When former Vice President Al Gore unveiled “An Inconvenient Truth,” he set out to make the world aware of pressing environmental concerns like Global Warming.
Little did he know his Academy Award winning film would kick start a musical revolution.
For years, artists and musicians have been at the forefront of social change. John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” became the anthem for activists calling for an end to the Vietnam War and “We Shall Overcome,” as made famous by Joan Baez, served as an emotional outcry for the Civil Rights Movement.
These days, songwriters are focusing on what’s becoming the issue of our time – the environment.
“So many people get ideas from their favorite artists and musicians,” said Stephen Glicken, president and co-founder of Green Owl Records. His independent record label, based in Manhattan, exists to bridge the gap between environmentalism and music by releasing all of its products in a sustainable and ethical fashion.
“All we’re doing is using music as a platform to get another point across,” he said.
Glicken and Green Owl offer music as more than just a means of entertainment, and “we consider ourselves more of a music company than a record label,” emphasizing Green Owl’s other releases, including artwork and films on top of the music they produce.
But unlike MusicMatters, Green Owl’s concentration truly lies in the field of music production. Their first independent release, “The Green Owl Comp: A Benefit for the Energy Action Coalition,” features a variety of songs and videos from a breadth of artists (Feist and Bloc Party, to name a few) who aren’t even necessarily the “greenest” bands out there. By doing this, Green Owl is able to reach out to a wider demographic that might not have become aware otherwise.
“Not every artist is geared towards the environment, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to contribute in some way,” said Glicken. “They essentially act as the vehicle to lay our groundwork and express our concerns on a wider scale.”
And this seems to be the crux on which both organizations are built. The foundation begins within the organizations, with its members living in a sustainable fashion – the same way they want others to live.
“We’re not just going around preaching environmentalism,” Glicken said. “We all want to live like this, and even more importantly, we don’t want to be the only ones.”
At Green Owl, almost everything the label produces is green in some way (if not all ways). Wind power energy is used to sew their organic cotton sweatshirts. Their touring buses run strictly on vegetable oil and spend only $150 per 10,000 miles on gas. Their website offers a “Zip Code Engine” which allows users to search for alternative fuel sources in their neighborhood.
Along with Green Owl, organizations like MusicMatters, Simply Green and dozens more have set out to bring attention to the environment through the way they conduct business.
Minneapolis-born MusicMatters is a marketing firm and the environment is the product they try to advertise. Similarly to Green Owl, the people at MusicMatters believe music to be a way of gaining audiences to rally behind a cause.
“Music is a tool that engages people’s passion and energy,” said Todd Troha, MusicMatters general manager. “People are very passionate about the music they listen to because it’s an emotional experience. We are trying to work through artists and their passion for the environment to get their fans engaged on an emotional level.” Artists, Troha said, can say, “‘this is what we are doing, and you can do it too.’”
Since its start in 1996, MusicMatters has emphasized green touring, partnering with artists, social activist organizations and businesses that value the production of entertainment in a socially responsible way. The company hopes to not only conduct business responsibly but to inspire activism in fans, Troha said.
In 2002, for example, with partners The Dave Matthews Band and Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, MusicMatters teamed up to launch the “One Sweet Whirled Tour,” one of the first completely green music tours.
“Through just that one campaign fans pledged to reduce 218 pounds of CO2 and wrote 73,000 letters to Congress,” said Troha. “We also had 16,000 fans pledge to become environmental activists.”
“We’re doing everything we can to make environmentalism more digestible,” Glicken said. “There’s such a negative connotation that goes along with it. The average person thinks an environmentalist is just a hippie tree hugger so we’re trying to change that vibe.”
As Glicken and Troha put it, the average person who might not think of him or herself as an environmentalist is the key to the ultimate success of both organizations.
“It isn’t so much convincing the artists to hop on board, it’s making sure these artists act as the necessary link between us and the fans,” said Troha.
By capitalizing on artists’ star power, Green Owl and MusicMatters can be more effective in reaching potential activists.
“If I send [a fan] a mailing about what you can do to change the environment, not only am I increasing my carbon footprint, but there is also a strong chance they’ll throw it out before even looking at it,” said Troha. “Reaching out the fan through these musicians is a much more effective strategy.”
“Sure it’s important for fans to see what the artist is doing, but it is even more important to tell the fan what they can be doing,” he said.
