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« Is your album a starting line or a finish line? | Main | Social Media, Blogs and Music: Some Philosophical Thoughts »
Wednesday
Sep242008

Eco-touring - survival is the mother of invention (or something)

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 notLobelia with the touring gear - Europe 2007

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.

Reader Comments (10)

One of the better posts I've seen here. Thanks!

September 25 | Unregistered CommenterHowlin' Hobbit

My deepest gratitude for the link guys. It's so amazing that people are taking an interest in "green gigging", and Steve, you explained the concept and possible solutions better than I ever could. Fantastic job. Hats off to Music Think Tank, you always tackle the important issues in the music industry... things other music blogs would never touch.

September 25 | Unregistered CommenterGeoffsays

Now, to add to the conversation....

Steve's correct, the big touring acts like Radiohead are not going to be the ones to lead the way in this area. It's akin to driving a hybrid Hummer. Does it help? well, a little. But still hugely wasteful and inefficient. It's musicians on the club level, people like Steve, Lisa and Televox who can make the biggest impact simply because it's easier for us to adapt and make change.

Excellent advice above from the "things to think about when planning a tour". Televox have found that hiring bulky amps and monitors locally in the cities we play have greatly reduced the energy required to travel not to mention it was actually cheaper. We think maybe drums will be the next thing on our list to hire or borrow locally. Another option? If there are other bands playing the same night as you, why not talk to them well before the show about sharing some of the equipment? I've seen it many times before.

Musicians reading this: before you dismiss all this as hippie BS, think about this... the greener option is often the cheaper option, and cheaper options allow you to travel longer and further. If nothing else, keep that thought in the back of your brain.

September 25 | Unregistered CommenterGeoffsays

Agreed with Geoff -- "green" will never be the selling point. "Less expensive and more efficient" has to be the selling point.

The problem is much more fundamental than music business and tour planning. Until the entire paradigm and existing system of human energy and transportation gets changed, radically, towards less expensive and more efficient solutions, Green will remain a small personal gesture at best.

September 26 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Boland

Justin,

Of course, the systemic changes that need to be made are the ones that will ultimately save the planet.

However, what we as touring musicians are in a position to do is make it an issue within the culture we occupy. We make it 'sexy', so to speak. The wellspring of cultural shift has to start at grassroots level, and it doesn't get more grassroots than indie touring.

The dude who chooses to get the bus to work instead of driving tells his workmates, who go 'oh, that's nice'. The musician who puts together a tour like this gets to tell it to anyone who finds out about the tour. Our small platform as artists becomes a great conduit for far more nuanced discussions about the nature of sustainability.

One of the nice angles on this particular conversation is that it puts the emphasis firmly on 'reduce' in the 'reduce, reuse, recycle' sequence... they are in that order for a reason, and very few people ever think of recycling as a last resort, when we've exhausted the possibilities for reduction and reuse.

tour small,

steve

September 26 | Unregistered CommenterSteve Lawson

Big bands going on tour is an ecological disaster anyway, even if they fire the drummer, cut the lighting to a single standard lamp on stage and cycle between gigs. The economics are all based on attracting vast numbers of people to travel large distances to come and see them at the few major tour centres they perform at.

There are economic strengths to getting all those people together in once place. Once fixed costs have been covered, cost per person is relatively low and so, along with crowd enthusiasm bolstering the individual drive to buy things like CDs and T-shirts, it generates larger profits for the organisers and also increases the viability of surrounding places like pubs and snack bars.

However, imagine a month in which all major gigs (say > 500 attending) were cancelled and music fans committed to spending the same money supporting their local music scene (within a short and preferably green journey of their home). That would be healthy, both for music and the planet.

It's unlikely to ever happen but is part of why I choose not to go to big gigs.

September 26 | Unregistered CommenterWulf

Wulf,

great comment. GREAT comment. Thanks very much. Will incorporate that into future thinking/talking/blogging on the subject.

Sx

September 26 | Unregistered CommenterSteve Lawson

Our small platform as artists becomes a great conduit for far more nuanced discussions about the nature of sustainability.

Such as the one unfolding in this very thread? An elegant example of a self-contained proof. Looking forward to hearing more perspectives and ideas.

(Has anyone worked on solar PA systems? Could a tour be combined with an educational mission, like the BioTour bus currently careening around the country? Could bands be getting sponsorships from green corporations instead of beer and softdrinks?)

September 26 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Boland

As you mentioned about sharing drums, the band I manage Spy For Hire did a small southeast tour this past summer where we shared all back line with another band James Hall. I'll be honest this was not do trying to be green but do to economics. The gas prices were/are crazy so without guarantees we couldn't afford to lose money. So partner up with some bands share your gear and be resourceful.

I love Wulf's comment also. Support your local music first. Go see a band just because you love music. You might just stumble upon the first gig of the new Sex Pistols. who knows?

September 26 | Unregistered CommenterDale Adams

Justin asked:

>>>Has anyone worked on solar PA systems?<<<

It's been done, but it's tough if you're not in one place for a long time, cos PA take a lot of power... still, the whole area of renewable energy sources for clubs (solar and wind power on the roof of the venue?) seems underexplored. As does more experimental solutions, like putting a gym in the building and harnessing all the energy from the exercise machines... Something normal gyms surely ought to be looking into?

>>>Could a tour be combined with an educational mission, like the BioTour bus currently careening around the country?<<<

Sounds like a great idea - if you're 'living the eco-dream' it's definitely worth doing some kind of seminar/educational/university tour on the back of it - for one thing, you're combining the travel costs and carbon footprint for the two tours. You're there already, why not make the most of the travel time?

>>>Could bands be getting sponsorships from green corporations instead of beer and softdrinks?<<<

There are already examples of this - no sweat clothing are doing band deals (though that's fair trade rather than climate change, but still, the principle is a good one) - I'd love to do a deal with a train company to help promote our next tour round Europe. :)

September 27 | Unregistered CommenterSteve Lawson

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