Not sure how I missed this first time round but Geoff Hickman (aka DeadBeatGeoff) was recently interviewed on BBC 5 live about the whole idea of Sustainable, or ‘Green’, touring. Here’s the piece from the radio:
It’s something that’s been getting a lot of interest of late, largely thanks to Radiohead’s attempts to do the low-carbon eco-tour thing (read their road manager’s thoughts here).
But as usual, the Radiohead stuff is a massive red-herring. Very very few musicians are in a position to think about their own lighting show (unless it’s an Orbital-style torches-mounted-on-your-head approach). No, the situation with Televox, the band Geoff manages, is way more pertinent. They are a small club-level band, trying to play some shows and build an audience. They’re not wondering whether to air-freight or charter a plane for their 35 tonnes of back-line and lights. They’re trying to work out if they can get an amp on a train or not…
This all piqued my interest because Lobelia and I did such a tour last year. Back then, I still owned a car, and was used to loading up my car with my bass-friendly PA, a pile of instruments, whoever else I was working with and driving to the gig. (even at this stage, I’m one step down from the ‘need to hire a van’ stage, but we’ll get back to that). But for our tour, we wanted to do it all on the train - I’d done a two week tour like that on my own back in Oct 2006, and we wanted to get Interail (UK)/ Eurail (US) passes and use trains all over the continent.
So we did. Simple as. I took one bass instead of 3 or 4, Lo took one guitar instead of 2, we relied on in-house PAs instead of taking mine and as a result did gigs in clubs in Madrid through systems optimised for rock bands (not ideal for a bass + voice duo), and house concerts through people’s home stereos. We played in a Medieval church through an amazing rented system (a gig with a budget - who’d have thought it?) and we did masterclasses in Danish music schools. All in, we played in 5 countries, spent about £1300 on train tickets across the month, and played about 16 shows. Not a bad ratio. No risk of the car breaking down, no cancellation fees for missed planes or changed itinerary, just pre-paid train travel anywhere in Europe.
It also meant that when my car died back in May, I was in less of a hurry to replace it. When I need to take my PA, I rent a car or find someone else who wants to drive to the gig, or I get public transport.
OK, it’s definitely worth noting that we had neither a drummer not a Hammond organist, but we were both used to taking way more gear that we had with us, had to modify what and how we played, but we made it work. It was still hard work - my looping/processing rack and pedal board isn’t light, but on wheels it was manageable.
So here are a few things to consider when planning a tour:
- PA - the single biggest thing to travel with, and probably easiest to ditch - it will almost certainly end up cheaper and easier to take a resourceful sound engineer and his rack for tweaking the vocal sounds than to take your own rig. Can you go half and half - carry the light stuff, rent the heavy stuff?
- Drums - a tour of co-bills with bands willing to share their kits with you can cut down hugely on travel logistics. Yes, it’s a pain in the arse to use someone else’s drums, but hey, life’s tough.
- Amps - I switched from using a bass amp to ‘modeling’ my amp-type sounds years ago - it actually gives me access to way more sounds, as the model can be of any amp, not just the sound of the one behind me. Probably safest to do if you have your own engineer. Also, carrying your own in-ear monitor set up is also probably easier and cheaper than you might think…
- Merch - ship it ahead of you, where possible. Be creative, sometimes sending a few smaller boxes can be cheaper than one big box, as it keeps you out of parcel-shipping territory. Failing that, look into ways of taking digital orders or selling ‘virtual’ products to cut down on bulk.
- The Line-Up - y’know, for some promo things, you might not even need a bass player, or drummer. It’s worth thinking about how much of your ‘promo’ tour is full band shows - if you can get away with two acoustic guitars and a tambourine for the radio stuff and some opening slots, it might not be a bad idea. Means you can come back with the full band later. Even as a solo artist, I’ve done one very simple solo tune with none of my usual ‘toys’ and then played tracks from the album before on the radio to save having to cart all my gear into the studio. The more flexible you can be to the space you’re playing in, the more you can play, the more audience you can build, and the greater your chances of getting invited back on a bigger budget where you’ll be able to afford to hire the bigger kit before you get there.
I did a tour earlier this year with a band where the drummer took 3 timpani on the road. He’d rented 4 but couldn’t get them all in the van! This was a tour with only one guarantee, and we were sharing the profits. I made the princely sum of £150 for 5 days away, including merch money. Insane, and completely avoidable.
Sure, the timps were cool in a Spinal Tap kind of way, but the sounds could’ve been triggered and the theatrics saved for a tour with more budget. I traveled to and from the tour on the train and didn’t even take an amp to try and save money… The band had to rent a huge van for all the gear, when it could easily have been done in cars.
Sustainable touring is not only vital for the survival of the planet, it’s better for the soul of the band, and cheaper. You get to see more of the countries you travel to, and get to do favours for other touring bands, strengthening links between bands on the same circuit. You also get to revisit your music in different line-ups, with different sounds, and gigs become a lot more specific to the place you play, so better for the audience. Everybody wins.