Craig Minowa is a busy man. When he's not working at his day job for the Organic Consumers Association, he's running his non-profit CD-packaging business and record label, Earthology and riding a tour bus to get to shows with his band, Cloud Cult. Long-time readers might remember that we linked to an interview of him over at the inestimable Grist about 9 months ago. But with his reputation as one of the greenest musicians around, I thought we should do another interview with him for our legions of fans (that's you!).
I caught up with Craig late last week over the phone from the very pleasant sounding farm in Northern Minnesota that serves as his Batcave, complete with geothermal heating and cooling and a recording studio built from recycled bits and pieces.
Jason Turgeon: Start out by telling me how you got into the intersection of music and environmentalism.
Craig Minowa: It started out academically. I was not sure whether to go into environmental science or music. I decided to go with environmental science. It seemed like a better way to get into the green scene. Eventually that evolved into Cloud Cult and Earthology.
JT: How did Earthology start?
CM: Earthology started as a method to find an environmentally friendly cd package in the early 90's. Out of necessity, I researched the industry and found out how we could replicate cd's ourselves in an environmentally friendly way. Eventually, we started doing it for other folks.
JT: Like who? CM: There have been a lot of people. Some of the names you might recognize are Arlo Guthrie and Built To Spill for their Idaho Green album. We also do consulting for labels like Universal and rights orgs like ASCAP.
JT: Does it pay for itself?
CM: Earthology is not a moneymaker. It was built as a non-profit.
JT: What makes a CD packaged by Earthology different from a normal jewel box?
CM: In the original days, we used strictly recycled jewel cases that were donated by the thousands, collected from college campuses and individuals. People would buy CD's and put them in CD booklets and were looking for something to do with the jewel cases. We reused the ones that we could. The materials are all PVC and polycarbonate, so the unusable ones went to a landfill.
Then we branched off into looking for earth-friendly shrinkwrap. We now use LDPE, but we're branching off into corn-based cellulose. CD's in general are gradually getting into post-consumer waste. All of our printed products use vegetable based inks. More and more bands are interested in our 100% postconsumer recycled paper CD cases, although from a strictly ecological standpoint it's better to reuse a plastic case than use recycled paper. Pretty much the only thing that isn't environmentally friendly is the disc itself, which we're hoping will someday change.
JT: What else sets Earthology apart?
CM: Earthology itself is based on a farm, heated and cooled by geothermal waste. We also do things like figure out the amount of CO2 created by manufacturing and transport, etc., then we offset everything. And we plant 10 trees for every 1000 units sold.
JT: That must be a lot of trees. Do you have any idea how many?
CM: (laughing) It's a small forest by now. The trees are planted all over. We started at Earthology, planting the trees by ourselves, and then we moved into using non-profits like American Forests. It's tough to say how many we're responsible for, because we plant them in different areas and not all of the trees will survive.
JT: You also do work for the Organic Consumers Association. Tell me about your day job.
CM: I analyze new studies in different journals and put that into an easy to digest format for the common Joe and Jane out there. I focus on sustainable agriculture.
JT: And you're also a singer-songwriter with Cloud Cult. You must have a very patient boss to let you juggle all of this.
CM: Everything that I do is over the laptop and cell phone. On tour, I just do it in the van. We travel 6-8 hours a day between shows. It does mean that I don't get to rest as much in the van as I'd like.
JT: Tell me about the other members of the band. Have they been with you since the beginning, or is it a new group of people for each album and tour?
CM: A couple have stayed since the beginning, but we have had multiple bassists and violin players. The cello player and painters have been with us for a long time. The painters have been integrating themselves more musically, but predominantly focus on getting that piece of artwork finished in that 75 minute set. We auction off the art at the end of each set.
JT: You do a lot of driving. I know you use biodiesel, but there's a growing debate around the production of biofuels. What are your thoughts on this?
CM: Biodiesel is an ongoing study of its own. As we shift more towards biofuels, there is more of a debate about the agriculture behind biodiesel. With anything environmental, there is a constant struggle to make things better and making mistakes. It's the same thing with shows. You do a show, you try to do as much to make it environmentally friendly as possible, but 90% of the clubs don't have recycling.
JT: Have you been able to talk venues into doing more?
CM: It's starting to get to the point where we have a draw and get a bit more respect, but for the most part clubs don't want us telling them how to manage their venue.
JT: Are you the only one interested in green, or are the other members of the band involved?
CM: Connie, one of the painters, is my wife. For her day job, she does children's environmental health issues for indigenous people, so she's involved. The rest of the band are concerned about the environment, but not as much as we are.
JT: You do a lot of interviews. What's one thing you wish the media would discuss with you that they don't?
CM: There's still a stigma about being an environmental musician. When people read about it or hear about it, they assume you're a hippie jamband or going to be all preachy. It's actually the opposite. You can try an live your life environmentally and still be an average joe who's not wearing patchoulie. It's tiring to see reviewers who assume that we have 20-minute jams and who haven't listened to the cd. It's nice to see that start to change. Our audience is kind of the college indie-rock crowd, a lot of urban inner-city youth who were kind of cynical about what we were doing. They liked the music but they didn't care about the green stuff. That's changing, too.
JT: You say your audience is mostly urban inner-city college kids. Do you get any crossover into hip hop?
CM: We don't get much of the hip-hop audience. We do have a good variety of people coming to our shows, though. We have a lot of older people who end up coming to shows, sometimes full families. That seems to stem from the messaging behind the music. Connie and I lost our 2-year old son a few years ago. A lot of the music has stemmed from that grieving process. I think people with kids relate more to that.
JT: Filesharing is the most environmentally friendly way to distribute music. Pro or con?
CM: Digital music is the future of music and should be the future. In the early years we didn't mind the file-sharing. It's gotten to the point where we really feel it hit your pocketbook. Our last album release leaked about a month before it came out. It cost us thousands and thousands of dollars.
JT: Do you see it made up in tour revenues and t-shirts?
CM: Partially, but it's hard to say. It's my philosophy that if you listen to it a lot and you really like it, you should pay for it, but if you're just discovering it for the first time it's a good way to spread the word.
JT: What about the various proposals that have been floated to have voluntary music licensing for broadband users?
CM: I haven't heard of those. [JT describes the system.] That sounds interesting. It could work.
That wraps up the interview. Here's a very non-jamband-like video that clocks in at a mere 3:19 for the uninitiated.