Music

What Does a Head of Sustainability In the Music Business Actually Do?

Making live music events as environmentally friendly as possible is a task executed by thousands of workers who install solar panels, transport waste, collect reusable cups, measure energy use and execute other operational tasks. But every employee doing this work ultimately falls under the purview of any given live event company’s head of sustainability. Erik Distler is one of them.  

As vp of sustainability at AEG, Distler leads the company’s corporate sustainability program. There are executives in similar roles at Live Nation, ASM Global and Oak View Group – and together, this group is responsible for greening a significant percentage of global events and venues. In February, the group – who Distler says all know each other given that the sustainability space is relatively small — appeared together in public for the first time during a panel at the inaugural Music Sustainability Summit in Los Angeles.  

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“The symbolism of us being together on that stage is powerful and hopefully inspiring to the industry that we’re cheering each other on and perhaps exploring what we can do together,” says Distler. With the stakes being so high, there’s an incentive to share information, he says, particularly given that “this work is really replicable. What you do in one venue or festival can, barring local infrastructure, be done anywhere else.” 

Distler came to his role after working in sports and entertainment sustainability for more than a decade. At AEG, he and his five-person team design and direct sustainability initiatives across the company’s more than 25 festivals, as well as over 50 music venues; nine arenas and similarly sized venues; four entertainment districts; and more than 15 tours to date.  

AEG has had a sustainability program for 15 years, but when Distler joined in October 2021, his task was to “take our program to its next phase” amid the worsening climate crisis, the increasing demand for sustainable events among consumers, and new sustainable technologies and regulations.  

“The external forces are louder and more influential than they’ve ever been,” he says. “That’s really pushing the industry forward in a way that’s making the case for companies to prioritize and devote internal teams to understand this work, build resources and take action in a meaningful way.” 

Distler spent his first three months on the job meeting with 50 internal stakeholders to better understand the business, how to make it more sustainable and get senior executive buy-in, which he says “was fundamental and really paved the way to get more granular with other colleagues.” 

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From the information collected, he created a strategic framework around sustainability, along with an official vision statement — “Inspire the world’s many voices to protect our planet” — and a mission statement declaring that the company is “committed to operating responsibly and to catalyzing the influence of live entertainment to preserve the planet for future generations.”  

“It’s important to have a strategy on a page,” Distler says, “and ultimately a framework that can be used to guide us moving forward.” 

This framework also includes a set of focus areas including carbon and energy, waste and materials water, and stewardship and engagement, along with six guiding principles (“collaboration over competition” and “communicate with transparency and often” among them) and seven pillars: operations, suppliers, employees, fans, communities and partnerships. 

These partners include Schneider Electric, a French multinational energy management company that AEG has worked with for 14 years for support with target setting, strategy, energy sourcing, market intelligence and risk management. A Greener Future in the U.K. and Three Squares Inc. in the United States are sustainability consultants, while r.World provides reusable cups in all of AEG’s Denver music venues, along with select venues in Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles, along with six Goldenvoice festivals. For Coachella and Stagecoach, AEG has donated 44.2 tons of food to its partner Coachella Valley Rescue Mission and 34.6 tons of material to the Galilee Center, which provides clothing and other basics to families in the Coachella Valley.  

Distler has also sought additional help. Last year, he worked to get four people hired into three newly created sustainability roles. “It’s not uncommon that a sustainability team is small in count and under resourced,” he says. “ What I see as a large part of my responsibility is ensuring our department is sound economically and building and making the case for staff and resources.”

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In addition to Distler and his new hires, the team also includes a data and analytics lead responsible for measuring the impact of AEG events and “all the other people that have jobs like those in festival operations that eat, sleep and breathe this.” Additionally, AEG’s employee-led People For The Planet group is composed of employees from other parts of the company who want to contribute to sustainability projects.  

Altogether, this group is “probably pretty emblematic of a sustainability department,” Distler says. “You may have a small core team, but you’ve got external and internal partners that help get the work done.” 

Given that Europe has tighter sustainability regulations that the U.S., the industry there offers good examples of initiatives that might eventually be adopted in the States. Last November, AEG’s O2 Arena in London launched a green rider: a best practice guide for sustainable touring and events that outlines what the venue is doing in key areas. 

“It’s a great way to sit with an artist and their management team and figure out what we can do while they’re [at the O2] that’s truly sustainable and ultimately communicated to fans,” Distler says of the guide, which was produced in collaboration with U.K. based sustainability consultancy A Greener Future. 

Distler says his team is “constantly” collaborating with artists including Billie Eilish, who in June 2022 hosted an event at The O2 called Overheated that featured vegan food and water refill stations along with climate-minded programming. Last April, after learning that rock band Muse “was passionate about climate issues,” he says, AEG’s Crypto.com Arena made a donation on behalf of the and to the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator, which works to further clean tech, climate action and the green economy in the city.

Distler on site at Cali Vibes
Distler on site at Cali Vibes

AEG made a donation to the L.A. Clean Tech Incubator, which works to further clean technology in the city, from AEG’s Crypto.com Arena on behalf of the band.  Last year, the team also worked with Maggie Rogers to measure the carbon footprint associated with one of her U.S. tour stops and provided that info to Rogers’ team, along with mitigation suggestions. 

In the U.S., AEG has launched a comprehensive sustainability program for its Goldenvoice festivals — including Coachella, Stagecoach, Cruel World and Just Like Heaven. In particular, Goldenvoice’s Cali Vibes functions as a testing ground for sustainability initiatives, including solar panels that light parking lots and the transformation of unpurchased merch into staff uniforms, with these projects be studied for possible use at other events.  

“I always say that sustainability doesn’t happen within our team,” says Distler. “Things like waste avoidance or diversion at a festival happen in collaboration with our operation teams, partners and haulers. That requires work that doesn’t ultimately get done in the corporate office.”  

While the music industry is ultimately responsible for a tiny fraction of global emissions and waste, Distler is resolute about its impact. He recalls being on a panel in New York last fall alongside sustainability heads from major corporations with, he says, “huge footprints, like millions of metric tons of emissions.”  

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And yet when it came to the audience Q&A, “everybody had questions for me, and no one had questions for them.” Given its “influence [on] the heart and mind,” the music industry has a responsibility to focus on sustainability, share these initiatives with fans and “create the setting for positive, inspiring and uplifting work.”  

It helps that Distler “absolutely” sees real progress being made, with fans, partners, artists and athletes “putting the right level of pressure on the businesses to take on meaningful action.” He says many of the major corporations AEG works with are also taking on sustainability in a more focused way.  

“It’s sitting down with partners and saying, ‘What are your focus areas? Your goals? Your aspirations?’” he says. “Then sharing ours and seeing what lines up…seeing the eagerness and willingness of our partners to ideate and brainstorm is really encouraging, and is signaling that the industry is moving in the right direction.”

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