When it comes to sustainability in the music industry, the conversation inevitably turns to the future of festivals. While touring puts the onus on the artist in regards to carbon output, when it comes to fests, it’s the audience that bears the brunt of most of the environmental damage. There are reportedly over 800 music festivals annually in the United States alone, with many of those right here in the Pacific Northwest. And it should come as no surprise that many of the nation’s greenest festivals are from right in our backyard.
The trailblazers of eco-friendly fests is the Pickathon Music Fest, held on Pendarvis Farm in the perfectly-named city of Happy Valley, OR. Founded in 1999, it wasn’t long before they adopted a sustainability plan for their fest.
“We decided to make it a priority back in 2010,” Zale Schoenborn, Founder and Executive Director of Pickathon, told KEXP. “We were feeling, there’s just gotta be a better way to deal with the huge amount of plastic we saw ourselves going through. Like the amount of cups, I think for us, was a couple hundred thousand cups, or something goofy, in a weekend. And that's when we turned to partnering with some friends at Klean Kanteen. And we basically came up with a whole idea of a steel cup, and a way to hold it, and that people could rinse their cups. And we worked it out so that people would buy a souvenir cup that they could take home, and all weekend, that's what they would use to drink out of. There's no other plastic to get anywhere. It's working like a champ.”
The Pickathon plan sounds like a perfect antidote to the ecological carnage seen at most music fests. For instance, at last year’s Glastonbury Festival, a five-day music event held in Somerset, England, the festival banned the sale of single-use plastic bottles. As The Sun reported, in 2017, more than 1 million drinks in plastic bottles were sold. This year, there were zero. The 93-year-old environmentalist Sir David Attenborough actually took the stage on the last day of the festival to thank the audience. But then post-fest photos revealed tons of plastic bottles strewn across the 900-acre grounds, and the festival admitted to BBC News, there was “never a ban on the public bringing their own plastic bottles on site.”
At Pickathon, “we give away free water,” Schoenborn explains. “That was another thing we realized is, festivals try to have a closed environment where they charge for water and a lot of people bring plastic bottles so they don't have to pay for water. And it's very wasteful. That amount of money they're trying to make essentially drives people to bring things. And if you gave it away, no one really has any motivation to bring that plastic. Plus, they also want the cup. It's actually a really compelling idea as a souvenir.”
Jason Lajeunesse, Producer and Program Director of Seattle’s own Capitol Hill Block Party, tells us the beloved local fest will be bringing in more free water stations this year. “Of course, we encourage people to bring reusable containers,” he told KEXP. “There will be compostable cups available because not everybody will bring one. And we'll limit the amount of water bottles going out. But we're always also trying to deal with that fine balance of public safety. So, we have to make sure people are hydrated and have access to water. But that's definitely one of the things that we're going to increase this year.”
After the success of their stainless steel cup campaign, in 2011, Pickathon eliminated all plastic food dishes and utensils, replacing them with reusable bamboo based dishes and utensils. (In fact, as of this writing, Pickathon is the only festival minimizing single-use plastics.) Attendees can either bring their own dishes to the festival and wash them themselves, or, for $10, you can purchase a dish token that allows you to receive a souvenir dish from a food vendor. Throughout the weekend, they give you your food in this bowl, you return it, get your token back, and then at your next meal, you bring the token back to a food vendor and repeat the process. “We were able to reduce another 25-30 percent of our landfill trash, basically,” Schoenborn tells us.
“I can say a third of the festival's trash comes from plastic,” he continues. “A third of the trash comes from the extra food waste, biodegradable containers. And then the other third comes from some food and mostly the campers. So in our case, we're really down to the campers. And we try to make food and drink pretty cheap for a festival. Very cheap, really. Probably half or a third of what a normal festival would charge for the types of food and drinks we have. Partly so that there's not really a big incentive to bring things. It's cheaper almost to eat and drink at Pickathon on the kind of fantasy food and drink experience than it is to go and bring a bunch of things to throw away.”
