Ben Sollee – Touring by Bicycle

Louisville, KY singer-songwriter Ben Sollee came to the Majestic Theater in Madison last week for the final show of a 10 date, 14-day tour. Unlike most touring musicians he is not arriving by van or bus, instead Ben his band mate Jordon and tour manager Katie were traveling via bicycles for the smartly titled Ditch the Van Tour. The challenge of two wheel touring is made more intriguing considering Sollee’s main instrument, the cello, which is strapped to his bike for the journey.

This year, his team will reach the 5000-mile mark by bicycle. This current leg of Ditch the Van comes on the heels of a particularly trying East Coast tour, which was plagued by issues with their beloved tour van, Tammy (pictured below from their summer 2012 visit to Madison Media Institute). Tammy is currently doing some soul searching in Scranton, PA.

There is an authenticity to what Ben is doing, the transparency is upping the engagement level with his fans. I spoke with Ben following his sound check at the Majestic to talk about eco-friendly touring.

“Bike touring came about as a way to make some kind of change to the touring I was doing, which was super fast paced – trains, planes and automobiles – I found myself traveling so fast that I didn’t actually get the chance to be in one place.” Ben got the idea by seeing a commercial for a bicycle, he figured it could fit the cello, and decided to do a tour. “The first tour was about 330 miles from my hometown of Lexington, KY to theBonnaroo festival in Tennessee. The tour was good, I learned a lot about biking, and realized the pace did a lot for me health wise – mental health, physical health and musical health.”

Ben wasn’t a cyclist prior to his Bonnaroo trip; “It was a business choice… it wasn’t even a yearning to do green touring, that was just a nice bi-product, when you limit the size and scale of the tour you limit its impact on the environment. It’s been an ongoing story of the bike tour, utilizing the limitations of the bike to scale things back to another era, but having the added benefit of social media to amplify your story.”

View Ben’s Instagram to see a photo diary from the tour.

Ben feels his fans get a different window into him as an artist via the challenges and benefits of being on a bike. “They get an opportunity to see us in venues that we probably would not appear in otherwise. Because of the limitations of bike tours we end up playing every 40 or 50 miles and sometimes those are in little towns that I’ve never been through and may not get back to again.”

The physicality that the bike brings to touring adds additional appeal; Ben didn’t just pull up in a van for another tour stop, he took two days to ride here from Milwaukee. “For fans, I think it shows an amount of investment. Being a musician today is about more than making music. Social media and streaming allow more opportunity to tell your story. People can consume my entire catalog on Spotify in an afternoon, what’s next? They’ve listened to everything I have, what’s next? For me, what’s next is telling the story of the bicycle tour, telling the story of being from Kentucky, helping with bike co-ops, telling the story of Oxfam and other charities. That stuff is not extracurricular, it’s intercurricular, and it’s part of my music.”

What about the bigger carbon footprint of a show? “We encourage people to walk, bike or take public transit to shows, sometimes giving them discounts at the merch booth to do so. One thing about the bicycle tour, as hard as we work to arrive by bicycle there are still people that drive a long way. If you really want to talk about greening, that’s the big footprint for  the shows.”

Ben also spoke at an event for the Wisconsin Bike Federation. Ben’s appearance with the Bike Fed was organized by the groups Dane County Director, Tom Klein, who in addition to his job at the Bike Fed serves as Director of Sustainability for local farm-to-table café,Redamtè. Klein had this to say about the idea of sustainable touring; “The environmental movement is being embraced by the touring industry. From artists like Ben Sollee who choose to tour by bicycle to Radiohead who are committed to only playing arenas that their fans can get to utilizing mass transportation – its no surprise that artists like these are leading the charge towards a sustainable future.”

“Technology is also improving touring artists ability to operate more sustainably. From energy efficient LED lighting to conversion kits that enable artists to convert their vans or buses to run on vegetable oil, these energy saving measures don’t just reduce our impact on the environment by reducing the rate at which we burn fossil fuels, but also result in cost savings to artists and venues.”

You can learn more about eco-friendly touring in the Entertainment & Media Businessprogram at Madison Media Institute. Starting this fall, Tom Klein (who his currentlystudying Sustainability & Environmental Management at Harvard) will be teaching a seven-week, environmental science course focusing on sustainability. The class starts November 21st.

A few links worth reviewing:

Ben Sollee  |  Listen to Ben Sollee at Bandcamp  |  Wisconsin Bike Federation

-Mike B.

Are you interested in pursuing a career in media arts? Check out the Programs offered at Madison Media Institute!

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