Photo credit: Valérie Maltseva
Founder of the pan-European Green Music Initiative, Jacob Sylvester Bilabel is also one of the Faces of We are Europe. Paying attention to current trends in the field of the music industry when it comes to sustainability, he was invited, alongside many other cultural actors, at the latest edition of Elevate Festival (2020) to discuss the theme of the event, “Human Nature”.
We met him in Graz at Forum Stadtpark to exchange about his platform, how the cultural sector can tackle the issue of climate change through reducing energy consumption, localism, avoiding greenwashing and being part of networks.
We are Europe: Hello Jacob, thank you for answering our questions! Could you start by presenting yourself?
Jacob Bilabel: My name is Jacob Sylvester Bilabel, I am the founder of Green Music Initiative. We are based in Berlin (Germany) and we are a pan-European research and innovation network for the music and entertainment industries.
Can you tell us more about the Green Music Initiative and explain what’s its role?
The role of the Green Music Initiative—we call it GMI, it is easier—is that we are a research and innovation buddy: we pull research questions, we fund them, operate them and conduct studies. As of now we are developing and generating data sets for festivals.
Wishing to make this music industry greener: is it not paradoxical that festivals, among others, generate important carbon emissions by inviting foreign artists to perform one-off gigs?
Well, the interesting thing first of all—I have 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 look at the environmental footprint of a festival and break it down, the footprint of the visitors is smaller than if they had listened 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 downloads and all the machines you need for that. A festival footprint is lower in that sense.
Very often we think that a festival has a big footprint. Yes, that is right. But we tend to forget the footprint of our data centres. To boil it down to one sentence: it is always better to do something together than alone.
Besides the environmental impact of the festival, 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 over the course of these three days, which has a very very positive impact towards our understanding of an open society, of an European way of doing things and of everything we stand for. This is what a festival can do as well.
Loads of initiatives have 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 not the biggest part of the impact. Energy consumption is the biggest challenge. You don’t produce more waste at a festival than on a day in Paris or… where are you from?
For example, if every shop, supermarket or restaurant in Lyon decided to put their waste out on the street, it would look worse than at a festival. Only at 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, few initiatives talk about it these days. I think that we should first try to lower our energy consumption and 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, including Coldplay or Gigsta, have decided to “slow-gig”. Some promoters are also thinking about inviting local musicians to play music from foreign artists. That would be a real revolution in the gig industry. What are your thoughts on this idea?
It is a very good way of tackling this issue and it could be revolutionary, because the current booking system—i.e. paying very expensive artists and 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 to that.
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 let’s say 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 oly thing is that they are not used to that anymore. When DJs started, they wanted to play the whole night. Now they only play for one hour, which is weird.
Do you think that localism could help 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 to have local products in the music market. That can help but somehow, it can also cut you 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 is so much quality in local artists who are lacking opportunities to be 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 a ‘50% local artists’ rule.
What about greenwashing? A lot of players in the industry are aware of what is at stake here. Some of them are taking real action while some are only surfing the wave; what are your thoughts on this and have you seen some crazy stuff on the matter?
It is an issue because everybody is afraid and panicked and wants to show quick wins. For example, some festivals present themselves as climate-neutral just by buying offsetting certificates, 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 weekly, it makes so much sense to offset your flight emission. But you should not stop there. It should just be a means to help you understand and start compensating CO2. The big challenge with greenwashing is that it keeps you away from real measures. It is good if you start with something that feels nice because it keeps you into activity. But you have to understand where your emissions are coming from and how to reduce them, not just buy certificates.
You are one of the Faces of We are Europe. How do you perceive this kind of network? What is 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 about our common future?
I think that today, we have to work closer together than we ever did before because the challenges are so big. Climate change is not a German, French, Austrian or even a European challenge. It is a global one.
At the very same time, in the cultural field, it makes so much sense to exchange creative ideas and getting together with actors from other countries to really broaden the spectrum.
To be honest, from my point of view, I do not see how national actions can truly be effective. Because music is a global language and so is creativity. The more we work together, the easier will be to cope with challenges at hand.
At the very same time—this is why I am so much into projects such as We are Europe—I heard over the last two days so much anger, grief, fear of what is 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 at a festival, at a club or while eating with friends; the magic moment eating with strangers. All of a sudden you realise we are all in this together.