And when it comes to the menu, even the food choices can impact the environment. Meat production is a huge source of pollution, with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations reporting that the livestock sector is globally, “one of the largest sources of greenhouse gases (GHG) and one of the leading causal factors in the loss of biodiversity, and in developed and emerging countries it is perhaps the leading source of water pollution.” A 2019 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states “that a shift towards plant-based diets would help to mitigate and adapt to climate change.” Most Northwest music fests offer vegan and vegetarian options aplenty. “Obviously meat products have a huge impact on our environment,” Lajeunesse agrees. “And so I think by making sure there's a fair representation there, that also limits the amount of meat products in the festival.”
Down in Australia, the effects of global warming have meant changes to their outdoor music festivals. At the end of 2019, the five-day festival Lost Paradise in Glenworth Valley, New South Wales, was canceled due to risks associated with the bushfires. In 2015, the Falls Music Festival had to make an emergency relocation from Lorne Farm to Mount Duneed Estate. Last year, they tried to return to their original location, but on the second day of the four day festival, organizers had to send the more than 9,000 attendees home due to fire risk.
Here in the Northwest, thankfully, global warming hasn’t hit us quite as hard, comparatively. “Usually, we're just hoping we don't get rained on,” Lajeunesse quipped. “Now, if the Sound makes its way up Capitol Hill, we may have to think about what our water line looks like. Maybe it will be a beach festival in 10 or 15 years.”
Schoenborn expressed similar relief, but points out, “We aren't built for rain. We're built for a little bit of rain.” He revealed to us that in 2020, “the entire festival site is being re-designed, and I think some of the efficiencies and sustainability are motivating that. The site itself is essentially going to have five new stages.”
Over the years, Pickathon has utilized their natural environment for cooling solutions. “That's a big part of our design this year, too, is we're using even more of the tree cover and making a design response to ‘what are the kind of natural settings that we have that we don't need to do a lot to.’ And I guess that might be the big innovation up for us this year, is that you don't build a tent that you need to pump full of air conditioning; you use the natural shade of the trees. You can reduce your footprint, quite significantly, in terms of what it takes to build, maintain, and operate. So I think that that's a big lesson for us. And thank goodness, in the Northwest, there's trees, right?” he laughs. “Or we could be in trouble.”
When it comes to the environmental damage accrued by music festival attendees, the most impactful factor is the transportation to and from the fest. In a 2015 report, Billboard.com reported that in the U.S. alone, 32 million people go to at least one music festival every year (that is more than the entire population of Texas) and on average, people are traveling 903 miles to attend, which is almost equivalent to a drive from New York to Orlando.
Here in the Northwest, festival organizers take this into consideration. “We don't encourage people to drive to the festival,” Lajeunesse states. “We have a rideshare partner every year in some shape or form, and we always encourage people to take public transportation because there's not enough parking in the Capitol Hill neighborhood to support people driving. So, inherently, people are either getting here through rideshare or through public transit or walking. A lot of our customers are within walking distance. And so our impact, our carbon footprint, I believe, is probably smaller than most festivals in general, i f you consider any destination festival where people have to drive, bring their cars, fly by plane, whatever it may be. Most of our audience is within, you know, the five closest area codes to the festival. So I think inherently we are lucky in that way where our footprint is actually kind of small by nature based on the type of festival we are.”
For Pickathon, Pendarvis Farm is about an hour’s drive away from Portland, limiting the option of walking there. But Schoenborn tells us, “We encourage bicycling and transportation options. I think almost a thousand bicycles come to Pickathon. And a big part of that is our outreach. We coordinate a couple tours where, while in town, we will set up a box truck and people can load their gear into that and essentially come out on a [bike] ride with a group and the box truck will bring a bunch of extra camping stuff. That is something we've provided for several years — It's really popular — but a lot of people bring out their bike, their trailers themselves. And those are really great for being out in the woods. We do bussing. We're four miles from the MAX Rail [ed note: Portland’s light rail system]. Parking is very expensive, and if you want to eliminate that, you can either ride your bike or you can take out the MAX train and take our free bus.”
For local music festivals, things like bicycling, public transportation, or walking remain options, but what about when it comes to traveling from afar? The carbon footprint of the audience far exceeds the artist’s. In 2007, Radiohead worked with a sustainability specialist consulting firm called Best Foot Forward to analyze the carbon footprint of their tours. The report was staggering, concluding that fan travel accounts for 86% of the CO2 emissions in 2006 and 97% in 2003. (As a result, the band changed their tour routing to be more ecologically friendly, but that still doesn’t change how many people travel to see their concerts.) Last year, Coldplay took it a step further, announcing they would refrain from touring until it could be not only sustainable, but “actively beneficial,” as frontman Chris Martin put it. “All of us have to work out the best way of doing our job,” he added.
