Music Declares Emergency, an independent organisation of industry professionals and artists, has joined the movement spearheaded by teenage activist Greta Thunberg and the radical protests of Extinction Rebellion. Ben Gilbert investigates what role the music business has to play in averting environmental catastrophe.
“We’re out of time,” Thom Yorke announced to Lauren Laverne, Desert Island Discs listeners and the wider world during his recent appearance on BBC Radio 4. The Radiohead singer was not, however, signing off from a warmly eloquent and affecting episode of the series, rather reflecting on a deeply personal but indisputably universal issue: climate change.
Yorke, who acted as a spokesman for the Big Ask, a Friends of the Earth campaign calling for a new climate change law introduced in 2008, has palpable insight into the music industry’s tortuous relationship with the environment. Confirming he has been “obsessed” with the issue for years, Yorke admits the band’s jet-fuelled touring life makes him a “hypocrite” but he remains dedicated to the cause. “You can do stuff but the real stuff has to happen in Parliament and the UN, and has to happen now,” he told Laverne.
Few themes, if any, are likely to define global society’s future in the coming decades quite so profoundly. This is a campaign which already has distinctive leaders in the shape of Scandinavian climate change activist Greta Thunberg and the radical protests of Extinction Rebellion. The music business is now mobilising behind these figureheads in a multitude of ways.
The 1975 soundtrack Greta Thunberg’s call for “civil disobedience”
In July, The 1975 issued their new single, an eponymous, atmospheric rumination on the climate emergency featuring sparse instrumentation backed by Thunberg’s stark monologue. Calling for “civil disobedience”, the track, recorded in her home city of Stockholm, finds the teenager observing: “We have to acknowledge that the older generations have failed. All political movements in their present form have failed. But homo sapiens have not yet failed. Yes, we are failing, but there is still time to turn everything around.”
In a statement, Thunberg paid tribute to Matt Healy’s band for the collaboration. She said: “I’m grateful to get the opportunity to get my message out to a broad new audience in a new way. I think it’s great that The 1975 is so strongly engaged in the climate crisis. We quickly need to get people in all branches of society to get involved. And this collaboration I think is something new.”
Meanwhile, Music Declares Emergency (MDE), an independent organisation created by industry professionals and artists, has attracted more than 2,000 signatures to their campaign to address issues facing the environment. MDE’s declaration calls on governments and media “to tell the truth” about the issue, stating: “We acknowledge the environmental impact of music industry practices and commit to taking urgent action”, promising to “work towards making our businesses ecologically sustainable and regenerative.”
Music Declares Emergency call to action inspires “incredible” response
Among the guests at the group’s inaugural meeting in London at the end of September was Chiara Badiali, Science lead at Julie’s Bicycle, an environmental charity working in tandem with MDE. In an interview with Synchtank, she explained the “incredible” interest and enthusiasm at the event, “spanning live, recorded, artists.”
“Over the past year, there has been a real shift in momentum and energy, sparked by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released in late 2018 that injected a new scientific urgency and alarm and pushed forward by the global school strikes, movements like Extinction Rebellion, and mounting headlines telling us, undeniably, that climate change is here,” explained Badiali, who claimed this is the “perfect time to galvanise the music industry”.
“Over the past year, there has been a real shift in momentum and energy, sparked by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released in late 2018 that injected a new scientific urgency and alarm and pushed forward by the global school strikes, movements like Extinction Rebellion, and mounting headlines telling us, undeniably, that climate change is here.”
– Chiara Badiali, Science lead at Julie’s Bicycle
Fay Milton, drummer with Savages and one of the founders of MDE, delivered the keynote speech at MDE:ONE. She provides an artist perspective on the movement, telling Synchtank: “Our group got together shortly after the April XR Rebellion to create a bridge between the music industry, which seemed to be burying its head in the sand, and the climate movement.”
What are the big challenges facing the music industry in a time of climate crisis?
Speaking about the challenges faced by the music industry, she continued: “We are in a system where commodities are shipped and flown around the world constantly. As a musician, you are one of these commodities. This is a system that everyone is part of and not just the touring musician. If you’ve ever been to a festival or a gig by a band that’s not from your local area, then you’re part of this system. Recently the media has started pointing the finger and shouting ‘hypocrite!’ about any artist who speaks out about the climate and ecological emergency, but ultimately we’re all in this system and the system won’t change unless we speak out about it.”
“Recently the media has started pointing the finger and shouting ‘hypocrite!’ about any artist who speaks out about the climate and ecological emergency, but ultimately we’re all in this system and the system won’t change unless we speak out about it.”
– Fay Milton, drummer with Savages
Expanding on this theme, Badiali said: “We all want to believe music is a force for good in the world but what does that really mean in the context of a climate and ecological crisis? That’s what I think we’re all responsible for asking ourselves. We have incredible power – through our voices and our reach, and also through how we model what is possible in our spaces, businesses, venues and events. The two are linked: each strengthens the other.”
Directing the global community to the Music Declares Emergency website, Milton amplified the urgency of the situation, concluding: “The music industry needs to start making changes to practices to become less polluting and to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions before 2030. The industry taking action will help give artists a stable platform from which to talk about the climate and ecological emergency. In recent days we’ve seen many high-profile artists come out in support of the climate movement and that is incredibly useful in helping to raise awareness of the emergency.”