June 27, 2019

Streaming Music Better for the Environment? Think Again.

By David Gargaro

The recording industry has undergone a massive transformation into the digital age of music distribution. In 2008, revenue from music streaming made up just 4% of the American music industry. Last year, streaming made up 75% of revenue. This exponential growth means many have embraced streaming options like Spotify, Apple Music, and Tidal, but others who refuse to accept this trend—and instead clutch onto their prized vinyl collections—may just be onto something.

According to a recent collaborative study published by the University of Glasgow and the University of Oslo, the data paint quite an eye-opening picture regarding the damaging environmental costs of the music streaming industry in the United States. Translated: the energy required in the front and back-end of the music streaming process—far—outweighs the pollution created by the production of all historical sound formats, from phonograph cylinders to compact discs (that’s CDs for younger readers).

As a former professional orchestral conductor and recording artist—turned nuclear energy researcher and unashamed policy wonk—I was initially suspicious, so decided to take a look at the data for myself.

While the use of plastics has been dramatically curtailed in the format of MP3 downloads (8 million kilograms in 2006), from the 61 million kilograms it took to produce CDs in their highest year of production, a closer inspection of the environmental data provided in the study reveals a starker reality for the industry.

When comparing the greenhouse gas emissions created in the production of vinyl LP albums, cassette tapes, compact discs, and MP3 album downloads, there is one clear environmental loser. The MP3 business was the largest contributor to greenhouse gases in 2016 when it created between 200 million and over 350 million kilograms of emissions in that year alone. By comparison, the production of cassette tapes created 136 million kilograms of greenhouse gases at the peak of the industry.

Furthermore, the study highlights the decreased cost of music as a result of digitalization. It was found that—in adjusting for inflation—prices of mediums ranged from $13.88 for a phonograph cylinder in 1907 to $21.59 for a CD in the highest year of production. These figures vastly exceed the cost consumers can currently pay to access a monthly streaming service with an almost infinite song catalog.

While it is clear that the music industry has done an incredible job of making its products available to consumers in unprecedented levels, study co-author, Dr. Kyle Devine, notes:

These figures seem to confirm the widespread notion that music digitalized is music dematerialized. The figures may even suggest that the rises of downloading and streaming are making music more environmentally friendly. But a very different picture emerges when we think about the energy used to power online music listening. Storing and processing music online uses a tremendous amount of resources and energy–with a high impact on the environment.

It is important to note that the purpose of the study is not to deter consumers from purchasing their music via streaming services. After all, streaming is the most cost-effective way to deliver the joy of music to millions of people.

This technology is here to stay, and this study demonstrates that streaming companies have a social responsibility to reduce their impact on the environment. While current estimations show that greenhouse gases will only increase as the demand for cloud-based services grows, this will no doubt provide ample opportunities for tech companies to invest in solutions tailored toward streaming storage and online processing.

Until then, consider getting that old record player out from the attic and enjoying the sounds from the good old days.

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