240,000 fans, had significantly higher emissions than the 19-stop theater tour, which only played to 70,000 fans. While each ticket holder’s carbon footprint may have been small, all those car rides quickly added up.

A massive attack on the system

A week after Coldplay said it wouldn’t be touring for the foreseeable future, another British band made its own environmental-action plan. Last November, Massive Attack announced a partnership with the University of Manchester’s Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research to evaluate its greenhouse gas impact and find more sustainable ways to entertain.

Originally, Massive Attack had looked into carbon offsets like planting trees or preserving existing forests to account for their tour emissions. “Basically, they were like, ‘That is too cheap,’ ” says Tyndall center director Carly McLachlan, who will be leading the research effort. So frontman Robert Del Naja and his bandmates reached out to climate experts for help on reforming their concert-performing practices.

The plan is to add up emissions from the band’s travel, audience transportation, and the venue at each concert. Once the Tyndall team has analyzed the data, they can gauge different variables, like a greener electricity source or increased mass transit, and offer lower-carbon solutions. “It’s not that Massive Attack is going to tell everyone else what they need to do,” McLachlan says. “They want to be a catalyst for helping the industry come together and share what’s worked, what hasn’t, and what they can do differently.”

The team plans to publish the first round of research this summer, but there’s no reason others to wait to act. Whatever McLachlan finds, it makes sense for venues to invest in renewable energy, concert organizers to streamline tour dates, and acts to ship sets by rail or sea.

Massive Attack is already on it. Over the holidays, the band announced their next European tour would be done by train. “They’re super eager,” McLachlan says. “They’re like, ‘You [researchers] get on with your thing, but we’re going to get on with what we know is right already.’ ”

Concertgoers can pitch in as well by considering their own practices and demanding change from well-heeled stars. (Watching YouTube videos in your PJs isn’t a perfect solution, anyway: Music streaming may generate as much as 385,000 kilograms of greenhouse gases a year, according to a recent research project from the University of Oslo and the University of Glasgow.) In the short term, fans should use public transportation or carpool whenever possible. They should also make it clear to their favorite acts that sustainability matters—and that they’re willing to pay to support it. If just a portion of the billions spent on tickets each year was directed to carbon-reduction efforts, the music industry—and the world—could change for the better.