The Music Industry Hits a Greener Note

The Music Industry Hits a Greener Note

With major labels like Warner Music touting their green creds and Universal Music group working with Wal-Mart to create compact disc packaging that literally will grow wildflowers, the music industry is definitely placing itself under the green gel spotlight.

Putting aside the PVC-free mosh pits and solar-powered concert tours and festivals that seemed to have sprung up like mushrooms over the past several years, the recording music industry has been working to shrink its environmental footprint as it addresses CD packaging.  Downloading digital music might be considered the greenest move the music recording industry has made yet. Less packaging for CDs and no physical packaging for music downloading each have their own business argument as well.

Judging a CD by its Cover?

“For those artists and labels still shipping a physical product, we have seen important progress in the use of post-consumer recycled fiber as well as more and more uptake of virgin fiber coming from responsibly managed forest certified by the Forest Stewardship Council,” said Andrew Goldberg, director of corporate engagement for Dogwood Alliance, a non-profit watchdog group that works to reduce packaging and save Southern forests.

“This green shift is real,” Goldberg said. “Artists and fans are demanding it, and the music industry is there in the mix learning how to navigate these issues.”

Part of the problem in adopting greener CD packaging might actually come from too many green CD packaging choices. For example, there are over 30 different commercially available partial or completely paperboard CD packages. From CDs packaged totally in recycled cardboard to CDs sold in lighter, greener plastics, the lack of common standards means that it isn’t always easy for consumers or businesses to see at a glance which CDs use green packaging.

So far, companies are setting their own standards. In 2007, Warner Music Group introduced the WMGreen initiative, converting all regular CD and DVD products to a minimum of 30 percent post-consumer paper packaging. To date, the move has saved 9,400 tons of wood and nearly 4,000,000 pounds of solid waste. Warner Music Group uses paper certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).

“Environmentally responsible behavior is good for corporate America,” said John Esposito, president and CEO of WEA Corp., Warner Music Group’s U.S. sales and retail marketing company. “It’s smart ecology and smart economics. For Warner Music Group, it has proven to lower the cost of paper procurement and waste as well as strengthening employee morale because they feel a part of this larger effort.”
Making Music Packaging Greener (for acts from Al Green to Green Day)

Less is more. Less plastic and less paper in CD packaging means more trees and natural resources saved. Less weight means more money saved in shipping.

Not all “eco” CD packaging is created equal. Look for the highest percentage of post consumer recycled paper and soy based inks. Soy based inks make recycling easier, release fewer toxins than traditional petroleum-based inks, and come in brighter colors.

Getting your new music from legal sites online can be a great way to get your music with no new packaging at all. Many up-and-coming bands offer digital tracks for free on their Web sites or Myspace pages.

Think before you rip a CD to back up your music. Backing up your computer is a great idea, but wasting CDs is not. One of the environmental arguments against digital music is all the e-waste created by computers, cell phones, blank CDs and mp3 players. Upgrading your current system and recycling your old technologies are musts.


“Additionally, WMGreen has resonated with our artists who have embraced our efforts and expressed their appreciation for taking on this leadership role within the music industry. In some cases, they have said that it has inspired them to take a more active role in being environmentally conscious,” Esposito said.

Interestingly, it is the music industry, artists, and retailers that are moving CD packaging in a greener direction, with consumers taking a back seat. Unlike the touring side of the music industry where concertgoers expect recycling and green options, packaging doesn’t necessarily drive consumers; they care about what’s in the packages—the music.

Rod Streeper is the customer operations director at Entertainment Distribution Company (EDC), one of the world's largest CD duplicator facilities. He also leads the Sustainable Packaging Committee's effort at the digital media trade association CDSA. “There are two real big pushes in the music industry to put out environmentally friendly packaging,” Streeper said. “First is a directive at the retail level, led by Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart is looking for environmentally friendly CD packaging. The second push is by individual artists and bands.”

Streeper reported that the use of eco-friendly packaging has grown dramatically over the past five years, and that well over a third of the CDs EDC produces are eco-friendly, including CDs packaged using 30 percent lighter clear plastic and thin paper stock.

“The irony is that retail is actual ahead of the consumer demand,” said Streeper. “People look at a package that is lighter as less valuable, a package that is rough as less valuable, the same with gray paper. But this package is what its looks like to be more environmentally friendly. The consumer says they want the package eco-sensitive, but they still want their jewel case. “

As the music industry transitions to more environmentally friendly packages, the systems that have been in place for the last 20 years to process what has become the standard jewel-cased CD are also in transition. Until that happens, it is actually often more expensive to produce green packaging, Streeper explained. But costs are coming down. Green CD packaging is usually lighter than the traditional four-ounce-plus plastic jewel cases, and the music industry is starting to see the business argument for greener packaging, especially when it comes to shipping.

