It’s difficult to place limits on creativity and personal freedom, but somewhere between Universal Truths and Cycles and Normal Happiness it became appropriate to question whether the world can spare the resources necessary to accommodate all of the songs drifting around in Robert Pollard’s head.
It’s hard to find the ex-Guided by Voices frontman’s name in print without the word “prolific” trailing close behind. And with good reason: The guy writes a lot of songs. Since starting Guided by Voices in 1983, he’s registered more than 1,000 song titles with BMI. (Compare that to Prince, who’s registered only 636 with ASCAP, including eight versions of “1999.”) This year alone Pollard’s fertile mind has blessed listeners with two full-length records (Coast to Coast Carpet of Love and Standard Gargoyle Decisions), one mini-album (Silverfish Trivia), and six 7-inch singles. That’s not counting his songwriting contributions to the bands Circus Devils, the Takeovers, and Acid Ranch, each of which released a record in 2007. That’s almost as many titles in one year as Syd Barrett released during his lifetime—and it also sounds like a lot of CO2. Well, maybe not as much CO2 as Hinder’s last world tour. But given another 20 years, who knows what kind of lo-fi Chernobyl Pollard could help whip up?
Recently rock musicians have become more conscious of their carbon emissions than their hotel-room-smashing, Maserati-driving forebears. In 2006, Pearl Jam went to great lengths to offset the carbon footprint of its world tour—the band pledged to help restore 30 hectares of Ecuadorian rain forest and tour on buses that ran on pure biodiesel. Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood admitted to being stressed over his band’s carbon emission during a recent interview with Gothamist. Not to mention that Radiohead opted to initially distribute its new record, In Rainbows, digitally—albeit for reasons not directly attributable to climate change.
Pollard is apparently not among the enlightened. He continues to emit at least three records every single year, regardless of the environmental implications. Pollard has never posed as eco-savvy, but how many jangle-rock-meets-psychedelia afterthoughts can he press into a physical format before he becomes accountable?
Don MacInnis, owner of Camarillo, Calif.-based Record Technologies Incorporated—a company that presses records for Touch and Go among other labels—maintains that the process of pressing a vinyl record is pretty clean. “It basically involves a PVC—like the pipe—compound being heated by a natural-gas-fired steam boiler. The material is then cooled using water—the condensation from which is then captured and re-circulated,” he says. “The only waste products of a pressed phonograph record are records that are rejected on a quality-control basis.”
CDs are created through a more complex process. “It’s an injection molding of a polycarbonate-based material,” says MacInnis. “We get them from a company in San Diego, and they’re manufactured in the U.S. Besides molding the disc out of the polycarbonate material, there are at least two additional steps where other layers are applied to that disc. There’s the reflective layer—the aluminum shiny part that gets sprayed onto the clear plastic. Then a protective coating for the aluminum—that’s an acrylic that’s spun onto the surface.”
“It doesn’t sound too bad,” says Maryland-based ecologist Dr. Deborah Landau. “But just the fact that it’s a petroleum product increases its carbon footprint. That means that it’s from the Middle East or Venezuela and that it’s coming from a great distance—plus all the strife of the war. Anything that involves a lot of petroleum product is going to have a very heavy footprint.”
CD packaging, Landau says, compounds the problem twofold. “The jewel case contains as much plastic as the CD itself,” she says. “Records usually come in cardboard or paperboard. CDs come in plastic cases, so they have a much greater carbon footprint. And they’re not recyclable. They will end up in a landfill eventually.” Landau also maintains that CDs suffer from their aluminum coating. “Aluminum is a nonrenewable resource—once it’s out, it’s out. There’s also a lot of energy expended in mining it and refining it.”
All that said, Landau was disinclined to nail down a precise figure regarding the carbon footprint of CD and vinyl production, partly because of the difficulties of assessing just where the waste ends. “It’s so hard to say—I mean, do you count the device—the CD player or the record player? Which one consumes more energy? There’s so much involved,” says Landau. “With carbon footprints, you can just go on and on.”
Rob Pollard is relatively safeguarded against harming the globe on any massive scale, due to the size of his audience. Merge, Pollard’s current label, doesn’t make its pressing information public. But according to Nielsen SoundScan, Pollard has so far sold roughly 2,500 copies of his two recent full-lengths and 2,000 copies of his mini-album in the United States on both CD and vinyl. Which means that in America, Pollard has roughly 2,500 remaining hard-core fans who will actually shell out for 40 or 50 more songs per year. That’s nothing compared to the sales figures for Interpol’s Our Love to Admire—173,000 copies—or probably even the Wowee Zowee reissue that all those Pavement nerds clamored for..
Those 2,500 Pollard fans, however, suggest a problem that isn’t going away. At some point even the staunchest hipsters grow up, buy a Prius, and sell their Jesus Lizard records back to the store. But a growing populace of lifetime man-children who are hell-bent on accumulating every single-sided, lathe-cut Russian-pressed 10-inch record by an artist might start to add up to some pretty serious damage over the next 50 years. How about the people who are still buying Neil Michael Hagerty records? Every Wolf Eyes side project? At his current rate Pollard will have to press roughly 4 zillion more copies of Asshole 2: Meet the King—his second album consisting solely of live stage banter—before he croaks in order to flood Manhattan or reverse the North Atlantic current. But how many hectares of rain forest will have to be restored for the world to recover from the crushing carbon weight of a planet full of vinyl-loving indie-rock fanboys?