Streaming music carries a bad tune for the environment

climate change global warming music

Turns out that music, at least listening to it, was better in the good 'ol days...

A recent study has shown that carbon emissions from digital music already eclipsed emissions at the height of the popularity of physical music (vinyl, cassettes, and CDs), according to research by Matt Brennan of the University of Glasgow and Dr. Kyle Devine of the University of Oslo.

The pair totalled the plastics produced back when it's the prominent component of each format. For vinyl records, it's 1977, cassettes in 1988, and CDs in 2000. But despite the proliferation of physical media for music, the amount of plastic used didn't fluctuate. This might be because each format became more compact than previous ones.

"And then around the year 2015-2016, when downloading and streaming are clearly the most widespread means of listening to recorded music, the amount of plastic drops dramatically," Dr. Devine told ABC.

It's Not What It Seems

That has to be good news, right? Since according to an old quote: "Music is the most immaterial of the arts". But we should not be so quick to draw conclusions.

"I think that that idea about music has become more widely held as music has become something that we increasingly get from the cloud... Data is not intangible." Dr. Devine said.  Storing, transmitting, and running data requires infrastructure that runs with electricity--a lot of it.

To put the comparison between physical versus digital music's environmental impact in the right perspective, Brennan and Dr. Devine needed to find a common denominator between the two. And that common denominator is greenhouse gas emissions or equivalents.

Available data from Greenpeace's Click Clean scorecard came in handy. And the results were astonishing.

160-million kilograms vs. 200-million kilograms

What they found was that emissions from plastic music products stayed steady over three decades, between 140 and 160 million kilograms a year in the United States. But in 2016, when streaming became the dominant choice for listening, the output was about 200 million kilograms.

The biggest music streaming platform, Spotify, has been made aware of the study but declined to comment. However, they published a 2018 sustainability report early this year for investors, reflecting Spotify's efforts to become carbon neutral.

That report indicated that six of its seven data centres had been decommissioned and its data was now being held on the Google Cloud Platform, making its streaming and computing processes "nearly 100% carbon neutral".

Apple Music, said that as of 2018, all its facilities were powered by clean energy. No one at Google, which owns YouTube and Google Music, was available for comment, but the company says all its emissions are offset by purchases of renewable energy.

"If the economic costs of music is lower than ever before, the environmental cost of music is higher than ever before."

This is part of the statement Dr. Devine made with his report. A statement Green Music Australia co-CEO Berish Bilander agrees with. GMA is a non-profit organisation that champions reductio of environmental impact in the industry.

"This [emissions from streaming] is something that's quite hidden and as a phenomenon a lot more difficult to deal with. People don't get to see the impact of these ginormous servers that live overseas,"

What should we, the consumers, do then?

While the focus has mostly been on physical plastic waste, particularly during touring and festivals where emissions offsetting, composting toilets and flora regeneration are common, there is more room to adopt an eco-friendly music consumption.

"Fans should make direct purchases of downloads from their favourite bands when possible, saving a few streams but also earning the artist more money," he said.

Going back to previous formats simply isn't an option now since consumption of music has changed far too much. "We expect unlimited access and unlimited storage to this music... [But] recorded music is as finite as everything else right now, and if things keep going the way they are going, we may have to rebuild a kind of music culture that doesn't expect those things."

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