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From K-Pop to Coldplay, the music industry is leaning in to climate action. Does it matter to Asian fans?

British rock band Coldplay’s release of its arena tour sustainability report – it is one of few artistes to do so – brought it extra attention. Korean pop powerhouses are starting to align themselves with the climate movement. Observers say it is a good start, but claims need to be scrutinised.

British rock band Coldplay shattered records in late June with the announcement of the Singapore leg of its Music of the Spheres world tour, selling out 200,000 tickets in a single day. Meanwhile, Singapore is the sole Southeast Asian stop in breakout pop star Taylor Swift’s The Eras Tour. Image: , CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr / , CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

It is becoming almost fashionable for music acts to align themselves with ‘eco-friendly’ messaging and the green movement. A recent move by one of the world’s top rock bands Coldplay to commission research into the carbon emissions of its world tours has further sparked conversations on whether more in the music industry should follow suit, and if so, if it matters at all to fans. 

One criticism that has endured is that such calculations still do not factor in the mammoth environmental impact (and mania) that concert touring creates, when eager fans travel across the globe to catch their favourite act.

A discussion thread on online platform Reddit titled “Would you fly for a one-day-trip to see them: r/Coldplay” posted a month ago invited more than 30 comments, with most fans saying that it is “worth it” to go the extra mile to see the British band live. In Singapore, which is building itself up to be an entertainment capital for hosting big-name acts, sales records have been shattered, with Coldplay’s Music of the Spheres world tour topping the list for selling out 200,000 tickets in a single day.

Media reports also said promotional packages for American singer-songwriter Taylor Swift’s concert in the city-state, to be held next year, were largely snapped up by overseas buyers – from the Philippines, Indonesia, China and Malaysia.

Manila-based Tin Victoriano, who had flown into Singapore from the Philippines to catch Suga, a member of the South Korean boy band BTS at his D-Day concert in June, said that she had waited since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic for the K-pop juggernaut to be back on tour. At the height of lockdowns and travel restrictions, she could only watch the boy band perform online.

“I seldom go for concerts if it requires me to get on a plane,” she told Eco-Business. But if it’s an opportunity to catch her favourite boy band now, she would not hesitate, she said.

It’s not about what Coldplay, the Rolling Stones or U2 is doing individually. It’s about inspiring collective action. It’s bringing people in and connecting to them emotionally about how we should be living our lives for the welfare of the planet.

Jamal Chalabi, head, A Greener Tour

Kim Areno from Iloilo City in the Philippines, who is a ‘Swiftie’ [what fans of Taylor Swift call themselves], has bought tickets to attend her first concert abroad next March – she is flying to Singapore to see Taylor Swift’s The Eras Tour at the National Stadium. Areno shares that she is willing to do so as long as the plane ticket is not more expensive than concert admission.

When asked about how important it is for them that their favourite artistes adopt sustainable practices while on tour, both conceded that the issue remains somewhat novel, though they agreed that changes to enhance sustainability efforts should be embraced.

“These artistes fly at least a hundred times a year when they are touring. The carbon footprint is massive,” said Areno. “We have a responsibility to the world and people of influence should take charge [in inspiring change].”

“If artistes are adopting more sustainable methods to save the planet, then that’s good to hear. Now that I’ve heard of it, it’ll certainly be something that I’ll keep in mind when I hear about concert tours,” shared Victoriano.

‘Fly like a jet stream’

Coinciding with the release of Coldplay’s official tour dates last month, digital travel platform Agoda reported that searches for Singapore hotels and accommodations available on the dates of the band’s shows swelled nearly nine-fold. The uptick was reportedly mainly due to users from Indonesia, followed by Malaysia and the Philippines.

“This spike in accommodation bookings is a testament to the undeniable lure of live musical experiences, showcasing the profound impact they have on travel decisions,” said Agoda’s regional associate vice president for Southeast Asia Enric Casals. 

So far there are no clear figures on the impact that concert tourism has on the environment, although the aviation industry quotes that greenhouse gas emissions of approximately one-quarter tonne carbon dioxide equivalent per passenger per hour flying, or about 250 kilogrammes (kg).

The International Energy Agency’s statistics point to carbon dioxide emissions from aviation rising rapidly over the past two decades, hitting almost 1 metric gigatonne in 2019. This, it notes, equates to “about 2.8 per cent of global CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion”. 

Observers familiar with the music industry say it is commendable that artistes are starting to pioneer more sustainable options when it comes to concert touring. Most say the influence on fans won’t be immediate, but consistent messaging aligned with the climate movement can help create buy-in from a crowd that previously might not have been interested in changing consumption habits. This is especially if the entertainers command a strong following, they say. 

Jamal Chalabi, who heads A Greener Tour, a specialist consultancy for live music acts that want to reduce their environmental impact and an offshoot of sustainability non-profit A Greener Future based in the United Kingdom, said that Coldplay, in publishing its tour sustainability report, risks getting bad press since there will be enhanced scrutiny, but has done so anyway, and deserves some credit for that. 

“It is fantastic that Coldplay has the resources to do this. Not everyone in the music industry can,” explained Chalabi.  “I think everybody has to applaud them for at least trying to start the conversation.” 

