Last year Radiohead made headlines when, after cutting ties with EMI, the band made the digital version of its latest album In Rainbows freely downloadable to fans. Well Radiohead is back in the spotlight, but this time it is for the band's push to reduce the music industry's carbon footprint.
As ambassadors for environmental groups and campaigns, Radiohead decided their current tour was to be a platform not to promote themselves, but to raise awareness, educate and inform global audiences about the environmental impacts incurred through touring.
The band, well-known for publicising their political beliefs and more recently campaigning on behalf of the environment, is using this tour to showcase the environmentally friendly measures it has taken to minimise its carbon emissions, including energy efficient (LED) lighting, eco-friendly transport and recycling.
To address these issues and identify what areas of touring contributed most to emissions, Radiohead last year commissioned UK based company, Best Foot Forward to produce a ecological footprint and carbon audit for two previous North American tours; the 2003 theatre tour and the 2006 amphitheatre tour.
One of the most innovative measures Radiohead has incorporated on this tour and has been making headlines for is their use of energy efficient lighting.
The band's lighting designer, Andi Watson, initially put forth the idea of using a 100% LED lighting system as opposed to traditional light sources to reduce energy consumption.
Being pioneers of environmental measures the band leapt at the opportunity to embrace the technology and have employed LED lighting not only on the front stage, but backstage as well.
Watson says through the use of LEDs Radiohead has cut its power requirements by around 25% on what they used on their last tour.
“On Radiohead's last tour the lighting and video was drawing about 700 amps per phase. On this tour we are drawing about 135 amps per phase, so it's a significant reduction in energy consumption," Watson claims.
“During my initial meeting with the band about this tour they made it known they wanted to be as environmentally friendly as possible, so when they asked me what to do with the lighting I suggested they go with the most efficient light source available, which currently is LEDs," Watson says.
Watson set about researching the differing types of LED lighting and fixtures available on the market. He says he found a flood of both high-quality and flawed LED products, but in order to get the colour purity, the band had to be prepared to shell out for it and thankfully they were.
So the wheels were put into motion and Watson commenced designing an entire lighting system using only LEDs, which he says is the only 100% LED lighting installation of this scale on the touring circuit.
The touring rig consists of two video screens, a Barco D7 floor screen that is placed behind the band and a Nocturne Productions high resolution V9 LED screen, which Watson uses to display imagery from the tour on.
To light the stage Watson brings into play a large array of lighting instruments.
“We are using a mixture of lights. To shed light on the audience we are using 48 i-Pix BB4s, in addition to that we have 48 BB7s, which are a seven-way fixture. I am also using a smattering of floor lights to up-light the band and give a floor kicker effect, including Colour Kinetics iW Blasts and i-Pix Satellites and the back lighting consists of Pulsar Chroma Floods," he says.
“A wide range of fixtures have been used because the fixtures, like other lights, all have different characteristics and what's good for one task isn't necessarily good for another, so on that level I chose all the fixtures based specifically on what I wanted them to do in the design."
Element Lab's high definition Versa TUBE technology takes centre stage during the tour to form a 3D curtain of seven and nine metre long vertical strips back to front of stage above the band members.
The hundreds of Versa TUBEs offer a resolution of 36 pixels per metre and a light output of 2000 nits (cd/m2) the tubes have a power consumption of 56 watts per square metre – a fraction of the power consumed by traditional stage lighting fixtures.
Watson says the Versa TUBEs form 72 vertical columns arranged 1.2m apart above the band.
“There are 12 rows running across the stage, with each individual row consisting of nine or seven individual tubes high stretching six rows deep. This arrangement forms a grid of more than 500 Versa TUBEs that hang down from the truss above the band’s performance area leaving them with three metres of height to perform under,” states Watson.
“The Versa TUBEs produce an amazing colour of white and I have utilised frosted lenses with them because I wanted to make a very structural light.
“I also wanted to have a physical light on-stage as opposed to light just coming off the stage and light sources shining into the audience.”
Watson says through the use of Versa TUBE fixtures he has also been able to achieve an array of colours previously not achieved with any other source.
