Opinion: for many acts not at the superstar level, live shows are the only way they can make a living from their music

Coldplay’s recent decision to quit touring until they can do so in an environmentally beneficial manner has the music industry buzzing. The impact of touring on the climate crisis has become a worrying aspect of life for professional musicians, many of whom wish to show their support for the cause, but risk criticism for doing so while touring.

Touring has always been a necessity for professional musicians and has become more so in recent years. Although it is notoriously difficult to make money while touring, live shows have increasingly become the only way for many artists to make a living from their music, since the value of physical recordings crashed with the rise of digital distribution.

Although the value of recorded music is slowly recovering as streaming services are becoming more popular, it is still not providing the same levels of income to the artists. This is partly due to the lower rates of payment from streaming and also the higher number of artists who have entered the industry with the advent of digital distribution and marketing. While music industry revenues continue to grow, more and more artists are being forced to tour, often full-time, in order to make a living.

From RTÉ 2fm's Dave Fanning show, BBC music reporter Mark Savage on the environmental impacts of touring

Into this tenuous state of affairs has come the climate debate, and the attending scrutiny of all things carbon-emitting. There is certainly no doubt that current touring strategies are hardly environmentally friendly, particularly for large arena acts (U2's  360° tour in 2009 is a case in point, requiring 120 trucks just to move the show).

As concern over the climate crisis has deepened, many artists have thrown their whole-hearted support into the cause with actions ranging from Radiohead's 2008 "carbon neutral tour" to Rhiannon Giddens touring without disposable cups or bottles to The 1975 raising funds for the Extinction Rebellion. There’s even a whole website dedicated to Musicians Against Climate Change.

But the problem of the environmental cost of touring has become an increasingly troubling one for many artists. It has quickly become the go-to shutdown from critics, who often tag any artist who speaks out about climate change as hypocritical because of their reliance on touring. In response to this, Coldplay have announced that they will cease to tour until they have found a way to do so which is not only environmentally sustainable, but actually beneficial to the planet. This means that the band will not tour its brand new album "Everyday Life", an unprecedented step in the current music industry. Instead of spending months on the road, they performed just two shows in Jordan, which are now available to watch for free on Youtube.

The band's decision to step up and tackle the problem of "green" touring is a particularly bold move considering that their 2016/17 "Head Full of Dreams" tour is the fourth highest grossing tour of all time. The tour brought in more than $523m (€473m) from performances spanning two years and five continents. On the other hand, Coldplay’s past earning history means that the band is in a better position to take time off the road than many artists would be, and thus their decision to attempt to find solutions that can be used by other artists is particularly noble. 

Coldplay’s frontman Chris Martin told the BCC that the band was taking the next "year or two" to figure out a new touring strategy. He also stated that the biggest problem facing them was likely to be the necessity of flights for band members and crew.

Only 9% of the carbon footprint of a tour is due to band travel, while a whopping 67% is caused by the combined impact of audience travel and venue use

It will be interesting to see whether the solutions proposed by Coldplay extend only to the impact of the band itself or if they attempt to tackle the problem of audience and venue impact. The Green Touring Network suggests that only 9% of the actual carbon footprint of a tour is due to band travel, while a whopping 67% is caused by the combined impact of audience travel and the venue use, both of which would often tend to be out of the band’s control. 

When Radiohead commissioned a study of the CO2 emissions from their tour, they found that the fans generated as much as 97% of the CO2 emissions, mainly from car travel. Given this high impact of audience travel, it should be pointed out that putting artists on tour is actually a far more environmentally friendly option that having thousands of fans fly to see artists.

LISTEN: Songs for the end of the world: pop music and climate change 

Like most of the climate issues facing us today, the problem of environmentally friendly touring is not a simple one, nor one which is likely to be easy to solve. However, seeing major artists leading the way is encouraging. While some industry professionals are forecasting the end of live music entirely, and others are calling for bands to switch to holographic performances, Coldplay’s commitment to solving the touring problem in an environmentally beneficial way—and still be able to tour—is a great place to start. For those of us who love attending concerts, let's hope Coldplay can come up with solutions and set an example that can be followed by artists and fans everywhere.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