One of the solutions being discussed, if not actively implemented yet, is the pay-per-view concert. So far, artists like the Grateful Dead and, well, the Backstreet Boys have experimented with this format, allowing more fans to enjoy their live performances without accruing the carbon footprint, garbage output, and such. But, how do you compensate for the loss of actually being at the festival in person?
Pickathon is attempting to find out. The physical festival itself sells out almost every year, not only because of its stellar line-ups and unique on-site experience, but also because they intentionally limit their capacity to 3,500 tickets a day, to keep the atmosphere intimate. But, online, it’s a different story. Livestream.com reports that the festival’s digital audience expanded from 11,000 in 2015 to 200,000 in 2016. Last year, Pickathon announced the launch of the Pickathon All-Access Streaming Pass. For $19.99 (early bird pricing) to $29.99, viewers could navigate between four live stage channels — Mt. Hood/Starlight, Woods, Galaxy Barn, and Treeline — all weekend long as they watched online from the comfort of their couch.
“We realize that the experience that we create — these different fantasy environments that are conceptual and artistic and architectural and kind-of play off nature — there's a lot of limits to how much you can scale that,” Schoenborn explained. “If you try to make it a giant field with a hundred thousand people, you just lose the specialness. So, we have a real hard limit in how much we allow people to come on site. But we know that from the ability to impact pop culture, we should treat everything kind-of like film and take the beauty of what we're doing in person and try to translate that emotion and historic performances as much as possible and to scale it through digital media. And it's still a theory. It's always been kind-of our theory that that is one of the ways that Pickathon is going to scale, is we're going to be special onsite and then we're going to create the best, most authentic, rich, emotional content out there, which is really hard to do. There were literally 700 people on our film team last year. And we're not quite sure the exact formula, whether it will be pay-per-view or stream, but I think we're still innovating in that space. Those are the things we're doing, making it reach the larger world, influence the larger world. And we're excited as much about that as the festival.”
The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival is seeing success with this format. The first weekend of last year’s stream was their most viewed yet, earning over 82 million live views — an increase of over 90 percent compared to 2018. We asked Schoenborn if he felt this could be a solution to sustainable music festivals.
“It could be,” he replied thoughtfully. “I think the trick is to make it amazing, like it is in person. And that's very hard to do. I think that the typical concert setting looks incredibly boring. It has a 15 foot high stage, 20 foot gap, and there's just no emotion to it. But everything at Pickathon is not like that. It's all very conceptual and intimate and actually works really well on film. So, if you approach it that way and you think about how to get the emotion and the “specialness” translated, I think it is, I do think it's possible. But the really big issue we have is there's so much mediocre live music that people don't think of live music is special. It's done in such a pedestrian way that it just — when you think about live music you've seen — hasn't translated as well. But I think that is one of the big opportunities for sustainability. And for us, we're fully in. We believe that it's just a matter of becoming known for that. The festival is known for other things. And eventually you build that audience up and eventually you become that. So, you know, we're well on our way on that side and definitely see a see that as a large, large sustainability-type of impact for sure.”
So, now that we know some of the ways music festivals impact the environment, and what local organizers are doing to mitigate these effects, the question remains: what can we, as attendees, do to make a difference?
"I will say in general, as a society, we are being forced to be more mindful about our impact on the environment and rules and regulations that come through, whether it's through the federal government, state or city, continue to change and evolve constantly," Lajeunesse said. "And so as a festival, inevitably, every festival will have to continue to work and change their practices to comply with whatever regulations are put out there. And so I think that will continue to persist. And hopefully, you know, I think any good festival with good management should be able to hopefully absorb those changes and comply and make the world a better place by doing so."
And if you're one of those music festival organizers who's still struggling with next steps to sustainability, reach out to Pickathon. "We give it away for free," Schoenborn tells us. "So, if any music festival hears this and is interested, it actually pays for itself. That's the funniest part of this that no one really understands is, you charge for a dish, you charge for a plate. It pays for itself and you have less trash. So like, I don't see how it's not a win. So, anybody, please reach out to us because we'd love to make it happen for others."