Using Solar Power to Fix You: Coldplay, Lorde and the Environmental Impact of the Music Industry

by Madeleine Brown

On Friday 18th March, Coldplay will kick off their Music of the Spheres tour in Costa Rica.  This marks the Grammy-winning band’s first return to live worldwide performances in almost five years, after they didn’t tour with their 2019album Everyday Life, citing concerns over the environmental impact.

Though fans were disappointed, Coldplay’s pledge to stop touring until they could do so sustainably and environmentally-beneficially was welcomed by activists.  According to a 2019 study of touring, the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere increased by over 19,000 kilograms in just six months – the same amount released by 20 flights between London and New York.  

Multiple factors within worldwide touring contribute to this increased carbon footprint: the flights and tour buses used by musicians, the energy used to power their equipment, even the transport used by fans to get to the shows – this alone accounts for a third of a tour’s carbon footprint.  Other environmentally-damaging aspects of concerts include the sale of single-use plastic water bottles in venues, and the high levels of waste left behind post-encore.

In response, Coldplay have gone to extreme efforts to ensure this tour has minimal environmental detriment.  The band have pledged to halve their carbon emissions by using renewable energy for power, and will plant a tree for every ticket sold in an effort to combat the “unavoidable” carbon emissions of travel.  Additionally, there will be no single-use plastic on the tour, fan entry wristbands will be reused every show, sets will be made of recyclable materials, and venues will be fitted with an electricity-generating kinetic floor that will power the show through audience movement.  While it’s required a lot of planning, Coldplay hope that their efforts will be successful and will “shift the status quo of how a tour works” into something more sustainable long-term.

The band aren’t the only Grammy winners concerned about the music industry’s environmental impact.  Last August, New Zealand singer-songwriter Lorde released her third album Solar Power, dropping the titular single after four years of radio silence.  However, to the disappointment of fans, Solar Power was not released as a physical CD like its predecessors Pure Heroine and Melodrama, only available as a vinyl record.  This was a careful decision from Lorde, who wrote to fans that she “didn’t wanna make something that would end up in a landfill in 2 years”.

Lorde’s refusal to play a part in the production and distribution of CDs has raised some interesting discussions about environmental issues within the ways we listen to music.  While her concern about the impact of CDs is valid – the discs are made of mixed polycarbonate and aluminium, which can’t be recycled and may take up to a million years to decompose in landfill – it’s interesting that she had no qualms about releasing her album on vinyl. 

Vinyl records are made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC), with each LP containing roughly 135g of the material and having an estimated carbon footprint of around 0.5kg of CO2.  A BBC report found that, in 2018 alone, the production of the 4 million records sold in the UK that year would release almost 2000 tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, equivalent to the average annual carbon footprint of nearly 400 people – and that’s without considering transport or packaging impacts.  Additionally, discarded records have also been found to discharge plastic-based solvents in landfill sites, and may even outlast the landfills themselves.  

Ironically, it’s this durability that makes vinyl records the most sustainable method of listening to music.  PVC is not easily snapped, unlike CDs (which can also be warped by sunlight, fingerprints, scratches, or over-playing), and records are therefore less likely to be discarded in landfill than discs.  Even online streaming has its issues: the energy required to stream an album 27 times surpasses the energy required to create a physical copy.  As such, Lorde is right to promote vinyl albums – while their production might be environmentally damaging, the energy and waste they reduce for consumers helps to counterbalance this.

While the music industry’s environmental impact is visibly poor, it’s heartening to see two of its top acts work on reducing this.  Hopefully, we will soon see other major artists follow Coldplay and Lorde’s footprints to reduce their (carbon) own and protect our planet.