Music and Sustainability at Berklee and Beyond

Integrating sustainability practices into music not only helps address environmental concerns but also contributes to job creation and security.

June 4, 2024

This article was written by Tyler Kinnear, assistant director of career engagement and programs at the Berklee Career Center. Kinnear is cocurator of Resounding Change: Sonic Art and the Environment, an award-winning arts exhibition exploring sound in a time of environmental crisis.

If you spend time with musicians, at some point you’ll hear the word “sustain.” In music, it refers to strategically held notes—in a guitar solo, for example. It can also refer to the ability to sustain a career, especially as a freelance musician. Here at the Berklee Career Center, we are biased towards this notion. Our mission is clear: “preparing students for purposeful, successful, sustainable careers.” A sustainable career is traditionally defined as one that brings meaning to one’s life, utilizes one’s skills and experience, and fosters both professional and personal growth. However, amid the current climate crisis, it carries environmental connotations.

Music, as a powerful medium for storytelling, can forge emotional connections to the planet, but it comes with challenges in areas like artist/fan travel, consumer products, and energy management. The immediate effects of climate change on the music industry, such as event postponement due to extreme weather and increased insurance costs, underscores the urgency of the climate crisis. Within these challenges lie many new opportunities to develop existing roles and to design new ones. Integrating sustainability practices into music not only helps address environmental concerns but also contributes to job creation and security.

Our commitment to career education is pivotal in shaping a new era for the music industry, where sustainability is no longer an afterthought but an integral aspect of the industry.

— Tyler Kinnear, Berklee Career Center

In response to environmental concerns—and also fan demands—vendors are adopting reuse practices and calibrating the long-term cost-effectiveness that comes with reuse. Major companies in the music industry, such as Anschutz Entertainment Group and Live Nation, are actively hiring sustainability-focused staff, reflecting a growing demand for professionals in the field. Moreover, record labels are forming environmental, social, and governance (ESG) teams, and professional organizations such as the Audio Engineering Society are discussing best practices for “greening” audio products.

A Global Green Effort

Yet, as Amy Morrison, cofounder and president of the Music Sustainability Alliance (MSA), explains, “the international landscape reveals a more cohesive approach to sustainability in the music industry, with federations of music industry associations like LIVE Green in the UK leading the way. In contrast, the USA is somewhat more fragmented, lacking collaborative efforts and impactful groups working together. The absence of robust regulations contributes to this fragmentation, making it imperative to address sustainability issues collaboratively.” 

The MSA recently marked a significant milestone in addressing this through its inaugural Music Sustainability Summit in Los Angeles earlier this year. The summit brought together key industry players, from music agents and record label executives to trucking companies and catering services. It highlighted the potential for collaboration in fostering sustainable practices, emphasizing the importance of pre-competitive collaboration and the need to focus on creating a networked (instead of fragmented) green association for music business in the United States.

Additionally, the MSA recently established three working groups to address environmental challenges in the music industry. These groups are: Reporting, Metrics, and Standardization, which the author has joined; Renewable Energy and Power Solutions; and Waste Management and Circular Economy. Group members represent diverse areas, from major music festivals such as Ultra to conglomerates such as Warner Music Group, and city governance, exemplified by the City of Miami Beach. These groups aim to further sustainability in the industry through research, collaboration, and innovation.

Sustainability on Campus

At Berklee, collaboration is central to driving sustainability initiatives. The Berklee Sustainability Coalition, led by cochairs Cathy Horn, Wayne Wild, and Sofia Villarreal, serves as a grassroots platform for driving positive change on campus. The coalition engages in practical initiatives such as waste diversion events and recycling campaigns, distributes educational information on personal best practices, and supports Berklee performances concerning climate and sustainability.

The Movement performs at Franklin Park Zoo in 2023

Sustainability efforts on campus extend to many other areas on campus. These include curriculum integration (e.g., Linda Chase’s Introduction to Ecomusicology course); Berklee’s annual Earth Day celebration, Earthapalooza, featuring original environment-themed music by student bands and guest speakers; the Movement’s student-led community engagement initiatives, such as their semesterly performance at the Franklin Park Zoo; and BoCo Green, a Boston Conservatory at Berklee waste-reduction initiative.

Sofia Villarreal, a seventh-semester double major in performance (bass) and electronic production and design, stands at the forefront of student-led sustainability initiatives. Villarreal’s journey reflects a deep commitment to creating positive change. In response to employment opportunities and environmental change, Villarreal organized the Start Where We Are Earth Music Festival at Boston Common in the fall of 2023. The festival featured 16 Berklee bands, along with food and arts vendors, and drew hundreds of  attendees. Funds raised from the event were donated to local environmental organizations.

Let the Music Do the Talking

Villarreal’s perspective goes beyond traditional activism; she believes in the unique power of music to impact people in a way that science and policy cannot. As she puts it, “musicians have an amazing power that other power holders don’t have. We have a way to reach people’s hearts in a way they are open to receiving.” Through her advocacy, Villarreal aims to inspire a grounded and positive approach to addressing environmental issues, showcasing the transformative power of music in healing both individuals and the planet. Sofia envisions her own future filled with impactful projects, including an arts and environment podcast and a potential future iteration of the festival.

Addressing an 'Us Problem'

Prior to Villarreal serving as the Berklee Sustainability Coalition’s student cochair, the role was held by Fisher Thompson BM ’23. Thompson’s passion for music and sustainability culminated in a transformative trip to Real World Studios as a 2023 Wadhams Production Scholar. This scholarship, named after Wayne Wadhams, founder of Berklee’s Music Production and Engineering (MP&E) Department, exposed Thompson to the bucolic nature setting of Peter Gabriel’s studio, located in a former mill outside Bath, England. In response to that trip, Thompson aspires to create a nature-based, eco-friendly studio setup here in New England.

Thompson views sustainability not as an individual burden but one that requires operational and systemic change. He observes that “so much of the narrative [on climate change] relies on individuals. There’s so much out there telling you that what you’re doing is hurting the planet. Much of this is true, but there are larger issues. Businesses and corporations are doing worse. This is an 'us' problem and not a 'you' problem.” Thompson continues, “I’m hopeful that the climate crisis is something that musicians will learn they can’t avoid, not in a 'doomsday' way, but that it becomes part of our everyday life. I don’t believe people need to beat themselves up, but the amount of hopeful people at Berklee will necessitate more institutional support.” Thompson advocates for institutions contributing more to sustainability, highlighting the collective responsibility in addressing the climate crisis.

Preparing for Sustainable—and Responsible—Careers

The Berklee Career Center’s commitment to preparing students for sustainable careers goes beyond conventional career services. The center consists of a dynamic team that provides specialized advising, networking avenues, music industry workshops, internship opportunities, and a wealth of online resources. By tailoring career development strategies to the intersection of music and sustainability, the Career Center is uniquely positioned to propel students towards a future where their artistic endeavors align seamlessly with environmental responsibility.

While there are a growing number of designated sustainability jobs in the music industry, one could argue that every job in the industry touches sustainability. As the industry evolves, the relationship between music and the environment will become increasingly apparent. This awareness emphasizes the importance of a holistic approach to education and career sustainability, essential for equipping students with the skills needed to succeed in a world of rapid change.

At Berklee, our commitment to career education is pivotal in shaping a new era for the music industry, where sustainability is no longer an afterthought but an integral aspect of the industry. Through our collective efforts, we are helping to prepare the next generation of professionals to not only meaningfully contribute to the arts but also actively engage in fostering a more sustainable world.

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