Why Universal Music Group’s Grammy Events Were Eco Friendly And How This Will Hopefully Catch On In The Music Industry
Guests who attended the Universal Music Group Grammy events this past weekend not only got to see amazing performances and attend the same parties as the likes of Sir Elton John, who was at the Saturday afternoon showcase, and Stevie Wonder, who was at the Sunday Grammy after party, they got to feel good about giving back.
Both events were environmentally friendly, from superb meatless menus (including full vegan tables) and no single use water bottles to use of live plants that will be donated to a nursery for future use and “scenic stage and audio panel elements on the stage fascia and audience surround – made from specialty Sonostop material.” Those panels are also being donated.
Saturday afternoon at the showcase Billie Eilish was presented an award by Universal and REVERB for her tireless work for sustainability and supporting the award. I spoke with Universal Music Group’s Susan Mazo, UMG’s EVP of Corporate Social Responsibility, and Lara Seaver, REVERB Director of Sustainable Touring, about the socially conscious parties and why the industry will hopefully catch up soon with artists, from Eilish to Coldplay, who have been pushing for a more eco-friendly way of touring.
Steve Baltin: Was there one thing that sort of set into motion this idea of Universal doing these more environmentally friendly events? And by the way, Sage the writer who’s coming with me is 100 percent vegan. So it’s amazing to come to an event where the events are meatless because you go to everything here in LA and it’s like you can’t find anything.
Susan Mazo: Yeah, I’m a vegetarian also. So maybe that helps with my choice of menu. But I agree with you. I feel like people don’t necessarily think about going meatless. So when you can do an event that’s meatless and they try things for the first time, it helps change their mind about the way that they think about food. But back to your original question, which I think is a great one, my answer is not as sexy what made you write this song. At Universal, we’ve been talking about doing this for a long time. And slowly we’ve been bringing sustainability into all of our practices and everything that we do. And it’s been our conversation. But I think that the pandemic really was the catalyst for us and we were able to take that time since there were no events to think about. “When events would come back, how would we want to change things? What could we do to make people feel more comfortable and be more conscious about their choices?” And that’s really what this was born from. So when we’ve been on hiatus with events for a while, and when we found out that we were going to try to do events again this year, we thought, “Why not do this. Go in and do it right for our flagship event during Grammy weekend?” So I think that the pandemic was the catalyst.
Baltin: So for Universal as a company, once you started to realize this, how quickly and easily were you able to implement this?
Mazo: So I think that we set our goals quickly. I don’t know that any of this works quickly, unfortunately. I think that we’ve been working on our goals and our process probably for about six months. And we were using these events as a blueprint and we were trying to write our goals. We knew we weren’t going to reach all of them this year. But that we wanted to make sure that we touched on everything for these events. So we worked with partners of ours, Three Squares, who are consultants with UMG and they work in this space as well as REVERB who are partners of ours. Because they’re the experts, we’re not. So we wanted to meet with them and I think we started meeting with them maybe in September to talk about how we could make these events more sustainable. And the first answer to that question was, let’s have the events in the same space two days in a row so that we were less wasteful right from the start. We weren’t moving things around. We were going to be able to reuse things in the same space. And we needed to get a venue that was on board with us and that would have the conversation about using solar-charged batteries and be okay with us coming in and changing all of their garbage patterns. So we spoke to Milk, we laid out the plan for them, and they were interested. Which was great. It wasn’t something that they have been thinking about doing. But now I do believe they will change some of their patterns and potentially work with some of our partners to make events in their space more sustainable in the future.
Baltin: Talk about the things that you’ve learned from artists and REVERB that you’re really excited to implement long term that you think can make a difference.
Mazo: Some of the things that we did implement I feel like will just become muscle memory and we’ll be able to use that at every event and hopefully we will also have this blueprint. So other labels and other companies in the music space will learn from this and see that it’s actually easy to do the right thing. I think for us, something that I would love to be able to do in the future, and we weren’t there yet, I don’t think that the technology is there yet is, it would be amazing to do 100 percent solar-powered event. But I don’t think we’re there yet. ‘Cause that’s something that we would love to do in the future.
Baltin: Were there any things that you implemented yesterday that you were very pleasantly surprised to see how the guests responded to them?
Mazo: I think, and we touched upon it a little bit, was the menu. The menu being 100 percent meatless and locally sourced. I think that people were surprised by that and then pleasantly surprised by how everything tasted. We’ll see again tonight. Again, the menu is 100 percent plant-based. We’ll see what people’s reactions are. I didn’t have one complaint and typically I have complaints about the food. And so I think that people were satisfied, so that was exciting. Also, the excitement and energy around recycling. We had compost bins and people asking questions. What goes where? And we had a sustainability officer answering questions and helping people navigate. So there was a level of interest that I didn’t know that there would be. We asked people to carpool. All of the staff and crew were in a hotel that they could walk to the venue so they didn’t need to drive. And it was interesting. We didn’t know what the feedback would be and it was so positive. And I think people felt good about the fact that they were making a difference and it wasn’t that heavy of a lift. I also loved seeing no water bottles. No single-use water bottles. We gave out REVERB water bottles and we had filling stations all around.