“The fixtures allow me to create brown and sepia colour blends very convincingly, which are fantastic colours for a lighting designer to be able to access because traditionally those colours have been almost impossible to achieve through the use of dichroic colour tuning or gels,” he claims.
The LEDs are run-off the Catalyst media server in conjunction with purpose written software, which allows Watson to harness the full potential of the technology.
Watson says the unique concept of this software allows him to create, display and reposition objects in a 3D fashion on the LED structures, which has never been achieved before.
“The software allows me to map 2D video to 3D LEDs allowing me to work in 3D as opposed to 2D. The video elements inside the LEDs screen aren’t a flat surface it’s actually a 3D array of video, so I can move objects in three dimensions inside the screen. To the best of my knowledge it’s the only custom software of its kind,” he claims.
“The Versa TUBEs form a 3D array of LEDs creating 3D screen effect, which is visually unique for every person in the audience. You only have to move about two feet and the effect will appear differently because some of the tubes change position within the 3D array.”
Watson says because the band is “breaking ground” in the industry and doing things that aren’t of a “normal standard” all the equipment has been customised to suit the band’s requirements.
“We’ve basically had to design all the equipment from scratch. All the Versa TUBEs, the sub stings and the faders are custom-made and we changed all the fixtures on the fittings to be more durable,” he says.
Watson says the tour has been successful artistically and he is exceptionally satisfied with the lighting design.
“It has received good reviews and been very well received by the press and by the audience,” he says.
“Additionally the efficiency of the rigs has greatly impressed other tour managers, promoters and bands, and we are showcasing to them what can be achieved with these types of systems.”
Watson says because Radiohead has now set new industry standards with their environmental agenda that it “makes sense” to incorporate that ethical approach in both technology and touring in the future.
“I think in terms of sustainability and environmental responsibility LEDs have a huge part to play in the design of large scale shows. But, unfortunately there are a lot of people who can’t afford the high cost of LEDs at the moment, so I think it is unfair to say that anyone who isn’t using LEDs is doing the wrong thing,” Watson states.
“Additionally, for some bands LEDs aren’t necessarily the right look for their show right now because they produce a very pure look and there is a certain precision that is created by LEDs that you may or may not be looking for as a designer.”
But Watson anticipates LED sources will become more sophisticated and affordable in the future, subsequently encouraging more lighting designers, bands and venue operators to embrace LED technology.
“Ultimately it’s important to me and the band that we are showcasing what can be achieved through environmentally sustainable methods and that it’s being done for the right reasons,” Watson states.
“This tour isn’t just for effect, for press coverage or to promote the band’s good image; it’s something the band and I firmly believe in and it’s important that message is coherent and genuine.”
Radiohead’s production manager, Richard Young, says the band has been unreserved in its environmental approach and commissioning the report was the first step of many they have taken to change industry standards.
“The report looked at Radiohead’s touring model to establish how much carbon was being contributed from their tour and concluded on what areas were more significant. The main findings ascertained that audience travel to and from venues was by far the largest carbon contributor,” Young states.
To offset travel emissions Young says the tour has been booked according to the availability of suitable public transport options in each location offering fans a viable alternative to driving.
“We are trying to encourage fans to travel to venues via alternative methods rather than by car wherever possible. To do this we work very closely with city councils ensuring public transport is available and accessible,” he says.
“In saying that, these types of services are all very well in theory, but if people don’t know about the transport options they won’t use them, so it’s imperative to fully promote all the alternatives.”
Young says on the whole the transport system has been working, but there are factors beyond the band’s control that sometimes impact on their ability to deliver these options.
“There are venues on the tour that are only accessible by car. In these situations we are constructing preferential parking schemes for car sharing,” claims Young.
“Anyone carrying a passenger capacity in their car gets preferential parking, which is located closer to the venue and they also get favoured routes to vacate the premises quicker.”
Young says the idea of these incentives is not just to reward fans, but to demonstrate to venue operators that these methods can be implemented with very little expense and disturbance to normal proceedings.
“What we hope will come out of this is that it will promote and educate venue operators and audience members to use these types of transport facilities for all events in the future,” states Young.
He says it is important to the band that they also address the carbon emissions being produced from their own touring travel.
