Wednesday, July 1, 2009

"Uncle Johnny's Tips for Musicians" (Scene) July 2009

Update: This entry is from my column that originally appeared in the Northern Colorado entertainment magazine The Scene. While I'm not doing this column anymore, I'm still as involved as I can be in the Fort Collins area music scene in general.

This edition’s topic: The Glamorous Sound of Eco-touring

Today’s topic arises as the result of a well-intentioned, blonde dreadlocked music fan who wobbly Birkenstocked up to me at a recent festival and asked, “Hey, man, what is your band doing to keep your tours green? I mean do you guys buy offsets to help with the carbon footprint?” “No, we don’t,” I said immediately. She looked shocked. Well, shocked, and a little bloodshot, and somewhat disappointed. I tried to explain.

Regarding the mucho-hyped carbon offsets, I feel compelled to put things into a pragmatic perspective. A little background: The idea of carbon offsets is not brand new (but maybe not familiar to everyone). Per Wikipedia, “In the … voluntary market, individuals, companies, or governments purchase carbon offsets to mitigate their own greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, electricity use, and other sources.” You buy an “offset,” and with that money, you support some ecologically P.C. groovy project like a solar or wind farm. (Is it just me or is this a little bit like going to an O2 bar to offset the lung damage done by smoking a pack and a half of Camel Lights a day? Basically, you are just fining yourself for touring.) But don’t get me wrong. Bands who buy carbon offsets are doing something important for the greater good, and I commend them for doing so. At least it’s honest, for it acknowledges that our industry pollutes (most do). Dave Matthews, Phish, The Dead, they’re all buying offsets and sponsoring clean energy, and I am proud that they are. Bear in mind though, that they do this in part to inspire others, not just musicians, but fans who are insurance adjusters and company CFOs. The point of these bands using their fame “for good” is to remind everyone that our travels make an impact.

Unfortunately my band (and in actuality the vast majority of bands) just don’t tour at the level of Dave or The Dead. Some of our friends are still crossing the map with two giant buses (at 6-8 MPG), one for band and one for gear. They SHOULD be buying carbon offsets. When they do, it’s because they can afford to. We tour nationally at a much more modest level. Trying to make a profit during this recession, Cracker tours in a single Sprinter van that gets over 20MPG even with a heavy gear trailer. When we arrive in a city after a 5 to 8 hour drive every day, our legs and asses are asleep and we have had almost NO sleep, but may I point out, we are leaving a much smaller eco-footprint. We recycle. Some of us are vegetarians. We play “sustainable living” fairs, and as individuals we give money to green charities when we can and still afford to keep going. But our business requires that we travel. CD sales are a fraction of what they used to be for EVERY band, so survival equals touring. A videoconference or podcast of a show just doesn’t give our fans that vibrating-through-the-floorboards, smell of the beer that just got dumped on the guy next to them, live in-concert feeling. We can really only pollute less by touring less, and by not making a living and not bringing our live show to the fans that sustain us. So until Ben and Jerry’s gives us our own flavor (Cracker Surprise with Whiskey, Milk & Honey?), or the industry reinvents itself in a big way, we will keep doing the many little things we hope will add up to helping sustain the earth, just as we hope our fans will do, even if we can’t publicly boast that our exhaust paid for an entire wind farm in Wyoming.

To learn about the many ways bands can tour more responsibly, and how fans can help, one great site is (started by the folks from Guster). A final fact, from the Dogwood Alliance website, says that 80% of a concert’s carbon footprint comes from fans’ commutes. Hey dreadlock girl, wherever you are, I trust you walked or carpooled to that festival. Or perhaps you bought a carbon offset instead of that extra bag of “herb.” My only advice to friends and readers is this: do everything you can to fight global warming and social ills, but don’t waste time feeling guilty about things that are out of your hands. If you are doing your part, you are ahead of many who just don’t care.

Footnote: My wife and personal editor would like me to point out that we know Wikipedia is not a “real” source, but, this is not a New York Times column, either. This is college-town entertainment publishing, and Uncle Johnny is just fine with that, over and out.