The ability to play music anytime, anywhere at the tips of your fingers. I mean…who’s complaining about that?
In today’s age, the digital world has expanded tremendously, especially as it’s evolved into the primary mode for media consumption. Digital music streaming services have grown exponentially over the past few years, and account for about 80% of the entire music industry’s revenue. The possibilities are endlessly evolving, bringing with it the growing influence and power of music as well. But as these platforms continue to increase in popularity and consumption, it becomes increasingly necessary to look at the implications of this shift on the environment.
The consumption and disposal of physical copies of music leave lasting impacts on the environment through their production, consumption and end-of-life processes. For one, vinyl is made from a crude oil derivative which is converted into plastic, and is estimated to emit about 2 kg of CO2 per unit. Beyond that, they cannot be recycled and don’t decompose – clearly not a great option for the planet. CD’s come in next, although emitting significantly less than vinyl at around 165 g of CO2 per unit. It’s notable that they are seen as more disposable items, and are generally less durable and more frequently purchased than vinyl records – thus coming to emit similar amounts regardless.
2 kilograms doesn’t seem like a lot, but if you consider that to be the equivalent to about 5 miles driven by car, plus the energy used to power the record-player, across every person that listens to vinyl – it adds up alarmingly fast. The same goes for CD’s.
However, vinyl and CDs are no longer the primary method with which to consume music – digital streaming services are. While the online nature of streaming platforms has led us to believe that they’ve solved the environmental costs of physical production, it just means that we tend to ignore their more “invisible” impacts. Though the amount of plastic used to produce these items has dropped considerably, the increase in GHG emissions from music streaming have risen sharply – a shift that holds just as detrimental – if not more – of an environmental impact
Now you must be wondering, where do these emissions come from? After all, how can digital streaming leave a physical footprint?
The ability to access music online at almost any second makes it seem that it must literally come from “the cloud.” However, that’s not the case. In reality, music is stored in data centers all over the world. According to the Rolling Stone, these data centers emit about 2-4% of annual global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. For the record, that’s more than annual GHG emissions of the aviation industry! These centers run 24/7, are powered by energy sources – namely the burning of fossil fuels – and also need to be cooled down, which consumes even more energy. In order to stream music, the data is transmitted across networks and through routers, which also uses energy. It’s then transferred through the internet and wifi onto devices, which, you guessed it, uses more energy. This isn’t even considering the fact that the devices must be charged and manufactured to begin with, which all… yea…uses energy.
The important message is, every time we stream a song, it costs energy. That number might be relatively small, at around 55 grams of CO2 equivalent emitted per hour, but it adds up quickly when you consider how many people are constantly streaming music. At the end of 2022, Spotify reported over 489 million active monthly listeners. The emissions for one song may seem insignificant, but when you account for the increasing use and consumption of digital music, they begin to outweigh any savings from the reduced manufacturing of CD’s and vinyl. Researchers at Keele University calculated that listening to an album on a streaming platform for just 5 hours is equivalent to the emissions generated by producing one CD, and 17 hours for vinyl. Knowing how much society relies on streaming music, and how important music is to the very aspect of life, it’s easy to see how these numbers quickly become significant.
Streaming services like Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon and SoundCloud aren’t unaware of these impacts. They simply aren’t transparent about it – likely because they’re relying on the fact that most of us don’t consider the environmental effects of us clicking play. Spotify itself has committed to a plan that addresses energy consumption with a reduction to net zero carbon emissions by 2050, which seems like a positive! Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that companies are thinking about addressing their issues – but what are they actually doing about it?
The answer is in the fine print: net zero emissions means firms can still emit as long as they offset the amount of carbon in some other way. What these platforms do is simply invest in renewable energy sources to offset the amount of carbon they emit, instead of reducing their actual carbon footprint and energy consumption. While there is some optimism in switching to renewable energy, who’s to say how much is actually being done? After all, 2050 is a pretty vast timeline.
Furthermore, while technological improvements make streaming easier and data storing more energy efficient, growth in technology only coincides with a growth in consumption. As streaming services become more and more popular, emissions will only grow along with them.
So, you’re telling me to stop streaming music??
No, not at all. In the grand scheme of things, there are many more pressing issues when it comes to mitigating GHG emissions and combating climate change. But it’s important to be aware of each impact, because 2% adds up very quickly — especially as we become increasingly reliant on data and technology in so many facets.
I also won’t lie, I am a huge proponent of vintage vinyl. It is undeniable that streaming music digitally does not create the same listening experience as watching a record spin on a turntable. I think it’s valuable that each of us consider how we actually want to be consuming music – what it really means to listen.
There’s something to be said for the tangible experience of actually putting on an album. The ritual of sliding a record out of its sleeve, matching it up with the spindle and gently placing it on top of the platter. Watching it start to spin slowly and then lifting the tone arm and gingerly guiding it to the edge. The crackle at the beginning as sound begins to fade in, drifting through the air into every piece of your being and radiating throughout the room. Sitting back, in awe of the creation of such sound, right at your fingertips.