‘We can move the dial’: can Massive Attack set a new benchmark for low-carbon live music?

The legendary Bristol band have announced a huge hometown show for 2024. But will the eco-friendly event provide a model for a more climate-conscious live music industry?

Photo: Warren Du Preez

“In terms of climate action, there are no excuses left,” said Massive Attack in their announcement of an enormous ‘climate accelerator’ gig on the Downs in August 2024, their first UK show for five years. “Live music must drastically reduce all primary emissions and take account of fan travel. 

“Working with pioneering partners on this project means we can seriously move the dial for major live music events and help create precedents,” the group’s 3D said.

Over 30 years the Bristol band have often led the way in musical innovation, and in climate activism too. Few acts of their stature have invested so much into sustainable research and resources. 

It follows then that Massive Attack’s hometown gig in August – their first Bristol show in five years – will be Act 1.5, billed as the lowest carbon show of its size ever staged. But can it deliver on its bold ambitions?

“This concert is an important touchstone in Massive Attack’s attempts to align live performance with climate change action,” says Dr Steven ‘Stim’ Gamble, Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the University of Bristol’s department of music. 

“It’s great to see them… putting ideas into practice, following previous actions like touring Europe by train,” Stim says. “It would be great to see if this can set a precedent across the industry.”

The music industry’s impact 

Music’s environmental footprint has become an increasingly high-profile issue, with Massive Attack not the only artists to have championed the cause.

Billie Eilish hosted Overheated at London’s O2 arena to trigger conversations around the climate crisis, while more than 3,000 artists have signed up to the Music Declares an Emergency commitment. Coldplay, the 1975 and Pearl Jam have also promoted sustainable behaviour.

Tackling carbon emissions that come from audience travel – which account for up to 80% of event emissions – is at the heart of Massive Attack’s aims. Act 1.5 gives local fans priority ticket access, encouraging train travel and organising electric bus transport. Battery- and solar-powered catering and lighting will also feature.

Caroline Moraes, a professor of marketing at the University of Bristol’ business school, believes the group has been rigorous in its approach. 

“The gig has huge potential to be transformative,” she says. “The super low carbon live roadmap they commissioned is well thought through; there are lots of recommendations for other groups in the industry. 

“There are always better choices that could be made in relation to the environment,” she adds. “Massive Attack are signposting these effectively.” 

Train Hugger, a tech business dedicated to reducing emissions from travel, is a partner for the event. Every time someone buys a ticket via the app, the organisation plants a tree in the UK through partnership with the Royal Forestry Society. An estimated 250,000 trees have been planted to date, with the ambition of doubling UK woodland cover from 13% to 26%. 

“Many festivals take place in a field without facilities,” says Felix Tanzer, who co-founded Train Hugger alongside Edmund Caldecott. “So if you add a load of generators – everyone drives there as you can’t get there via public transport – it’s going to have an impact.”

Caldecott agrees. “If everyone bought train tickets, this would equate to us planting millions of trees,” he says. “It’s a small behavioural switch that we’re trying to make, but with a big impact.”

The sustainability bandwagon

While other high profile acts have committed to green measures, Massive Attack have called out artists jumping on the sustainability bandwagon. The band’s Robert Del Naja has said it is embarrassing that the “artist wears the climate T-shirt, waves the placard, while simultaneously operating in a high carbon, high-polluting sector”. 

Stim points out that not all artists have the means to tackle environmental issues, at a time when money in the music industry is hard to come by – with live music a key income stream for small acts. He believes though that many big-name artists are not necessarily interested in supporting change.

“The environmental costs are disproportionately created by artists playing vast stadium shows, with thousands of audience members travelling to attend,” he says. “The risk is that the social pressure of climate action falls to small bands touring locally – who have a much smaller carbon footprint – in the same way that individuals and households are pressured into measures like recycling, when only 100 companies are responsible for nearly three-quarters of fossil-fuel emissions.”

In Stim’s eyes, Massive Attack’s sustainable plans for the gig are tackling the main roots of emissions. But he adds some suggestions.

“I haven’t seen any mention of merchandise – sustainable and ethically sourced/produced fabrics would be an important consideration,” he says. “Another small factor would be the sourcing of materials used in stage construction and on-stage equipment [Radiohead use LED lighting for example]. But I’m nitpicking really.” 

Beacon of change?

Away from the Downs, the newly reopened Bristol Beacon is committed to becoming the UK’s first net-zero concert hall by 2030. Inspired by the Sydney Opera House, which achieved carbon neutrality in 2018, a team of sustainability champions in the Beacon’s team has talked with charity Julia’s Bicycle and consultant Hope Solutions on creating its own roadmap to net zero. 

Bristol Beacon has committed to becoming the UK’s first net-zero concert hall by 2030 (Photo: Chris Cooper)

The focus has been on tackling ‘Scope 3’ emissions: those the venue indirectly creates, for example through goods and services it buys and transport activities associated with its operations.

“Sixty percent of our Scope 3 emissions were from audience travel – that’s been a real focus for us,” says Rosa Corbishley, the Beacon’s development director. “We formed a partnership with First Bus to offer discounts for those travelling to us by bus to tackle this.” 

The venue has been advised on how best to communicate to its audience around green travel, and has invested significantly in its in-house PA and tech in order to reduce the amount of gear acts need to bring.

A toxic model

Despite Massive Attack’s impressive ambitions, and the work of venues such as the Beacon, some warn that as things stand the music industry is not set up to support a shift to net zero. 

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“Whether or not this is a watershed moment… really depends on how many other artists follow suit,” says Kimwei, an artist, educator and activist affiliated with Extinction Rebellion. 

“The current industry model is partly to blame for how the climate crisis came about,” adds Kimwei. “Writing and recording copyright laws welded songs to the artist who had written/released them, creating a superstar-based industry – and from then on, for the song to travel, the artist had to travel, to generate merchandise, and so on.” 

Less touring would be beneficial, not only for the environment but for grassroots local scenes constantly under threat. The recent closure of Moles in Bath after 45 years of hosting live music is indicative of the financial pressures venues face. 

“Rather than fans spending huge amounts of money and emissions on travelling to arena shows, it would be more sustainable to support new talent at local gigs,” says Kimwei. “This could help the environment and galvanise local scenes.” 

There have been other recent attempts to raise the issue of the climate crisis within music, including singer-songwriter and activist Louise Harris’ powerful climate anthem ‘We Tried’ – the first ever attempt to get a climate song to number one for Christmas. 

But Massive Attack’s approach has the potential for a much wider impact. “Ultimately, the gig is a prototype for the industry,” says Train Hugger’s Felix. 

“If Massive Attack can prove they can put on a gig that is powered by 100% renewable energy, then you can justifiably turn around to other bands and artists and ask, ‘Why aren’t you doing this too?’ You can’t change things overnight – but it’s a huge step in the right direction.” 

For more info: massiveattack.co.uk

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