Radiohead isn’t the first band to tout their “greenness” lately or claim a “carbon free” operation while touring. Having some modest experience in this area (as I more fully describe an earlier post called The Sustainable Circus), I’ve always been a little dubious about such claims.
Radiohead’s leader, Thom Yorke, is more than a little dubious. Saying that the profligate energy use of the average rock show and tour is “ridiculous”, Yorke threatened back in 2006 to quit touring to far-flung locales unless steps were taken to reduce carbon emissions.
“The way that tours are structured now and the way it works is a ridiculous consumption of energy … I would consider refusing to tour on environmental grounds, if nothing started happening to change the way the touring operates.”
Unlike other bands, Radiohead hasn’t used carbon offsets for their touring and concert emissions because Yorke is skeptical that such schemes do any good. At least as a primary means of achieving anything approaching “carbon neutral”.
An article in the July issue of Lighting & Sound America profiles Radiohead’s current Carbon Neutral World Tour, showing how the band and its production team has taken the concept of carbon neutral in the music touring industry one step further through innovative use of show technology and new ways of addressing the issue with fans.
Rock n’ roll mass transit
Radiohead’s production team has long understood that no rock show can hope to address its carbon emissions without taking into account how the fans get to the shows. In planning their current world tour, Yorke made clear that, as much as possible, he wanted to book gigs where people could come by mass transit. That’s not always easy.
“Some of our best ever shows have been in the US, but there’s 80,000 people there and they’ve all been sitting in traffic jams for five or six hours with their engines running to get there, which is bollocks.”
Production manager Richard Young concurs:
“In the U.K. and Europe, the venues we’ve chosen are easy: Victoria Park London, Glasgow Green, Lancashire CC in Manchester. None of these places has good parking locally, but excellent public transport; But no, it’s not so easy in the U.S.”
When planning the tour, Radiohead contracted with carbon and environmental footprint accounting firm Best Foot Forward to assess the impact of rock touring. From truck and buss, shipping, power consumption, and even private jets, by far the biggest impact comes from how fans get to the shows.
To address the issue, Radiohead took to the airwaves and internet to connect with fans about taking public transportation to concerts. In Atlanta, for example, the promoter offered early entry to the gig for ticketed concert-goers that showed up with evidence they’d traveled to the venue using MARTA, the local mass-transit system. When mass transit wasn’t available or desirable, fans where encouraged to car-pool, which, according to environmental co-coordinator Katie Friesena, was a “major success”. On the band’s official blog is a carbon calculator and links for fans to lobby governments and Congress about climate issues.
Friesena also worked with venues to encourage the purchase of renewable energy through local utilities. According to Friesena, the premium for renewable power is mostly offset through tax breaks. Many venues find that using renewable energy has added to their “social kudos” and is well worth the nominal cost increase, deciding to use renewable energy for all their shows.
Transport and shipping
Obviously, a rock band can’t tour without moving a lot of people and equipment around the globe. Radiohead first looked to shipping equipment by sea instead of air, but found it was impractical due to the time it took to ship a rock show across the atlantic by boat. They then decided to build two sets of light, video, and staging gear – one for each side of the Atlantic – and rent the sound system in each country. The band only had to move 12 antique guitars and a few “bits and pieces” across “the pond”. All told only about a ton of gear instead of the usual 20 tons.
For overland gear transport, the band used trucks powered with biofuel whenever possible, driving vehicles with the most efficient engines, and running landline AC when drivers slept in the cabs (ah, the joys of touring) instead of idling engines.
Band and production personnel traveled the most efficient routes and avoided air travel, especially chartered flights, as much as possible.
Sound and lights
One of the most innovative and creative aspects of the current Radiohead tour is their use of a lighting plot comprised 100% with LED lighting. Lighting designer Andi Watson “took the ecology concept to the nth degree” says Young. Asking if it was possible to forgo the use of energy-slurping lighting dimmers entirely, Watson responded with “Let’s do it all LED”, to “stunning” effect.
Watson has created an “LED forest” applying technology in new ways that served both the band’s aesthetic and environmental vision.
It’s a little harder to find ways to reduce energy use for the sound system, other than not hauling around “racks and stacks” (amps and speakers), consoles, and other heavy PA gear. Modern digital consoles make storing all the soundboard settings easy, so engineers can essentially carry the show around in their pocket, plugging the show’s settings into rented consoles instead of carrying the front-of-house and monitor consoles all over the map. Amplification is the high-power aspect of a sound system, and there are few options beyond designing a system using the most efficient amp/speaker configuration possible – truly getting the most bang (sound) for your buck (watt).
Batteries are another persnickety aspect of any modern show. As a comfort measure, anyone using wireless microphones or in-ear monitors doesn’t often dare approach the lifespan of a battery before changing out for fresh batteries. Nobody paid money to see a show where a mic goes silent because of a dead battery. Half-used batteries add up quickly, and Radiohead made sure that all partially used batteries are stored and given away for use in personal devices, flashlights, and other production non-critical gadgets.
Walk the talk
Environmental concern is not unique with Radiohead, and other bands have taken steps to “clean up their act”. Jack Johnson is one of a growing number of bands employing “enviro riders” on their tours to help insure a greener show. The concept of an enviro rider was created by MusicMatters based in Minneapolis, taking, according to their website, “cause marketing” one step further to “effect marketing” – from raising awareness to actually taking action.
Radiohead has taken action in innovative ways, addressing every aspect of the tour production effort, taking great pains to walk their talk and encouraging their fans to do the same. Despite the good work of organizations like MusicMatters and claims of green goodness, too many shows, especially those produced in the name of environmental awareness, have not shown anything approaching Thom Yorke and Radiohead’s willingness to truly change the way they do business, and, by all reports of this latest tour, create a truly incredible show.
Photos by xergis
Tom Schueneman is a freelance environmental writer based in San Francisco, CA. When he isn’t writing for TriplePundit, SolveClimate.com, or publishing his climate change blog GlobalWarmingisReal, he’s “pushing faders” to make ends meet. Find out more about Tom’s life as a soundman at his ongoing journal The Soundman Chronicles.