The founder of the pan-European Green Music Initiative, Jacob Sylvester Bilabel is also one of the We are Europe faces. Paying attention to the current trends in the field of music industry when it comes to sustainability, he was invited at the last Elevate festival edition (2020) to discuss, alongside many others cultural actors, the event’s ‘Human Nature’ theme. We met him there in Graz at Forum Stadtpark to exchange about his platform, the way culture can tackle the issue of climate change through reducing energy consumption, localism, avoiding green washing and being part of networks.
Photo credit: Valérie Maltseva
We are Europe: Hello Jacob, thanks for answering our questions! Could you start by presenting yourself?
Jacob Bilabel: My name is Jacob Sylvester Bilabel, I’m the founder of the Green Music Initiative. We are based in Berlin, Germany, and we are a pan-European research and innovation network for the music and entertainment industry.
Can you tell us more about this Green Music Initiative and explain what’s its role?
The role of the Green Music Initiative– we call it GMI, it’s easier, is that we are a research and innovation buddy: we are pulling research questions, we fund them, operate them, doing studies as of know we are developing and generate data set for festival.
Wishing to make this music industry greener: isn’t it a bit paradoxical in a sense that festivals (among others), do have a big carbon footprint by inviting foreign artists to play for just a few hour gigs?
Well, the interesting thing first of all – I’ve got this question very often – is that the music industry thrives on abundance. It thrives on the idea of having everything as loud, as colourful, as bright as possible.
At the very same time, if you come from the point of environmental footprint for a festival itself, if you break it down, the footprint of the visitors is smaller than if they would listen to music alone at home. Indeed if 60,000 people listen to music at home at the same time, you will have the footprint of all the streams, all the download and all the machines you need for that. A festival footprint is lower in that sense.
So, very often we think that a festival has a big footprint; yes it’s right. But we tend to forget the footprint of our data centres. To boil it down to one sentence; it’s always better to do something together than alone.
Besides the festival’s environmental impact, let’s not forget about the positive impact you have when you listen to music together with 20,000 people from all over Europe that you don’t know when you enter the festival. You might get to know them during the period of these three days, which has a very very positive impact towards our understanding of an open society and of an European ways of doing things, of everything we stand for. This is what a festival can do as well.
A lots of initiatives emerged in the past months to foster a more sustainable music industry business. Do you have in mind any relevant examples of this kind of initiatives?
What is interesting right now is that most of these new initiatives seem to tackle the most visible challenges. Everybody is talking about waste and plastic… which clearly is a challenge, but this is not the biggest part of the impact. Energy consumption is the biggest challenge. You don’t produce more waste on a festival than on a day in Paris or… where are you from?
For example, if every shop, supermarket or restaurant in Lyon would put their wastes out on the street, it would look worst than on a festival. Only on a festival we see it.
However, the energy consumption per day, and per festival visitor is roughly the same than a per day consumption in Lyon, Berlin or Graz. So, the big challenge is the invisible impact, like energy. Unfortunately, a few amount of initiatives these days talk about it. I think that we should first try to lower the energy consumption, and at the very same time we have to get rid of fossil fuels. If energy systems are still based on fossil fuels we have a big problem. If we can get rid of coal, we can get rid of oil. That makes so much more sense than starting by the things you see first.
To limit artists’ carbon footprint, some of them decide to ‘slow-gig’ such as Coldplay or Gigsta, while some promoters are thinking about inviting local musicians to play music from foreign artists. Which would be a real revolution in the gig industry. What’s your thought on this idea?
It is a very good way of tackling this issue and could be revolutionary because the current booking system – i.e. paying very expensive artists & DJs for just one hour per night and then they’re off to the next gig – is going to implode. You can ask every promoter or any guy running a festival; everybody hates it, but somehow we came there.
I think what you mention makes so much sense because it has so much quality to travel slow, by train for example. On the other hand, if you are for example a ‘big’ club promoter; instead of having 8 DJs playing for one hour you could have 4 DJs playing for two hours. Artists love that, but the only thing is that they are not used to that anymore. When DJs started, they wanted to play the whole night. This is how it started. Now they play only for one hour, which is weird…
Do you think that localism could be one of the solutions in this trend of making the music industry more sustainable and greener?
This is a very hard question, which has two sides. France for example makes very much effort in having local product in the music market. Which helps on one hand. On the other hand, somehow, it can cut from international development. At a very same time, music is a universal language and I would be very reluctant to have rules saying how many local artists you should have on stage.
On the other hand, there’s so much quality in local artists, who are lacking the opportunity of being on big stages. So it has to be a very fine movement and balance between having more local artists, but without setting up some quota or ‘50% local artists’ rule.
What about green washing? A lot of players in the industry are aware of the popular idea of making the industry greener. Some of them are doing real stuffs and some are surfing on the wave; what are your thoughts on this and have you seen some crazy stuffs about this?
It is an issue because everybody is afraid and panicking and wants to show quick wins. For example some festivals present themselves as climate neutral just by buying offsetting certificate. Which is not right. It is good if you pay somebody to plant a tree but it does not make your festival become climate neutral.
If you run a booking agency and you have 25 artists traveling all over Europe on a weekly basis, it makes so much sense to offset your flight emission. But you should not stop there. It should be just a bridge of helping you to understand and start the compensation of CO2. The big challenge with green washing is that it keeps you away from real measures. It is good if you start with something which feels nice, because it keeps you into activity, but you have to understand where your emission are coming from and how to reduce them and not just buying certificate.
You are one of the ‘faces’ of We are Europe. How do you perceive this kind of network? What’s the added-value of bringing such people together? Do you think that joining forces as we are doing with festivals and cultural actors is a way to think our common future?
I think that, today, more than ever, we have to work closely together than we did ever before, because the challenges are so big. Climate change is not a German, French, Austrian or even a European challenge. It’s global.
At the very same time, in the cultural field, it makes so much sense of exchanging creative ideas and getting together with actors from other countries to really broaden the spectrum.
To be honest, from my point of view, I don’t see any national creativity actions that are good and only national. Because music is a global language, and so is creativity. The more we work together, the easier will be to cope that challenges at hand.
At the very same time – this is why I’m so much into a project such as We are Europe – I heard over the last two days so much angers, grief, fears of what’s about to happen; so it makes so much sense to come together and share that. We can share our stories, our successes, our losses, and our faith. But in the end we are always better if we do something together. This is the magic moment you have on a festival, on a club or eating with friends; the magic moment eating with strangers. All of a sudden you realise we are all in this together.