Industry Leaders Discuss What They're Doing to Make Concerts More Sustainable at Billboard Live Music Summit

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Panelists for 'Beyond Plastic: Music and Business of Social Change' during the 2018 Billboard Live Music Summit + Awards at the Montage Beverly Hills on Nov. 14, 2018 in Beverly Hills, Calif.

A burgeoning movement to reduce plastic waste has caught the attention of artists, promoters, venues and fans.

When a powerhouse like Katy Perry speaks, folks tend to pay attention. Just ask Aran Rush, VP of arena operations at the sustainable concert venue Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, California.  

"We did have plastic straws for our general population, because we were still nervous about transitioning over," said Rush when discussing the venue's environmentally-friendly practices. "But we used plant-based straws everywhere else. And then we had Katy Perry come and she asked us to switch over. And ever since she came in January, we switched over to only plant-based straws," he continued. "Sometimes you just need a little spark to start it."

This was just one highlight of the panel Beyond Plastic: Music and the Business of Social Change at the Billboard Live Music Summit in Beverly Hills on Wednesday (Nov. 14), at which moderator Michael Martin -- founder and CEO of Effect Partners, a non-profit whose r.Cup initiative partners with sports and music venues to cut down on their single-use plastic waste -- hosted leaders in the music industry's ongoing sustainability movement to discuss reducing the plastic-waste footprint at venues across the country.

In addition to Rush, the panelists included Nic Adler, festival director at Goldenvoice; Tom Chauncey, senior agent, CEO, and founder of Partisan Arts agency; Dianna Cohen, CEO of the environmental non-profit Plastic Pollution Coalition; and Farid Mosher, senior guest services manager of the event production company C3.

One notable change agent who received honorable mentions from the panel was singer-songwriter Jack Johnson, who has been a leading proponent of sustainable event venues for the past 15 years and has inspired a multitude of other artists, venues and concert promoters to get involved. Chauncey, who has represented Johnson for over a decade, noted that getting venues on board back in 2003 was a challenge, but that now they're beginning to take it upon themselves.

"When we go back to these [venues], a lot of [venues] will say to us, 'Back in 2008, we really appreciated all the points that you were putting out. We just kept doing it from then,'" said Chauncey. "And that was exactly what we were hoping [would happen], is that it would start to become [normalized]."

Johnson certainly walks the walk when it comes to sustainability. On his last tour alone, the musician completely eliminated single-use plastic straws while cutting out over 36,000 single-use plastic water bottles and over 100,000 single-use plastic cups. And he's not the only artist who has been doing his part; Cohen noted that a number of other musicians including Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, Ben Harper and Crosby, Stills & Nash have all devoted themselves to the burgeoning movement.

"What ended up happening is they started ... on their [tour] riders asking venues ... in a very kind and sweet way, a letter saying, 'We're really dedicated to reducing our plastic footprint, and we'd like you guys to help us do that,'" said Cohen, whose organization is made up of over 750 businesses and organizations across the globe. "So [it] really started in a very grassroots [way]."

These loud voices have helped spread the gospel of sustainability to individuals and organizations on every end of the festival and touring circuit, many of whom have adopted a more open attitude to the movement in recent years. But as the panelists noted, fans have a responsibility too.

"Everybody has a role in sustainability at a festival," said Mosher, who cited the use of composting bins as an example. "We have to provide all the resources available, from bins to waste hauling, but also a fan needs to throw the compostable products in the appropriate bin.... As festival producers, it is our responsibility that we're connecting all those dots, that we're providing all the resources available in order to see these sustainability programs be successful."

Chauncey believes it's an easy ask for most concert-goers to do well by the environment. "The fans wants this," added Chauncey. "This is not a hardship for the audience. In fact, I think it's an add-on. It's a plus."

Of course, reducing plastic waste is also the responsibility of the corporations who produce the bottles and straws in the first place, and Cohen believes more needs to be done to put pressure on manufacturers like Coca-Cola and Pepsi to do the right thing.

"Corporations have chosen particular packaging that they use to bring food and beverages to the public," she said. "And unfortunately, over the last 50, 60 years, they've also managed to put the onus and responsibility for all that packaging ... on the public."

Adler believes the government also plays a significant role in the equation. "I'm not one for regulation, but I don't think we're gonna actually see major significant change unless we have regulation from the top. If California says, 'Hey, no more water bottles at music festivals,'" said the promoter, who helps put on the annual Coachella music festival, "I guarantee you that Live Nation and AEG and C3 and whoever are gonna get in a room and figure it out real fast."

Near the end of the panel, an audience member brought up the question of cost. What, she asked the assembled group, can the industry do to help bring down the price of more expensive items like, say, paper straws, which cost on average about two cents more than plastic? To that, Adler had a ready answer.

"I think people would spend an extra two or three dollars now if they understood what the costs are gonna eventually be if we don't make change," he said.