“After we addressed the issues the report identified in regards to crowd travel, the band wanted to holistically commit themselves to reducing their carbon footprint. They wanted to actively solve the problem, not just donate money and plant trees to off-set their emissions,” he says.
To tackle this issue one of the initiatives Radiohead explored was a no-air-freight policy.
Traditionally a touring band of this size would move around 20 metric tonnes of equipment globally by air-freight, which greatly contributes to emissions.
So Radiohead set themselves the task of examining the perimeters of the best way to deliver a full-scale live show, while remaining as environmentally friendly as possible.
“To avoid having to air-freight the equipment we’ve designed a duplicate touring system of everything apart from 12 vintage guitars the band plays with; we’ve resigned ourselves to the fact that we have to air-freight the guitars,” Young says.
Two identical systems were designed to be used on separate legs of this tour. One to tour the US, which will then be sea-freighted onto Japan for their October stint there, and the other for the European tour.
By building separate identical systems, rather than freighting one system around the entire tour circuit, Radiohead has effectively reduced their air-freight emissions from around 20 metric tonnes to less than one.
Young says some people argue the creation of a second system increases the manufacturing carbon therefore rendering the concept counterproductive, but he disagrees with this.
“The fact is all the equipment we’ve had custom built has a residual value and will last for a long time, which means we can reuse it or sell-it-on and ultimately that means we will be recycling it,” claims Young.
“We are at a slight advantage as the band uses vintage gear, so the equipment already exists and we haven’t had much manufactured new for the band’s instruments. The hardest thing was trying to track down exact models of 1970s guitar amps.
“So although there is some carbon emitted in the manufacturing process it has residual value in terms of being recycled and reused unlike the burning of aviation fuel.”
The touring and transportation of the band, crew and equipment by road can be quite labour intensive not to mention the environmental impact, but to reduce the effects the band is utilising an alternative fuel source.
Around 60 people plus equipment are transported by road on this tour and the vehicles hauling the load are being run on biofuel.
“The biofuel comes from recycled vegetable and animal oil. We don’t use anything that has been genetically modified, nor do we use corn, soy or grapeseed oil because of its environmental impact,” Young states.
Although Young says there has been some flying of crew, which is unavoidable in some cases, wherever possible the band has applied their “green approach”.
Radiohead applies this ethical attitude throughout the entirety of the touring process, even backstage.
“We have incorporated a very active recycling campaign on this tour. We’ve even issued all the touring personnel with reusable aluminium water bottles so we don’t have to use pallets of plastic water bottles and we’ve made them available for sale to the public,” says Young.
The recycling measures the band has employed take into account the waste management practises in place at each venue, so before they start the recycling process they establish what can and can not be recycled.
“It’s better to recycle what appears to be less, but actually recycle it, than for example announce we are recycling all the plastic at a particular event and have people not understand what plastic is recyclable and contaminating the entire batch with non-recyclable plastic, which results in it being turned into landfill instead of being recycled,” Young claims.
“Even our merchandising on this tour is recycled. The t-shirts we are selling are made from a 50% cotton 50% plastic blend, so it gives fans the choice of buying a more environmentally sensitive product.”
Saving paper through online ticketing sales is another way Radiohead is reducing its environmental impact.
“We now sell our tickets online offering fans the option of printing-off their ticket on their own standard paper, which can then be recycled. The problem with traditional ticketing methods is that they are printed onto thermal etching paper and it’s difficult to find companies that will recycle that,” states Young.
To ensure the band gets comparative feedback on the methods they have employed on this tour they are conducting a post-event survey.
Every fan who purchases electronic tickets automatically signs-up to give feedback on the event they attended. Young says the band will compile all of the information and use it to establish the effectiveness of the practises employed to establish what areas need to be improved.
“There were some nightmare traffic issues in one of the cities on the North American leg, so we are contacting every fan, who agreed to sign-up for the survey and asking them how they travelled,” he says.
“Ultimately the only way we can validate what we are doing is to collect data from this tour and establish whether we have done a better or worse job by comparing it to the report that was commissioned in 2007.
“Changing the practises of the industry is a big operation and it’s going to take time to get people to adopt methods like ours holistically, but even if 25% of everything we’ve done becomes industry standard then we have achieved a good result.”