“First, industry across the board has found that packaging efficiency -- reducing packaging -- is good for the bottom-line. Less material purchased and shipped often means real dollar savings,” said Dogwood Alliance’s Goldberg. “Second, it’s all about the brand. The music industry thrives on brand identity, the more they embrace the green trend the more the positive attributes of that green investment stick to the all important brand. Therefore it is more important to invest in responsible packaging choices as part of your license to operate and reap the benefits for the long haul of a strong brand unencumbered by environmental controversy.”

Small, independent music labels are often driven by social concerns in addition to profits, so it makes sense to find an indie label at the vanguard of changing CD packaging. “We eliminated the use of plastic jewel cases and replaced them with 100 percent recycled paperboard packaging that integrates a 100 percent recycled plastic CD holder,” said Frank Mauceri, co-founder with his wife, Lisa, of the Chicago-based punk label Smog Veil Records.

“We also eliminated the use of printed press releases that we sent to journalists,” Mauceri said. “Instead, we embedded digital files onto the promotional copies of all our releases, thereby reducing our paper consumption associated with press campaigns to nearly zero.”

“Besides the obvious environmental benefit, reducing packaging and going digital is a more efficient means to sell goods to consumers and is more profitable.  Any business would do that if given the opportunity,” Mauceri added.

As Goldberg from Dogwood Alliance summed it up, “Music is so important to each of us individually and makes up such a large part of our overall culture. It is often inspired by the natural world and no place has had such a deep influence on popular musical culture as the South. Simple steps by people in the music and entertainment sector can help make real change on the ground in Southern forests.”

Digital Music: No Packaging is Green Packaging

In June, iTunes proclaimed over 5 billion songs downloaded. Downloading is definitely more than just another way of getting music to listeners; it’s rapidly becoming the standard for music delivery. Not only is the format convenient for digitally-minded consumers, it is becoming a necessary business strategy for artists in a world where music is commonly leaked before a CD’s physical release.

For example, the most recent albums from rock band The Hold Steady and indiepop group Stars were offered for sale digitally months before their CD release, in an effort to combat piracy. Meanwhile, some proactive artists are starting to use the Internet to take over distribution themselves, most famously with alternative rock act Radiohead’s album “In Rainbows.” Released independently in October 2007, the album was initially available only online with its price set by the consumer.

“The music business has transformed from a hard goods retail business to an invisible goods model,” said Mauceri of Smog Veil. “All of our releases are now available for legal digital download.  Ninety percent of our profits are now derived from digital download sales. I expect we'll be eliminating CDs as the music format of choice within five years.”

Paul Diaz is the owner of Tree Sound Studios, based in Atlanta. Known in the recording industry as one of the greenest recording spaces, Tree Sounds Studios heats its water with solar panels and has an organic garden out back. Diaz says he sees offering digital music as one part of his green business plan and also as a solid moneymaker.

“I still love buying CDs, but for the younger artists, most of their fan base is downloading,” said Diaz. “A band like Perpetual Groove sells three or four times more downloads than CDs.”

“From a business stand point, we have no manufacturing costs with digital downloads,” Diaz said. “Digital is the way a lot of people are getting their music, over their phones with mp3 players. You can get Pandora Radio now on iPhones. Digital is great way to market younger artists.”

Digital music also cuts out the supply chain with only the online music distributor getting a piece of the profit, which can mean more money for the artists. Sometimes, even the online music distributor is eliminated, as with “In Rainbows," which was first released in digital format by Radiohead itself, before being licensed to traditional music labels for physical release. Notably, the “In Rainbows” CD reached number one on the Billboard album sales chart in its second week of release despite its digital availability for months beforehand.

The environmental arguments against digitally downloading music are the arguments about how environmentally unfriendly computers, mp3 players and cell phone can be to make and recycle. Apple does offer recycling on all its products, including iPods. Apple also plans to eliminate the use of polyvinyl chloride, brominated flame retardants and arsenic while limiting the use of heavy metals.

For many years and for many music labels, the only thing green worth cultivating and preserving was covered with the faces of Franklin, Jackson and Hamilton. As labels, manufacturers, artists and purchasers alike become more concerned about the consequences of climate change, and as methods are found for making environmentally friendly practices more cost-effective, that attitude is changing for the greener.