Nothing says summer like staking a claim on a blanket in front of a stage on a sunny day, cold drink in hand, to hear a favorite band blast out tunes al fresco. But as the festival season returns across Canada, it’s becoming harder for fans and performers alike to ignore the impact of climate change.
Already this year, dense smoke from wildfires in B.C., Alberta, Quebec, Nova Scotia and elsewhere has disrupted daily routines, worsening air quality and making breathing, and hence singing, difficult. Oppressive pollution from fires has even crossed our border, prompting air-quality warnings in major U.S. cities and prompting cancellation of outdoor events.
For many in the music industry, this adds fuel to growing efforts to deal with the issue – weaving it into the art as well as instilling it into the business.
“It’s absolutely a wake-up call for people living here,” says Toronto-based guitar ace Donna Grantis in a recent interview with The Globe and Mail. She has made the climate battle central to her career.
“Certainly in other parts of the world, people have been experiencing the effects much worse than us. I really hope that people connect the dots – connect the air quality and the forest fires to the burning of fossil fuels.”
Ms. Grantis, known for her chops as a solo artist and previously as a member of Prince’s high-energy 3rdeyegirl band before his death in 2016, has joined a growing number of performers that have taken up the cause. She’s signed onto producer Brian Eno’s EarthPercent initiative, a non-profit for which artists name the planet as a co-writer of their music, and directs portions of royalties to climate-related campaigns.
“I think it’s such a brilliant initiative and I can’t wait for the day when the Earth becomes the greatest beneficiary of songwriting royalties of all time,” she says.
She has also started her own project, Culture vs Policy, which weaves music into dialogue about climate and other environmental issues.
Ms. Grantis is among members of Canada’s music industry taking hard looks at their climate impact and proposing ideas for minimizing it.
It’s not huge compared with heavy industry. Still, according to the Canadian chapter of the non-profit Music Declares Emergency (MDE), touring and live shows account for 63 per cent of the industry’s revenue, and also the bulk of its environmental footprint. That includes transporting gear – which in this country can mean long road trips. There’s also the impact of vehicles that fans use to attend festivals and shows.
“It’s really important for the music industry to recognize that it’s not immune from the impacts of climate change and also plays a really critical role in terms of its cultural power to try and inspire action,” says Kim Fry, MDE’s co-ordinator.
The industry itself is vulnerable to the impact of forest fires, hotter temperatures, flooding and all the extra costs that go along with adapting to them. Poor air quality can play havoc with vocalists’ ability to belt out tunes on stage, Ms. Fry says.
MDE seeks to play the role of organizer for climate-related initiatives on the Canadian music scene. It holds summits for the industry and sets up events such as a Halifax concert planned for September that will be pedal-powered. That region is still recovering from the damage wrought by Hurricane Fiona last autumn, and the concert will act as a reminder of its destructive and lingering force.
The group enjoys support from such artists as Sarah Harmer, Dan Mangan, the Good Lovelies, the Weather Station and members of Broken Social Scene, and independent labels that include Six Shooter Records and Outside Music.
It’s a growing presence at outdoor festivals, including the Mariposa Folk Festival in Orillia, Ont., and Sommo Music Festival in Cavendish, PEI. It will also be sponsoring a shuttle bus from Toronto to the Hillside Festival in Guelph Lake Island, Ont.
MDE held the Canadian Music Climate Summit last October in Toronto, which brought together people from across the industry to discuss sustainability under the theme No Music on A Dead Planet. There, Ms. Grantis recorded A Drop in the Bucket, a guitar piece inspired by and featuring spoken words by Canadian environmental activist Tzeporah Berman, chair of the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative.
A second conference is planned for later this year. The group is also looking to attract sponsorships for this event as well as its Greening the Junos campaign, to reduce the environmental footprint for the annual music awards show, set for Halifax in 2024.
What’s missing now is the participation of the major labels, Ms. Fry says. The multinationals such as Sony Music, Universal Music Group and Warner Music Group have corporate environmental, social and governance programs and participate in similar climate-related initiatives in other markets around the world. (Warner Music Canada donated 470 trees for a reforestation and biodiversity program for Canada and Israel in 2022.)
For Ms. Fry, the nexus between climate and music is a family affair. Her daughter, Brighid Fry, is co-founder of MDE Canada as well as one half of the Toronto indie-rock duo Housewife, which recently released a tune called King of Wands. The track is part of the EarthPercent program.
Brighid, 20, said she believes the major labels will focus on Canadian efforts if they feel pressure from audiences. To do that, artists must use their cachet with fans to bolster their sense of activism, she says.
“Music brings people together to feel something: joy, comfort, belonging or connection. It can evoke emotions and inspire curiosity and conversation and reflection – a deeper understanding – and spark new ideas,” she says.
“So, related to the climate emergency, there’s tremendous potential to accelerate climate solutions by influencing the way people feel and think about human impacts on the Earth and as a force for social change.”
ESG AND SUSTAINABLE FINANCE REPORTER
The Globe and Mail, June 25, 2023