How to Tour More Sustainably: Guidelines for Greener Shows

Anyone who's had to put gas in a tour van won't be surprised to learn that touring isn't exactly an environmentally sustainable practice. Organizations like BOYBottle, Julie's Bicycle, and the environmental non-profit organization Reverb.org (no relation to this website) have been discussing this issue for years, and their efforts are beginning to hit the mainstream.

Recent news has put a spotlight on green touring: Coldplay announced that they're taking time off from touring until they can do so in a carbon-neutral way. And late last year, Billie Eilish announced her plans for a more environmentally friendly tour behind When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?. In partnership with Reverb.org (again, not this website), she'll be allowing fans to bring empty water bottles and fill them inside the venue. Such concerns and considerations are becoming more of a topic of discussion among music fans and artists alike.

Abbey Simmons, a Tacoma, Washington–based merchandise and tour manager, has spent eight years running everything from van tours to multi-bus, multi-truck tours for artists like Sleater-Kinney and Sharon Jones. She says, "The fact is the physical act of touring, at any scale really, takes a lot of resources. Even when tours do everything they can to be 'sustainable' or more environmentally friendly, they still take up a lot of resources and make a lot of waste."

Even so, every performer, venue, and fan can do their part to ensure sustainability in touring and live music.

Transportation and Lodging

The single most apparent factor in the large carbon footprint of touring is transportation. Odds are high that you're fueling your touring with gasoline. In addition to choosing your routing wisely (according to Simmons, smart routing is your best way to minimize your environmental impact), there are a number of things you can do to put a little less gas in the tank.

Driving

"Inherently, you are trying to use the least gas possible in [van touring] situations, but routing is destiny—and with a van loaded with gear or dragging a trailer... none of it is ideal," Simmons points out.

Electric vehicles are still cost-prohibitive (or have ranges too short for touring), but if you can afford it that option is out there. You can also find rentals for touring vans that run on biodiesel—the big trick there is making sure you route your tour in ways that enable you to fill up when you need it.

Cut your carbon footprint by renting the smallest, most lightweight vehicle that suits your needs.

If you can't swing an electric van or biodiesel, you can still cut your carbon footprint by renting the smallest, most lightweight vehicle that suits your needs.

You also might want to consider packing light—backlining where you can and packing clothes with the intention of doing laundry on the road. After all, any added weight reduces the fuel efficiency of your car. As does speed, so keep in mind that slowing your roll can have a big impact on your fuel consumption.

And as your band grows from touring with a van and trailer to larger operations, your carbon footprint is going to be harder to reduce on your own. "If you can donate to a carbon offset tax for the unavoidable impact you have to run a show so large," Simmons says, speaking of the large number of trucks it takes to put on bigger shows, "you should do it."

Alternative Transportation

Though the rail system in North America isn't as strong as it is in Europe, Amtrak does offer routes through some of the biggest cities in North America. With some planning (including backlining amps, drums, and anything else you don't want to stow under the train), you could take trains from San Diego, California all the way north to Vancouver, British Columbia, hitting major markets like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle on the way.

Plus, you have the benefit of not having to share driving time—no more worries about whoever's driving nodding off at the wheel.

The trailer for Festival Express, which captured a 1970 tour via train with the Grateful Dead, Buddy Guy, Janis Joplin, The Band, and more.

Flying

Occasional flights to performances, especially in a vast country like the United States or Canada, are inevitable. However, you can do your part by reducing the number of short-haul plane trips you take. Yes, we know that the drive between Seattle and Spokane sucks, but that four-hour drive will use way fewer carbon emissions.

Lodging

Hotels aren't historically the most environmentally sound establishments. You can help hotels cut back on their own waste by bringing your own toiletries and towels (or at least keep the number of towels you use to a minimum).

Also, keep it tidy. Yes, you have someone to clean up after you later, but if the hotel staff has to use more cleaning supplies to clean up whatever weird stains you left on the carpet, that's not very green.

At the Venue

Concerns about sustainability in touring don't stop when you get to the venue. Single-use plastics, accessibility to public transportation, and recycling are just a few things that we as artists can have some control over.

Accessibility to Transportation

As touring musicians, we don't always get to be choosy when it comes to what venues we play. Cost, capacity, and availability are the major factors in booking most shows. That doesn't mean we can't prioritize venues in areas that boast better access to public transportation.

Both for environmental and safety reasons (don't drink and drive, friends), it's highly recommended that you find venues that are near bus routes, train stops, or even venues that will help you encourage attendees to consider carpooling over driving by themselves.

Single-Use Plastics

Regardless of what you think about the straw bans, it's hard to argue against the reduction of single-use plastics. Bars and venues are often rife with plastic bottles, cups, food containers, and more.

You can start in the Green Room by creating a "Green Rider" that discourages the venue from putting plastic wrapping on foods and asks that they provide water refill stations, which many venues already have, instead of plastic bottles. (You can download a template of a Green Rider here.) If you have this ask, Simmons says, "Bring your reusable water bottle and coffee mug. ... If you're on a tour with catering, you can bring your own utensils or plate, instead of using the plastic ones often provided."

Not all venues always let folks bring a water bottle in, but ask if they'll allow fans to do so as long as the bottle is empty when it comes and goes. Unless the venue is serving its mixed drinks and draft pours in glass, ask if they'll allow fans to bring their own stainless steel cups.

Most importantly, work with the venue and the other bands playing to get the BYOB message out there.

Food and Snacks

Without a doubt, any band tours on its stomach. And what you eat on tour has its own environmental impact. Instead of shopping at big stores or naming off generic snacks in your rider, Simmons recommends shopping at local co-ops and requesting local food.

Recycling

For the amount of glass and plastic that most bars and venues go through on any given night, you might be surprised that not all have strong recycling policies. When booking a venue, ask about their commitment to recycling.

Tabling and Merch

Even in the era of 360 deals and venues increasingly wanting a cut, merch is still an enormous revenue stream for touring musicians. But what are the environmental ramifications of bulk-ordering the cheapest custom shirts and hats you can find? More than you'd think. The textile industry is one of the largest water polluters in the world.

Ask yourself (and your fans), do they really want that t-shirt, or do they just want to support you a little more?

Also, consider why it is that people buy merch in the first place. Ask yourself (and your fans), do they really want that t-shirt, or do they just want to support you a little more? If the answer is the latter, try out platforms like Patreon. Patreon enables your fans to support you for as little as a dollar a month without adding to a mountain of stuff.

You might also consider asking the venue or someone from your team (or even fans) to contact local environmental organizations to table at your concert next to your merch table. If that's not possible, you can set up donations at your merch table to ask fans to help cover your carbon impact.

The idea of an environmentally sustainable tour can sound intimidating, but it doesn't have to be. You don't have to take the Coldplay route of holding off on touring until you can get to carbon-neutral. Instead, you can make little changes to your touring routine that can pay off in big ways, especially if more artists begin to adopt them. And the last thing, according to Abbey Simmons, "Keep your ears open to how other bands are trying to tour smartly and sustainably and borrow ideas often."

Are you a touring musician that has found ways to be greener while on the road? Share your tips and techniques in the comments section.


About the author: Emily Harris is a freelance writer and co-host of the Get Offset music gear podcast and YouTube channel.

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