According to MusicMatters, more than 80 percent of a concert’s carbon footprint comes from fans commuting to the venue, and most of those emissions can’t be reduced.
“We know you can’t get rid of everything,” said Troha. “Generally speaking there’s always something left. The important thing is to offset what you can’t reduce.”
By seeking carbon neutral venues, using bio-diesel for touring buses, trucks and generators, cutting down on the amount of waste produced and recycling everything possible, MusicMatters attempts to offset as much carbon emission as possible.
MusicMatters has also offered fans the chance to offset the emissions generated by their travels through donating $3-5 to be invested in renewable energy sources.
But even the most eco-friendly artists can’t travel entirely green quite yet. For example, any artist who tours on an international scale contributes an astronomical amount of CO2 emissions through air travel alone.
Radiohead front man Thom Yorke expressed concerns about that during an Earth Day performance on NBC’s Late Night with Conan O’Brien. Rather than the usual, in-studio performance, Radiohead appeared from their own studio in London.
“The plane trip to America would have been equal to driving your car around for an entire year,” Yorke told the audience via satellite. Over the past several years, Yorke and Radiohead have become known for being outspoken on environmental issues.
But, “all people aren’t going to just stop flying one day,” said Glicken, “so the only thing we can do at this point is to offset the carbon emissions by donating money to alternative energy sources.”
Troha credits the Dave Matthews Band with being the first artist to start a fuel emissions offset program. “He had already switched all of his touring buses and trucks to bio-diesel and wanted to give fans an opportunity to enjoy his music with a clear eco-conciseness,” he said.
The Dave Matthews Band continues to offer fans the chance to offset their fuel emissions, and in 2007 alone fans donated enough money to remove 1.2 million miles worth of emitted CO2 from the air.
Even with these major label artists on board, Glicken and Troha say the efforts at going green don’t all have to be on that grand scale.
For example, “I hang up all my clothes,” said Glicken, “just so I don’t have to use a dryer.” As far as he and the others at Green Owl are concerned, “Why not run my life the same way I’d want to run my business?”
But being green in business doesn’t necessarily translate to being profitable.
“We really don’t benefit at all financially,” said Glicken. “But even if it costs more, the outcome is far too important to let a little money get in the way.”
Glicken said by reducing energy in the long run, the thought of losing money in the short run seemed relatively insignificant.
Still, Glicken and Troha are optimistic about the economics of what they are doing. “If you make our cause economically viable, it will sell,” Glicken said, making the unlikely but many say important pragmatic connection between environmentalism and macroeconomics.
“The more demand we create for our so-called ‘product,’ the easier it will be for us to continue living, working and promoting on a larger scale,” said Glicken. “Eventually this line of thinking will trickle down until it’s the norm.”
After all, the alternative energy market has become a tremendous staple in the economic world.
“There are hedge funds entirely dedicated to alternative energy now,” Troha said, creating wealth and jobs. Corporations, too, including Walmart and Warner Bros., whose paper is now at least 30 percent recycled content, are beginning to take steps toward greenness.
But Glicken and Troha are careful not to predict overnight success.
“We’ve got this ground swell of people changing and that’s the best start we could ask for,” said Troha. He said he and Glicken expect to see more political leaders making the environment an important issue.
“The debate is over,” said Glicken, referencing Gore’s film. “But without the policy change, nothing can happen. We need the Ges of the world and more everyday brands to be striving toward the same goal.”
In this sense, Glicken and Troha find themselves at the heart of an “environmental paradox,” Troha said.
“The idea of taking care of the earth is long past due,” he said, “but somehow everyone who wasn’t paying attention before realized that we’d be screwing up.”
“It’s like people who smoke all their lives and think nothing of it, but then get cancer and decide it’s time to stop,” Glicken added. “We’re just trying to be as proactive as possible at this point.”
While the surge in support may represent good things to come, Glicken said it scares him to think that so many people suddenly started caring for the environment.
“Trends get exploited and shrivel up,” Glicken said. “At the same time, there are far too many people in this for their own beliefs, rather than political recognition.”
“This is not a trend, it’s a movement,” added Troha. “And it’s not a movement that’s going to stop.” It’s “like saying organic food is a trend. What a 25-year trend that is. That’s just ignorance!”