“The earlier you think about it, the easier it is to be ecologically-responsible”: a discussion with Gwendolenn Sharp from The Green Room
On January 17 and 18, 2022, Gwendolenn Sharp, founder of the association The Green Room, spoke to the artists of the Slash program about ecological responsibility issues. The aim was to see how to build a “sustainable” tour as an emerging artist and on which levers it is possible to act concretely.
The Green Room develops creative strategies for environmental and societal change in the music industry. How did you get the idea to create this association?
I was working as a festival programmer in Katowice, a Polish city with a heavy industrial past and a still important activity of its coal mines. The image of the city was quite negative, both from the outside and the inside. The population considered its city as “dark and depressing”. The festival wanted to reassert the value of the city through culture, a bit like what happened in Nantes thirty years ago. Then, I went to Japan for a fair, just after the Fukushima disaster. There, I met people like Tori Kudo, who completely rethought their way of being an artist in the face of the situation and who questioned their responsibility. This struck me a lot and I also started to think about the jobs of programmer or tour manager that I had been doing for years. I went back to school in Nantes and got a university degree in sustainable development. I didn’t want to be only in the emotion, but to equip myself with a theoretical baggage on these questions. In the wake of this, I created The Green Room in 2016, with the initial idea of focusing mainly on the problems of artists and technicians. As much as festivals and venues were starting to think about eco-responsibility, artists were powerless when it came to these issues and they needed support.
What does The Green Room propose to these artists?
The issues are different for each person, but we are very much into a tailor-made co-construction. We start with a kind of toolbox, with proven solutions.
International groups, such as Radiohead and Massive Attack, or French groups, such as Shaka Ponk, have taken concrete steps to organize eco-responsible tours. But isn’t it complicated for emerging artists with limited means?
At Slash, we talked about exclusivity clauses that prevent musicians from playing within the perimeter of a venue over a given distance and period. While one might think that this only concerns the “stars” or the big bands, when talking to emerging artists, one realizes that it also concerns them. The Italian artist, Marta del Grandi, mentioned an exclusivity clause that she had encountered in Sardinia. For a well-known group, it is possible to refuse a one-shot concert, but when you are emerging, it is hard to say no. That’s the fragility of the whole live system when you depend only on that.
I also know that it’s easier for those who already have a good network or who are already supported by venues. A lot of venues today try to have the artists they invite play in their region or offer them other cultural actions so that they stay longer and don’t do one-shots. Le Périscope in Lyon, in particular, has thought about these issues. Its director, Pierre Dugelay, explains that as a recipient of public funding, he has an environmental responsibility. But it changes the job of these venues, as they become almost tour operators by looking for other dates around to reduce the carbon footprint.
During workshops like Slash, do you talk about the carbon footprint?
When I recall the objectives of the Green Deal [Editor’s note: The European Commission has set the first stage of the Green Deal for 2030, with the objective of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% compared to 1990 levels and 80% in 2050], this means that individually, on average in France, we produce ten to twelve tons of carbon emissions per year and that we must be at two tons in 2050. To give you an idea, this represents a round trip between Paris and New York. From this point of view, we look at how this concerns each of us, including in the music industry. But it’s not necessarily what I talk about first with the artists. Especially the emerging ones, I’m not going to add that to them. If they want to figure it out, they can, but it can be expensive and time consuming. At Slash, the majority of the participants were pretty well informed. But some told me that, in practical terms, their situation was already complicated.
On what levers can emerging artists act concretely?
I talk to them about riders in particular. It is a good tool. For example, we can ask that the meals be made of local products, that sorting garbage cans be installed in the dressing rooms, that there be no plastic bottles, that the heating not be turned on before the artist arrives. We also talked about the impact of digital technology. How much can it cost to put your tracks on an eco-responsible drive? Is there an alternative to GAFAN without of course shooting yourself in the foot?
So of course I’m talking about what artists can do, but venues and festivals must also do their part in raising awareness. It’s not just the artists who should be making the demands. The biggest environmental impact of festivals is not the mobility of artists, but the mobility of audiences.
Are your words always well received?
Before Covid, I met a lot of reluctant people. I often found myself facing people who, while remaining polite, would tell me: “Environmental issues are not our priorities”. Some were more rude…
When I talk to emerging artists, I try to explain that the earlier you think about it, the easier it is to be eco-responsible and to bring these issues to the table when you find a manager or a tour manager. That said, I am aware of the difficulty. During Slash, I met Thomas Cochini from Labotanique. He told me that with his band he was absolutely looking for an eco-responsible label, but that it was very complicated for them.
Does The Green Room count labels that identify themselves as “eco-responsible”?
No, this kind of tool does not exist yet. There is clearly a lack. I hope that the CNM (National Music Center) will do it. It requires research time that we, as associations, do not necessarily have. Especially since it is necessary to verify behind that the speech or the communication is in agreement with the reality. And this directory should be regularly updated.
How did the training course with the artists of Slash go?
We exchanged ideas in groups or in individual interviews on what they were already doing in terms of sustainable development. Some of them, like Isabelle Nguyen, make their own merchandising, embroidering their logo on T‑shirts from secondary circuits. It is often the economic argument that leads to “Do It Yourself” and therefore to virtuous practices. But there are obstacles: it is cheaper to buy Tshirts from Bangladesh…
Within this Slash promotion, there are artists coming from Portugal, Germany, England, Italy. In your discussions with them, did you feel that there were differences between countries on these issues?
Yes, really. In France, we have a lot of debate on environmental issues. I would even say that there is no longer a trade show where the subject is not discussed, as the unions in particular have taken up these issues. But in some countries, this is still not the case. Niklas Runge told us, for example, that in Denmark, although the Roskilde festival is a pioneer in terms of eco-responsibility, it is not very present in the debates. The Italian Marta del Grandi told us about the Linecheck fair in Milan, a convention where panels are set up on these issues. But in Eastern Europe, for example, they have other priorities. As someone who has lived in Poland, I can tell you that, there, it is more a matter of activism… In Germany, the subject is very important. The music department of the Goethe Institute has created a pilot project, “Touring Green”, which finances eco-responsible tours for artists living in the country. I keep a watchful eye on all the good initiatives like this one, because funding is still the key to success. Until last June, we published them on our Facebook account, but we were hacked. While waiting to get our page back, we now do it via Linkedin or via our newsletter, but it’s not the same community.