With a name befitting a band (an intentional choice by its music industry founders), Julie’s Bicycle set out to rock the creative world with a noble mission to make environmental sustainability intrinsic to the arts and creative industries. And they’ve done just that. By providing free tools and guide resources, sound scientific research and technology that provide environmental accounting and real data, and inspiration through thought leadership and events, they’re making a big impact.
GreenNotes spoke with founder and CEO Alison Tickell about their environmental initiatives, challenges and impacts, and what the music industry and its audiences can do to facilitate environmental sustainability.
GreenNotes: What is the biggest challenge for the music industry when they first try to go green?
Alison Tickell: Julie’s Bicycle has been around for seven years now, and I think it is still challenging for us, because sustainability is not considered business-critical in the music industry. Generally speaking, it’s a fragmented and competitive industry – it doesn’t always have a great deal of bonhomie or community as its starting point, unlike other industries that we’ve worked with, like theater. The music industry has also gone through a hugely difficult period and it’s only coming out the other side of it now; so focusing minds on sustainability is difficult when people are under a great deal of pressure. What the industry is doing at the moment is finding its feet in the context of a rapidly changing and challenging business model. So our conversations are often, “OK, this is relevant to you and this is why”. It’s not always easy for people to understand the issues in the first place, and on the other hand it’s easy to lose sight of why sustainability is profoundly relevant to them. Sometimes putting something in place – translating an idea into practice – is challenging. So, you’re running a little record label, and you feel really strongly about climate change and then you get into the office. It’s not that you lose interest, but you get caught up in the day-to-day business and actually keeping that focus is very hard.
That’s true of any business but it’s also partly the way the industry is shaped, and that it has had to deal with a lot of really pressing issues in terms of its business case – keeping the relevance of climate change in that context is very difficult. How do you translate ideas and aspirations into the day-to-day so that it becomes a cultural norm?
GN: How are greening initiatives different in the UK than Stateside. It’s not a legal requirement in the U.S. in the music world, but one of the things that’s great is that you do have that as a requirement with the arts there.
AT: The UK has a Climate Change Act of Parliament, which we’ve had since 2009, which creates a legal framework we all have to abide by. It was the first country to have a Climate Change Act. However, having said that, it doesn’t affect most of the music industry because it’s applicable to bigger businesses which consume large amounts of energy – the corporate and manufacturing sectors. However, in 2012 Arts Council England, which distributes about 400 million pounds ($600+ million U.S.) in grants to our arts organizations, made environmental reporting using our IG Tools [Julie’s Bicycle’s online carbon calculators] and an environmental policy and action plan, a condition of receiving funding, of receiving grants. This was really interesting for us because even for organizations that weren’t required or didn’t get grants from the Arts Council, it changed the conversation, it became much more normal to report on environmental impacts and to use the IG Tools. And – something we weren’t expecting – we saw a very interesting, parallel increase in people using the IG tools amongst non-Arts Council organizations. It seemed that what was actually happening wasn’t so pegged to funding, it was more about a change in the norm, in what is expected of you. And that has been consolidated actually. Since 2012 reporting and understanding impacts across the arts community is generally getting stronger and stronger so we’re getting more and more people knowing what their carbon footprint is and how it compares to others. So, for me that was a very good example of very positive policy intervention which did what a good policy needs to do. In terms of GreenNotes and what’s happening now, you guys are in a really interesting place where you’ve developed a lot of resources, a lot of expertise, and potentially there is an opportunity now to really push change.
GN: We love that your site has Top Tips, everything from touring to sustainable CDs and sustainable merchandise guide. What’s something you would say everyone could be doing right away when it comes to the music industry and their audiences who love music, is there something that could make a quick impact?
AT: I think the easiest thing that everyone can do is ask – ask whether a part of your supply chain is involved in environmental sustainability… the most powerful thing would be if accountability around environmental sustainability was part of the DNA of what we did, so every performing venue measured its carbon footprint and had an environmental policy that you could see, so that it was out there, everybody understood it, everybody expected it. You would see it in the same way as you see health and safety – a given. So every artist expected to see green riders, every venue expected an artist to have a green touring schedule, every audience member expected to see energy, water and waste in the building that they’re walking into managed in a sustainable way. It sounds complicated, it’s not. It could be displayed as a simple green certificate or a simple green notice of what are you doing. And the reason why that would make the biggest difference of all is that we would be changing a cultural norm and the norm at the moment is that climate change and environmental sustainability are really pretty much hidden issues, out of the mainstream. If you take them out of the backend, the minor clauses in policies, or the secondary priorities of the industry and gently bring it up to the fore then you’re changing the cultural norm and you’re changing it for everybody. So I think accountability around environmental sustainability is golden, it’s what we’re all looking for.
So we started a campaign, which is just to say to an artist or a promoter or a manager, ask: Is the festival or the venue you’re about to perform in does it have an environmental policy? That’s it. Simple as that. And if enough people ask, then of course it will happen.
GN: What are some of the costs a band, artist or music venue might expect to pay upfront when employing greening efforts and does it pay off pretty quickly? Obviously it pays off quickly environmentally.
AT: The first and the biggest cost is always going to be in energy, so that’s the big one, the one that actually yields the most dividends, both in buildings but also in festivals… Often the first piece of advice is to go for efficiencies and you can save a lot of money. We’ve got lots of examples of organizations cutting their energy bills by maybe 27% in the first year, and that applies not just to buildings but also to festivals. We’ve done a some research which has led to a big and growing campaign called Powerful Thinking across festivals, which is focused on generator use and diesel. But the core of it is about people becming literate around energy use, just as in buildings. The more you know about your energy use, the more you start to manage it much, much better.
Once you move beyond efficiencies, though, you get into investments … In America it might be really efficient air conditioning or insulation, depending on where you are, or better, looking at passive systems, which are natural ways of managing temperature. Over time refurbishments and capital investments that improve your energy use will definitely affect your bottom line. Payback depends on the scale of your project and also – often not factored in – how people behave. Payback periods can be difficult to gauge. It could range from 3 years to 15 years, and it is much to do with the culture of the organization – there’s no point in putting heavy investment into new gear and new technology if you’re not going to match that with a behavior change program at work where people behave sustainably. That’s also often why it’s best to start with efficiencies. If you change the way people think about how they use a building or source energy at a festival that potentially brings in some additional money that can be put into your sustainability investments and you don’t have to retrospectively change people’s thinking about what they do and how they behave.
GN: What would you say are the biggest challenges for you as an organization?
AT: I think there’s two key challenges. One is always the money. We’re a charity so, like many in mission-led organisations it’s making sure that we’ve got enough resource. The other challenge is managing growth – we don’t want to grow too much. Taking on lots more staff and chapters might be a mark of failure because that means that we’re not doing our job well enough, it means we’re not facilitating people to really understand and take this stuff on deeply…
But I think the more interesting challenges are actually around keeping this issue relevant, without it becoming boring or corporatized, it’s keeping people engaged and aware of the urgency, but also the joy and the wonderful creative opportunities we have, and aligned to that is understanding that being ethical about our planet can be the most exciting place to be, it doesn’t have to be tedious.
In the music industry, generally speaking, we do not consider ourselves to be primarily concerned with ethical questions. Having a conversation, an ethical conversation, can be difficult, but it’s absolutely critical, so it’s making sure that the conversations we’re having are the right conversations, are unapologetic and that they clearly show just how relevant taking care of the environment really is, not just to a bottom line, but to creativity as a collective endeavor – and that’s got to be what the music industry is ultimately about.