Baltin: Talk about the importance of being able to honor Billie and what that meant and going forward, what this award will mean.
Mazo: Absolutely. So I think our goal was to take chances without compromising the integrity of the event. And we had been working, like I said, with Three Squares and REVERB, just taking in what they had to say and the changes that they’ve been able to make and REVERB’s partnership with Billie. We also have worked with Support and Feed, which is Billie’s mom’s charity that is 100 percent plant-based. And she started during the pandemic and we were just talking to Billie’s team about all that she has done and how her voice matters so much not only to the generation that she’s talking to on Instagram and TikTok and at her shows, but also to other artists. And we felt like the new artist showcased, that Sir Lucian puts together, it was the perfect spot to amplify her message which was why we called it the Amplifier Award. And that she could speak to some of those artists in the room. Some that, like you just said, Elton John was in the room as well as Ice Spice who’s just starting out and hearing from Billie and seeing her receive the award and it really meant a lot to her. She cared so much about the environment as well as her family. So all of them were there and it was just so nice to see it all come together. Her voice is so important on this issue.
Baltin: Talk about what it meant to work with Universal and to be able to sort of start to make these inroads in the industry because artists have been working so much on this for a long time. It’s nice for the agencies to finally catch up.
Lara Seaver: True. And it so different too, as you pointed out. At festivals we make sure that the events are as sustainable as possible and that we consider all the aspects. And then we also look at changing the hearts and minds of the fans at the show, or engaging the hearts and minds. A lot of them are already very much on board but need a little push or inspiration or just connection with their community that we can provide at the show in a super positive way. And I think when you look at this, it’s the same thing, we’re looking at both the events and event logistics. A lot of things really did translate and we had the ability to make some things happen that you could never make happen on concert tours and all real glassware, for example, can’t happen on the road. But the audience was, for the showcase and for the after-party, some of the most key figures in the music industry. When they can see it being done so well, so seamlessly, we hope that is the fan engagement part of the event. So there really is a great parallel between the two things.
Baltin: How has the response been so far within the industry?
Seaver; I think it’s a little early to tell. But I think, in general, the media and other conversations that we’ve had here in LA, the response has been incredibly positive. Some people are like, “Great, hopefully the other large leaders of the industry will follow this lead.” Some of it was a proof of concept. Could you go this deep on sustainability without affecting the guest experience at such a high level event? So proving that was a super point of pride. And then when you add in the spotlight shown on Billie Eilish’s work, which we’re super proud to be a part of both the work and the presenting of that award in recognition, I think that moves the needle with people, both people watching the industry and people within the industry realizing that there’s so much to be done. But there’s so much that can be done and learned from and shared. And that’s one of the wonderful things about being part of a nonprofit like Reverb is that we’re really mission focused. So the more people who join and do this, whether they work for us or not, it’s better. It’s not about necessarily staking our claim, it’s just like let’s move the industry in the right direction.
Baltin: How did this first come up?
Seaver: I believe my director of partnerships has been working with folks at UMG for years and years talking about potentially doing something and where would it fit. There’s a lot of enthusiasm on both sides. We’ve worked with many of the artists on the label, so knowing that there was some overlap and for example, when Billie’s last albums came out, we worked with Interscope to make sure that the packaging was as sustainable as possible. But looking at actually making this tangible, this partnership in a real way was something many years in the making. And then I think it really, we officially decided to do it late summer, early fall, which gave us the runway we needed to put things in place because the only way to do something like this is to really consider sustainability as one of the core facets of the event. In every decision you make planning it, it’s not something you can sort of put a blanket on top. At the end, it won’t come out the same, it won’t be the same impact.
Baltin: As you saw it executed, what were some of your favorite moments?
Seaver: I don’t want to put words or feelings onto her, but Billie’s reaction and the industry’s reaction to her work and there was an amazing video piece that really told the story of why she’s inspired and why she cares and why she does this. And then seeing the reaction and standing ovation, people on their feet just appreciating that work. It wasn’t about her music and the things that have been celebrated before, but like really seeing a room of appreciation for an artist taking a stand. And we’ve been able to do things with venues we’ve never done before. So just seeing that moment of appreciation and her recognition for that. But also at the after-party last night, seeing the incredibly well prepared sustainable design that you would not notice. I don’t think anyone walked in and said, oh, this is that green event. And that is also a source of pride, the fact that everything had a plan for before where it came from and where it was sourced and where it was going after. And knowing that in my mind and walking around and seeing all of these incredibly intelligent touches, whether it was high end vegan hors d’oeuvres being passed. I didn’t hear the word vegan once out of the crowd at the party. It was just done so well. And I think that’s what I’d like all event centers to consider is the things that you can change that actually improve the guest experience and have us making a smaller impact on the planet. So those two moments stick out to me, for sure.
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