March 15, 2007
Have Guitar, Will Recycle
By ALEX WILLIAMS
THE typical high E string on an electric guitar is a stainless steel filament 32 inches long and one-hundredth of an inch thick. It weighs perhaps as much as a few paper clips — not a lot of raw material, but enough for the Barenaked Ladies to concern themselves with on their recent North American tour, which concluded last month.
Working with a Maine-based environmental organization called Reverb, which also helps to “green” the tours of artists like Alanis Morissette, Sheryl Crow and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Barenaked Ladies invited “greening coordinators” to gather up broken and used strings from the stage after gigs to be recycled by a New Hampshire company into jewelry.
And that was hardly the only green gesture on the quirky Canadian rock quintet’s tour. The band ate locally grown organic food off plates and forks made of biodegradable potato starch. Its members drank from reusable canteens instead of plastic bottles. They traveled in a four-bus caravan fueled with biodiesel. And a portion of the proceeds from shows, along with donations, were used to purchase renewable energy credits to offset electricity consumed by the tour, down to the amps and spotlights.
The band also played a slideshow on global warming as a sort of opening act before each gig, which was fine for the planet, the singer Steven Page conceded, but at times distracted the crowd from its primary mission — namely, to rock.
“Sometimes,” Mr. Page said, “it could take a few songs to remind them that they’re there to have a good time.”
Like few other enterprises short of a military invasion, the rock tour is designed to convert copious amounts of material and energy into spectacle — and produces equivalent amounts of waste. But in the “Inconvenient Truth” era, when even the oil and automobile industries are painting themselves green, it should come as little surprise that rock — never shy about making grand, self-congratulatory gestures — is working hard to catch up.
Lately, it is doing so with the help of organizations like Reverb, a nonprofit group devoted primarily to the green rock tour.
Bonnie Raitt, whose philanthropic foundation works with Reverb, said the goal is not only to make tours eco-friendly, but also to connect fans to the environmental movement. “A change is coming,” Ms. Raitt said in an e-mail message. “Green power is the way out of this mess.”
In fact, momentum for greener rock tours has been building. Artists like Ms. Raitt, Dave Matthews and Willie Nelson have been vocal about their decision to travel in buses fueled by biodiesel, made of vegetable oils and producing less carbon dioxide. Bands like Coldplay have made news with plans to offset the energy consumed by their tours and CD manufacturing with tree-planting in third world countries.
But the green rock tour as a concept is now moving on to a second act — and that is where Reverb comes in. The organization, based in Portland, Me., was founded in 2004 by Adam Gardner, a guitarist for the indie rock band Guster, and his wife, Lauren Sullivan, who worked for the Rainforest Action Network. Reverb charges acts a fee for its consulting services and is also sponsored by green companies and other fund-raisers.
A prominent for-profit organization in the field is MusicMatters, a marketing company in Minneapolis. It works with environment-minded clients, produces events and consults with artists like the Dave Matthews Band and Jack Johnson on a wide range of green touring practices, down to the use of nonpetroleum-based cosmetics onstage.
“We like to consider ourselves an eco-SWAT team,” said Mr. Gardner, 33, explaining Reverb’s approach. Indeed, under its stern eye, promoters are shamed into ditching Styrofoam coffee cups from catering spreads backstage, and crew members are instructed to collect partially spent nine-volt batteries from musicians’ distortion boxes and wireless microphones.
“You go through 50 a week, but they’re only half-used,” said Mr. Gardner, explaining that musicians who run a battery too far into its charge risk finding their guitars go silent. The batteries, high-mindedly, are saved for later use. Unfortunately, Mr. Gardner said, they have yet to determine how, so he and Ms. Sullivan, also 33, have large boxes of them in their apartment. “We’re trying to figure who to donate them to,” he said.
Even environmentalists have a hard time determining how much the greening efforts are feel-good public relations gestures and how much pay real ecological dividends.
Regarding carbon-offset programs, for example, Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist at the Carnegie Institution, explained, “In general, these offsets do some good, in the sense they usually help fund projects that are beneficial.”
But, he added, their benefits are hypothetical, intended to defer future emissions, while the actual tours produce significant amounts of greenhouse gases now. “Half of that carbon dioxide will still be in the atmosphere for 100 years,” he said, “and none of these offsets will change that.”
Skeptics might also suggest that a greener-than-thou rock ’n’ roll band is a highly relative concept. A true ecological troubadour would simply swear off the strobe lights and JumboTrons and stay home strumming acoustic guitar ditties for neighbors in the dark.
The same goes for rock fans, even those responsible enough to carpool in their Subaru to the show: they will have to stare down the contradictions between planetary patriotism and the desire for a rocking good time — at least until someone invents a biomass-fueled cigarette lighter to thrust aloft during encores.
Craig Marks, the editor in chief of Blender magazine, observed that many of the green acts already have a base of liberal-leaning fans “who are probably one step away from phoning into the PBS pledge drive for a free tote bag.”
”They probably feel better knowing that the $300 they’re spending is somehow supporting something besides guitar solos and marijuana intake,” Mr. Marks said.
But while rock purists may debate how the fundamental environmentalist impulses toward sacrifice, deferred gratification and guilt fit within an art form built around abandon and excess, those working the front lines to build the greener rock tour believe their moment has arrived.
Michael Martin, the president of MusicMatters, which has been working on the issue for years, said that as recently as the late ’90s the concept of carbon offsets was generally unknown, and biodiesel was “as hard to find as moonshine.” So “greening” a tour meant making even smaller gestures, like inflating bus tires to specifications to achieve maximum fuel efficiency.
But now, for example, Reverb-coordinated tours feature Eco-Villages — interactive informational tents intended to teach fans about ecological issues. And, for most tours, Ms. Sullivan said, the organization deputizes volunteers to haul home bags of trash from backstage and sort out recyclables on their own time. (“Hey, I went to a rock concert and came back with a bag of garbage — great!” she said.)
On most Reverb-advised tours, the performers funnel a percentage of ticket sales, or pay directly, to purchase renewable energy credits from a Vermont company called NativeEnergy — enough for construction of wind, solar and biomass electricity generators to offset the amount of carbon produced by each tour.
And to be sure, rock tours produce tremendous amounts of waste — from 500 to 1,000 tons of carbon dioxide from a single stadium show, not including fan transportation.
But perhaps the greatest challenge will be to spread the green message beyond those likely to turn up on the donor rolls of the Sierra Club — say, to heavy metal bands, with their columns of fire spewing onstage, or hip-hop bands, for whom moneyed hyper-consumption is a theology as much as a song topic.
Mr. Gardner, who is having a “green” guitar made for him by a Boston luthier from sustainably harvested wood, nontoxic stains and finishes and reclaimed hardware, admitted as much, recounting a conversation about alternative fuels with will.i.am from the Black Eyed Peas backstage at a Randalls Island show.
“He said, ‘Huh, biodiesel, that’s cool,’ ” Mr. Gardner recalled. “ ‘Is that something I can run in my Hummer?’ ”
That was in 2005. Will.i.am’s publicist said he is now driving a Tesla electric sports car.