As even the best-intentioned bands are learning, launching a major environmentally responsible tour is virtually impossible. When Radiohead played the Nissan Pavilion in Bristow, Virginia, on May 11th, many fans ended up stuck in traffic for as long as six hours on the way to the venue, which is 36 miles outside Washington, D.C. The traffic jam, caused in part by a rainstorm, left drivers stranded on overwhelmed access roads, their engines spewing CO2 into the atmosphere.
This in itself isn’t news. But before Radiohead hit the road for their current six-month world tour, they commissioned a comprehensive study of the environmental damage done by their last two North American tours. The report’s conclusion? The band wasn’t the problem – the fans are. The report revealed that 97 percent of the environmental damage done by the group’s 2003 tour – nearly 10,000 tons of CO2, the equivalent of 4,000 trans-Atlantic flights – was fan-related. The conclusion was so demoralizing that the group considered scrapping the tour altogether. “The big eye-opener for me was Bonnaroo, which had about a seven-hour traffic tailback to get in,” Thom Yorke told Rolling Stone in January. “That’s fucking nuts.”
Even as green touring has revolutionized how musicians hit the road – from Willie Nelson‘s biodiesel-powered buses and Jack Johnson’s “EnviroRider” (which includes things like backstage recycling containers and locally sourced catering) – the fact remains that most of America’s amphitheaters are located far from city centers, with no means of mass transportation. “If you can reduce fans’ travel by 10 percent, that’s better than anything you can do as a band,” says Simon Miller, consultant for Best Foot Forward, the U.K. environmental consultancy that performed Radiohead’s study.
But for a Radiohead-size band, the only city-center options are sports arenas – and environmental concerns aren’t the only factor in deciding where to play. “Radiohead’s show doesn’t lend itself to an arena setup,” says the band’s production manager, Richard Harris. “The experience for some of the audience is quite poor, since they’re looking from the side or back corner of the place. Primarily, what we’re there to do is put on a show for the fans.” Other green-minded acts – including Johnson and the Dave Matthews Band – share Radiohead’s frustration with the lack of appropriate venues. “When you’re playing to 15,000 to 30,000 people, there are only a few venues in every town that can actually do it,” says Johnson’s manager, Emmett Malloy. “We’re trying to find nontypical venues, but that becomes its own problem: It takes a lot of resources to get our stuff to those places.”
Carpooling helps, and some venues are chipping in by opening up traffic lanes and parking lots solely for groups – with some of Radiohead’s amphitheaters reporting a 10 percent reduction in the number of cars in their lots. “Venues are very responsive to the idea of carpool lots,” says DMB bass player Stefan Lessard. “Anything that makes it easier to get people in and out saves time and money.”
It’s easier for bands to cut back on their own carbon output. Much of Radiohead’s equipment was sent from Europe by ship, reducing their total air-freight load from 20 metric tons in 2003 to a single metric ton this time. Their lighting rig is composed entirely of LEDs, which consume less power. And the band invested in two full stage sets, one for America and one in Europe, to further reduce shipping. (The U.S. stage is being sent by boat to Japan while the band is on break.)
Radiohead aren’t the only group to run into logistical problems when trying to make their tours ecofriendly. Johnson has tried for years to convince venues to allow water stations where fans can fill reusable containers for free. “It’s been a really big challenge,” says Malloy. “You’re cutting into a big revenue stream.”
Many tours have switched their fleets at least partially to cleaner-burning biodiesel, but some critics now believe the alternative fuel does more harm than good. “A few years ago, the idea of farmers growing their own fuel was great,” says Matthews. “Then you get Exxon involved, and they start leveling rainforests to produce ‘farm fuels.'”
A true carbon-neutral tour isn’t going to happen anytime soon, an idea most artists seem to accept. “We’ve made peace with the fact that there’s downsides in getting this many people to congregate,” Malloy says. “We’re trying to do everything we can think of, and hopefully at the end of this tour we’ll find 50 more things we can do to make the next one that much better.”
This story is from the June 12th, 2008 issue of Rolling Stone.