When it comes to being green, the music industry has a decidedly dirty history (and we don’t just mean rock stars’ unsavory behavior). For one, more than one billion CD jewel cases are produced each year in North America, most of which are made of polyvinyl chloride, a cheap plastic that’s nearly impossible to recycle. Additionally, excess is the name of the game: A recent MusicMatters study revealed that tour buses contribute about 150,000 tons of carbon emissions annually, and one stadium performance yields anywhere from 500 to 1,000 tons of CO2. Even a midsize music venue goes through 470,000 plastic cups, 200,000 napkins, and 600 light bulbs every year.

But despite the biz’s abysmal record, some labels are starting to green up their acts. While the four major labels (EMI, Sony BMG, Warner Music Group, and Universal Music Group) still have some work to do, smaller, more eco-conscious labels have started to pick up the slack. Take a look at who’s doing what in the music industry. And tomorrow, be sure to check out which artists hold the environment near and dear to their hearts.

Major labels:

EMI: At its 2007 Grammy after party, the label shuttled guests around in Saturn hybrids and served up pesticide-free fare. Lee Trink, then-president of EMI subsidiary Capital Music Group, awkwardly told a Current TV reporter at the event, “There’s a team, and hopefully they are experts, and hopefully they are accurate, and they come up with an assessment of how much energy is going to be used, and we put together a pool of money that will be used for things that will benefit the environment.” But going green may not be top priority these days: The company issued a round of layoffs this summer and has been “restructuring” its central management due to a drop in sales. Folks at EMI did not confirm any other specific eco initiatives currently underway at the label.

Sony BMG: The label distributes music from 50 of its US artists in renewable and recyclable paperboard cases, and offers similar packaging for 40 Canadian artists and 22 UK artists. The company has also reduced the carbon footprint of its New York City offices by 31 percent through a “reducing, reusing and recycling” program.

Warner Music Group: CDs and DVD liner notes contain 30 percent post-consumer paper made from wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC); however, the inserts are packaged inside jewel cases. The label offset its 2008 Grammy after party, an event that included CFLs, biodiesel generators, recycled paper products, locally grown food, and organic soaps. This year, WMG offset CO2 emissions from its New York City offices and started WMGreen, its ongoing green initiative with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and renewable energy company NativeEnergy. “For us, [environmentally responsible behavior] has proven to lower the cost of paper and waste as well as strengthen employee morale,” says John Esposito, WMG’s US sales and retail marketing president.

Universal Music Group: CDs from 60 of Universal’s thousands of artists are distributed in recyclable/biodegradeable paperboard sleeves. The company would not return phone calls to discuss additional greening efforts.

Smaller labels:

While the major labels efforts may seem paltry at best, these smaller labels are beefing up their eco-conscious efforts.

Parks and Records: The Bay Area-based label packages CDs in recycled office paper and donates 5 percent of each $8 CD to groups like Friends of the Urban Forest, the National Forest Foundation, and the National Arbor Day Foundation. The company also makes its own mail-order envelopes using catalog and magazine covers, bags, and other reclaimed paper. Parks and Records is “making the planet greener one song at a time,” says founder John Fee.

Brushfire Records: The label, founded by singer Jack Johnson, powers its office and recording studio with solar panels, insulates its walls with 100 percent post-consumer waste (like blue jean scraps), and uses recycled shingles on the roof. Brushfire CDs, which are manufactured and distributed by Universal, come in recycled plastic trays.

Sub Pop Records: The Seattle indie stalwart has purchased renewable energy credits from the Bonneville Environmental Foundation since 2006. The label also ships advance copies of new releases in plastic-free, recyclable paperboard.

Kill Rock Stars: The label has purchased offsets from Bonneville Environmental Foundation since 2007, and is currently in talks with Brighter Planet to offset band tours. While the company still relies heavily on plastic jewel cases, it also distributes CDs in Digipacks, which can be made with recycled card stock. “We want to do everything we can,” says president Portia Sabin. “And the bands are totally into it.”

Earthology Recordings: A Minnesota organic farm powered by geothermal and wind power houses this not-for-profit label. CDs are packaged in a combination of recycled, soy-ink paper and 100 percent recycled/reclaimed jewel cases. The recording studio itself is crafted from reused materials like chicken coop wire and “other odds and ends,” founder Craig Minowa recently told MTV. In addition to being a member of the indie band Cloud Cult, Minowa is an environmental scientist with the Organic Consumer’s Association.

Green Owl Records: This Manhattan-based label packages all CDs in 100 percent post-consumer recycled paper, and is donating 100 percent of profits raised from a compilation released this April to the Energy Action Coalition. The label recently took three of its bands to Austin’s South by Southwest in a tour bus powered by vegetable oil, and another band, The So So Glos, is touring this fall in a veggie oil-powered bus. Green Owl purchases carbon offsets from NativeEnergy, and offers customers the chance to recycle their used CDs for free. “We’re doing the best we possibly can right now,” says president Stephen Glicken. “We spend more money doing things this way, but it’s better to act as an example now because there could be a sea change some day.”

Story by Gary Moskowitz. This article originally appeared in Plenty in October 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

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Musicians make green efforts

Greening the music industry
While major labels struggle with implementing eco-initiatves, smaller labels pick up the slack.