September 01, 2008

Green Rainbows

Radiohead reduce carbon and revolutionize the greening of music

By Lavinia Jones Wright



This year, as music festivals became a more common summer sight than short shorts, UK-based electronic-rock heroes Radiohead unveiled their grand plan to save the world - or to at least stop destroying it. Headlining festivals with public transportation options for fans – All Points West, Lollapalooza – instead of performing more frequent and wasteful club dates was merely the tip of the (soon to be no longer melting) iceberg for the band. They showed up in front of enormous crowds this summer with a shockingly beautiful LED-only stage set, designed just for them, that used two-thirds less energy to power than their old set, and a clearer conscience.

The famously grounded and intellectual band worked tirelessly since before the release of its lauded album In Rainbows last year to plan a tour that would be environmentally friendly while still spectacular in scale and breathtaking for the fans.

Focusing on issues both universal – trans-Atlantic flights – and exclusive to a touring band (stage lighting, idling tour busses, equipment shipping) Radiohead did diligent research and created the most unique and complete-to-the-last-detail solutions for cutting their carbon emissions. Playback spoke to Radiohead's production manager, Richard Young, the organizing force behind the research and execution of the band's ambitious environmental ideas, about the process of greening smartly.

Why don't Radiohead employ carbon offsets?
The band's policy is reduction. Carbon offsets are a minefield of controversy and ultimately what you need to do is to not release that carbon to start with. You're not going to get rid of carbon, but you need to keep it trapped in its original form – in the oil and the coal.

How long have you been working on the green touring as a group?
Thom Yorke [Radiohead lead singer] has been passionate about the environment for years, and has always been concerned about small things like the idling of trucks outside venues all the way up to how much equipment we fly around the world. Recently he's aligned himself with a Friends of the Earth campaign in Europe called the Big Ask, which is a campaign by the charity to encourage members of the general public to persuade their governments to provide practical carbon reduction programs in legislation.

Starting at the small end, what did you come up with for the idling tour vehicles?
We've had our tour trucks equipped with shore power hookups. Now they just plug their power cord into the venue and they don't have to run their engines to run the air conditioning for the drivers.

Has the fact that they've made all these changes had detrimental effects on the band? Especially this summer because they've passed on festival dates and passed on club dates to reduce their environmental impact?
The detrimental effects are that we're doing fewer shows because the band has subscribed to a low air freight policy – we started off trying to do no air freight and having two complete sets of equipment, one in Europe and one in the States, but we discovered that there are about 12 guitars and guitar pedals that we couldn't reproduce. So we now air freight 2,000 lbs of equipment.

What portion is that of the whole amount of equipment that they're actually using?
We would normally air freight 40,000 lbs and now we only air freight 2,000 lbs of it.

Are you using biofueled busses?
We are exclusively using recycled oil, vegetable oil, waste oil. The oil comes from restaurants, mainly the food industry, and then they convert that. You do have to be mindful of the trucking and bussing companies' warranties on their engines. We only use a twenty percent blend.

How did you get the LED lights for your stage sets?
Some of the fixtures we have are brand new – they were designed for us. And manufactured for us. But they all become production numbers in November, so they become available on the open market. And I think the main thing was just trying to move away from the conventional concepts of lighting. We're doing less of lighting the band and more of having something visually stunning for the audience to look at. In our opinion, the fans shouldn't notice that the tour is environmentally friendly. Or, if they do notice, it should be for a positive reason. It shouldn’t be less spectacular.

What do you think is the most important change you've made through your greening efforts?
The most significant contribution to the reduction was the moving of the crowd, the fans' travel from where they live to the shows. That's the single biggest issue that we've addressed, and we've done that by information, working with promoters to set up carpooling. We set up a scheme with LiveNation where if you were four or more people to a car, you got priority parking. And the fantastic thing about it, is that now, LiveNation has it as a nation-wide policy for every venue capable of doing it. It shouldn't be less spectacular.

What is the next step in your efforts?
We've been experimenting with a battery that can power the entire stage set. We've been using it in the UK, but it's still too heavy to ship to the U.S. The next stage is to find alternate energy sources for charging the battery – hydrogen cells, solar power, wind power – so it's a big upcoming and ongoing project.

For more info and updates on Radiohead's green touring efforts, read Richard Young's blog posts at: