Power chords

A lot of energy goes into making a hit record – and some of that is the greenhouse gas-producing kind. Dan Hancox investigates the carbon cost of the music industry, and talks to the director of Europe’s first solar-powered recording studio.

The Live Earth concerts, to be held on July 7, have brought the debate about energy consumption in the music industry right to the fore. It is a long process that takes a musician from strumming the opening chords of a new song until the CD is sitting in shops, available for us to buy. Moreover, it is a process with a carbon footprint that sounds a “THUD” like a dinosaur from the film Jurassic Park. There is a vast amount of heavy duty, energy-sapping technology used in the modern music industry.

One recent piece of research by the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Management (ECCM) confirms this with some shocking facts. Industry sources estimate that 1.6 million copies of British band Radiohead’s “Hail to the Thief” album were produced. The ECCM calculated this venture created a whopping 2,192 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) in producing the raw materials, manufacturing and distributing the CDs. In fact, this one album produced the same amount of CO2 the average British person would produce if they were alive for 233 years; and it would take the average Chinese person 685 years to do the same.

Steps towards introducing sustainable energy use into the music industry are clearly long overdue. But away from the celebrity buzz of the Live Earth concerts, one studio in London is already on the case. Premises Studio is home to Europe’s first fully solar-powered recording studio, powered by 18 photovoltaic panels on the studio’s roof. Furthermore, “Studio A” was built with an amazing array of recycled materials, from the 100 car tyres underneath the floor to the double-backed ultra-thick doors (which were previously owned by oil company Enron, of all people). The studio is so well-insulated that it doesn’t require heating!

I went along to see Europe’s most sustainable studio in all its glory, and got the low-down from studio director Nathan Hale.

chinadialogue: The first and most obvious question about solar power is how do you manage to generate power to run the studio when it’s a wet, grey day in north London?

Nathan Hale: We have non-solar power as well, and all the energy generated by the solar panels feeds into our general grid and is stored there. On days when it’s very sunny you get an excess of power – more than you actually use — and it’s saved up for rainy days. We’ve done all the calculations and over a year it evens out, so that the solar power generated supplies all of the needs of Studio A, our sustainable studio.

cd: How did you get started with creating the ‘sustainable studio’?

NH: We had to calculate how many panels we would need to meet our consumption. We can monitor how much it’s generating, but it’s basically self-reliant now it’s set up: the system is self-cleaning and maintains itself.

The insulation is important too – the temperature in Studio A stays pretty stable at 22 degrees, and if we need air conditioning, that all comes out of the solar-powered bit of our energy grid as well. The walls are all about two feet thick, and the windows are all double-double-glazed, or at least triple-glazed.

So many different bits of the studio’s design were really thought about. Just the fact that we have an unusually high number of windows to the room – getting away from that idea of the dark, dank recording studio in a basement — means that fewer lights have to be used, and therefore less power is consumed.

cd: Recycling materials seems to have been integral to the studio’s design as well.

NH: That’s right. A lot of the major fittings are taken from reclaim yards [the kind of places that furniture and fittings go to die] – this extremely heavy door was the front door to a bank. We wanted a door with very thick glass, so what kind of place would have that kind of door? Obviously, a bank.

Another advantage of this approach is that you can save a lot of money on paying for new fittings, without compromising on quality. If you’re very particular and specific about what you want that makes it a lot easier to track the right stuff down.

cd: Is that how you came across the Enron door”?

NH: That’s right. It’s a weird twist of fate that a door being used by an oil company ended up in our sustainable studio! This door probably weighs as much as our grand piano; it is basically a 400 kilogram door. We knew we wanted a heavy door though, and just decided the easiest way was to take two reasonably heavy doors, fit them together and then soundproof it.

Playing music is one of the most heavily energy-consumptive activities you can take part in. In the first five months of this year we saved 1,934kg of carbon by using solar power and cutting down on energy usage with insulation and design.

cd: Is this kind of project a loss-leader”: something that costs a lot of money upfront, but makes up for it by garnering good publicityand a buzz in the music industry because it’s a novelty?

NH: It will take us 10 years to get to the point where we’ve “zeroed” on the investment. But in terms of long-term investments, it’s one of the soundest investments you can make. It was a big outlay, but it will repay itself easily, and before too long. Obviously it also gives us an extra selling point in terms of getting artists in, because they are increasingly aware of their carbon footprints – even ignoring all the flights around the world musicians make, record production is a harmful beast.

The Premises Studio is used to having superstar musicians and bands pass through all the time, but one recent visit from British rock star Johnny Borrell (of the band Razorlight – pictured above at the studio) was particularly special: Borrell recorded a new song for Friends of the Earth’s “The Big Ask” campaign to combat climate change (available to download here). In a statement Friends of the Earth Director Tony Juniper explained that more people should be following The Premises’ lead:

“The Premises solar-powered recording studio highlights just one of the ways we can tackle climate change. The studio is a one off – we need many more homes and businesses to follow suit if we are going to make the cuts in carbon dioxide emissions that are needed.”

With over 70 recording studios in London alone, it boggles the mind to think how much carbon could be saved if this progressive thinking on sustainable energy became more common. Before I left the Premises, I asked Nathan why he thought there weren’t more carbon-neutral studios around. He said the problem is often that recording studios rent, rather than own their own buildings, and they are not in a position to make long-term changes to their properties such as installing solar panels.

Nonetheless, environmental enthusiasm is a growing force in the music industry – and the financial incentives are clear for all to see. If someone can work out how to sidestep the issue of a lack of studio property-ownership, maybe this will not be the only solar-powered studio in London for long. And wouldn’t that be an achievement to shout (and sing) about: a music industry that actually put its money where its mouth is.

Dan Hancox is a London-based journalist and blogger, writing for The Guardian, New Statesman, The Word, and a variety of music blogs.