Greening the Music Industry

From recording to touring, distribution to merch, Bay Area artists and organizations choose eco-friendly ways to do business.

Three years ago, Oakland’s Rogue Wave seemed to be sitting atop the indie rock world. The band had signed to Sub Pop Records, released two excellent albums, and licensed songs to popular television programs like Weeds, Friday Night Lights, and Heroes. But when its relationship with the label went sour, the group was faced with a tough decision: what next? Rogue Wave landed at Brushfire Records, a small label owned by singer-songwriter and longtime friend Jack Johnson. While Sub Pop carried the esteem of a celebrated independent label, Brushfire offered a different sort of cachet: it’s one of the greenest record companies in the world. Johnson’s state-of-the-art, solar-powered Los Angeles studio is recognized and admired industry-wide.

“The thing we liked about Brushfire is they’re really inspirational,” said frontman Zach Rogue. “It was a big part of our reason for going there. They’re doing what no one else is doing.”

Yet Rogue Wave is just one of many Bay Area bands looking for eco-friendly solutions that won’t threaten their livelihoods. In fact, at all points in the cycle — from recording to touring, distribution to merch — Bay Area artists and organizations are finding ways to green their businesses and set new standards for indies and majors alike. In many cases, this new outlook is recognized as essential to their very survival.

Take Berkeley’s Fantasy Studios, one of the Bay Area’s preeminent recording centers. Early last year, new owners Wareham Development jumped headfirst into a green overhaul of the Saul Zaentz Media Center: eco-friendly paint, carpeting, and energy-efficient wiring were put in; incandescent bulbs were replaced with compact fluorescent; bottled water was outlawed; recycling and proper disposal of electronic waste were enforced. The studio even began purchasing soy-based ink and recycled paper cups, stationary, and cards.

“It’s really a state of mind,” said studio director Jeffrey Wood. “It’s totally an ongoing process. It’s a very concerted effort throughout the building.” There has even been talk of installing solar panels or wind turbines on the roof. “Because it’s a technological environment, it’s hard to get away from using a lot of energy,” Wood said. But existing efforts to shut down lights and machines when not in use together with alternative energy sources could significantly mitigate Fantasy’s draw on the grid. The studio has already become a member of San Francisco Community Power, which organizes energy curtailment days and non-use times.

The beauty of this piecemeal approach is that no studio is too big or too small to apply it. But sometimes it’s easiest to build green from the ground up. That’s what North Bay musicians Jon and Mimi Fee did with Parks and Records, a two-year-old eco-friendly label home to indie rockers Carcrashlander, Mijuanito, and Shuteye Unison. Parks and Records’ mission is to harmonize music with the great outdoors, to preserve the album format and our natural environment at the same time.

“We try to be as sustainable as possible through everything that we do,” said Jon. For one, their CD cases are made of 100 percent recycled chip board and hand-stamped with eco-friendly inks. Then there are the organic cotton T-shirts and tote bags. Conscientious promotion and digital distribution, when appropriate, help keep costs down.

Jon, who recently earned an MBA from the University of San Francisco, built sustainability into Parks and Records in the fiscal sense as much as the green sense. A sound business plan means higher costs on certain items won’t jeopardize the label’s long-term prospects. For bands and labels who can’t afford to pay a few more bucks per shirt for organic cotton, finding a local supplier is next best: reduced shipping distances equal a smaller carbon footprint.

Social Imprints of San Francisco satisfies both criteria. A strong commitment to environmentally responsible products means the business is as serious about corn-based plastics for buttons and recycled paper for posters as it is about organic cotton and soy-based inks. “Sourcing things in ways that is conscious of where it’s made and who’s making it is still a relatively new idea,” said Kevin McCracken, a partner in the five-year-old company formerly known as Collective Merchandising. “But we’re getting to the point now where if people don’t do it, we’re doomed.”

For many acts, touring amounts to a bigger impact than CD and merch manufacturing. But solutions aren’t quite as forthcoming. Biofuels went from cutting-edge to convoluted in just five years, said Erik Yates of San Francisco jam band Hot Buttered Rum. In 2003, his band began touring in a school bus converted to run on vegetable oil. All the way across the country, they’d spent hours scouring towns for restaurants with oil to spare.

The arrangement was romantic, if not a tad trying. As years passed, the involvement of biofuel collectives on one side and big agribusiness on the other only complicated matters. “If you’re going to use biofuel, it’s important to look at it as you look at food,” Yates said, warning that biodiesel created at mono-crop farms can have a footprint almost as big as regular diesel. He recommends seeking out biodiesel that has been responsibly produced — or sticking with straight veggie oil and finding a reliable local supplier. Bands can also mitigate their touring impact by trading single-serve plastic water bottles for reusable ones and encouraging fans to carpool or take public transportation.

Green event production is one goal of San Francisco nonprofit Grind for the Green, which Ambessa Cantave and his wife Zakaya Harris created to teach local youth about the music business in tandem with social and environmental responsibility. This past September, Grind for the Green produced its inaugural solar-powered hip-hop concert — purportedly San Francisco’s first — at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, already considered a green facility. Local artists Fiyawata, Queen Deelah, and Jahi, along with two youth acts, entertained a couple hundred fans for nearly six hours on solar power derived from a single panel mounted on a nearby truck.

The final stop in the music production cycle is the bottom line, and even it hasn’t escaped the scrutiny of eco-conscious music makers. In addition to green touring and merchandise, Rogue Wave and Brushfire Records embrace green philanthropy, donating part of their annual profits to environmental organizations. Local label Parks and Records gives a full 5 percent to groups including San Francisco’s Friends of Urban Forest. “The value of raising awareness is always gonna outweigh the financial amount that we can contribute,” said Jon Fee. “The Bay Area scene is hard to pin down musically, but I believe ethically it can be united.”


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