Chalabi notes that there is increasing demand from smaller acts to factor in sustainability when designing their concert tours. For example, A Greener Tour is currently working with punk rock soloist Yungblud to plan his ongoing 2023 world tour. It claims that this has led to the reduction of the English singer’s emissions on the road, after a switch from diesel-powered tour trucks to those fuelled by fossil-free hydro-treated vegetable oil (HVO). 

‘Fix you’

Prior to revealing their tour sustainability report, Coldplay lead singer Chris Martin had addressed doubts that the music industry might not be entirely compatible with eco-activism, similarly citing the difficulties of reconciling flying with environmentalism. In an interview, he said that it is inevitable that any new initiatives will be met with backlash. Marketing messages for the band’s latest sustainability updates are carefully worded, with Martin being quoted as saying that “there is still room for improvement”. 

Last year, Taylor Swift also drew ire online as UK-based sustainability marketing agency Yard described as the “biggest celebrity CO2e polluter” after estimating the emissions of the 170 private jet flights she took between January and June 2022, despite not being on tour at the time. Taylor Swift’s fellow musicians Drake, Jay-Z, Blake Shelton and Travis Scott join her on the top ten emitters’ list.

Yard estimates that the Anti-Hero singer’s annual flight emissions racked up to 8,293.54 tonnes, or 1,184.8 times more than the average person’s total yearly carbon footprint. According to the EPA’s greenhouse gas calculator, this is equivalent to the consumption of 19,182 barrels of oil and enough to fully-charge 1,008,848,153 smartphones.

Following the backlash Taylor Swift’s representatives released a statement to Rolling Stone saying: “Taylor’s jet is loaned out regularly to other individuals. To attribute most or all of these trips to her is blatantly incorrect.”

What’s in Coldplay’s tour sustainability report?

The band has pledged to: 

- Reduce: Minimise consumption, recycle extensively and cut CO2 emissions by 50 per cent.

- Reinvent: Support new green technologies and develop new sustainable, low-carbon touring methods.

- Restore: Make the tour as environmentally beneficial as possible by funding a portfolio of nature- and technology-based projects and by drawing down significantly more CO2 than the tour produces.

- Replenish: To plant one tree for every concert ticket sold on the Music of the Spheres world tour.

To limit their flight emissions, Coldplay’s tour route has been pre-planned to minimise air travel. For all flights – both commercial and charter – Coldplay elects to pay a surcharge to use or supply Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF). SAF helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions of air travel by up to 80 per cent over the entire life cycle compared to the conventional fossil jet fuel that it replaces. Coldplay claims it has already avoided the emission of 553 metric tonnes of CO2e by purchasing SAF for all flights.

Meanwhile, to also track and later offset their fans’ carbon footprint, Coldplay has partnered with software developer SAP for an application that enables concert-goers to not only log their own travel itineraries and modes of transport heading to the show but also gives fans access to resources on low carbon transport to and from the venues – including carpooling, electric vehicle rentals or public transportation.

The band has received criticism for partnering with Neste, a Finnish oil refining and marketing corporation, which will provide it with SAF and renewable diesel for its tours. Commentators point to some of the initiatives – for example, a kinetic dance floor that generates electricity from the movement of fans – as gimmicky. 

‘Up and up’

A Greener Tour’s Chalabi argues that the responsibility to advocate and push for sustainability shouldn’t be shouldered solely by the artistes.

“We need to remove the burden from the artistes and see this as fundamentally the responsibility of the entire industry,” he said. “I see it as the venues’ responsibility, as the festival organiser’s responsibility. [The live music industry] needs to get our back-of-house in order so our artistes can stand on the most unhypocritical stage as possible and talk about these pressing issues.”

In the K-Pop space, the top four biggest firms behind Korea’s Hallyu wave have made gradual strides to reach their respective environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) goals. All publicly-listed companies, Hybe, JYP Entertainment, SM Entertainment and YG Entertainment, have acknowledged the massive footprint of not just their artistes’ sprawling world tours, but their merchandise sales as well – especially as K-Pop artistes like BTS, Tomorrow X Together, Stray Kids and Seventeen reach physical album sales in the millions for every release.

“From this year onward, we will spare no effort to tackle environmental issues in cooperation with record labels, fans and the government,” Korea Music Content Association secretary general Choi Kwang-ho told The Korea Times earlier this year. “The K-pop industry is ruminating on different ways to reach ESG goals and promote sustainability for the future generation.”

The largest of the entertainment companies HYBE Labels last year appointed the president of the Korea Green Foundation as the director of its ESG and sustainable management committee.

Chalabi notes that even if the music industry becomes net zero overnight, it wouldn’t significantly change the trajectory of the world’s decarbonisation efforts, but underscored that the strength of artistes is their influence and the power of their messaging.

“It’s not about what Coldplay, the Rolling Stones or U2 is doing individually. It’s about inspiring collective action,” he explained. “That’s where the music comes in, where the arts come in. It’s bringing people in and connecting to them emotionally about what their morals are and how we should be living our lives for the welfare of the planet.”

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