A diet of sound: mindful notes to enjoy music in the streaming era

— Ngoc DINH

I listen to music every day. I play one refreshing track to start the day, humming along one musical battle scene soundtrack on the way to work, or jamming a RnB playlist while working. I sometimes repeat songs until my device warms up. 

In time of the pandemic, the recording music industry is arguably the most accessible channel of music distribution as live performances are widely hindered. Most (young) people have been consuming music on streaming platforms, either giants like Spotify or Apple Music to more country-specific services like South Korea’s Melon or China’s QQMusic. Digital streaming has dominated the music scene in recent years: International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) 2021 report shows that streaming accounted for 62.1% of the global revenues of the recorded music revenues in 2020 after a 19.9% growth in comparison to 2019.

As people take up a regular streaming habit, the question is then raised about energy consumption: What is the most sustainable way to distribute recorded music? Brennan and Devine (2020) sought answer to this question in their paper “The cost of music” by examining the economic and environmental costs of the principal forms of recorded music.

This table summarises the environmental effect of popular recorded music formats throughout the history of the music industry. 

1900sPhonograph cylinder Source: JonathunderSome of the first cylinders were made from animal fat
1900s-1950sShellac 78s discsSourceMade from a material composing shellac (a bug-based rasin), limestone, slates, quarries. 
1970s VinylsSourceMaterials: PVC plastic, polyvinyl acetate & other materials that were packed & shipped to record-pressing plants.
 It experiences a rise in sales in recent years. 
1980sCassette tapesSourceMaterials: A plastic film rolled and put inside a plastic case. Portable with the advent of playback devices.
2000sCompact Disc(CD)Source: N.D.The Compact Disc consists of a clear polycarbonate plastic substrate, a reflective metallic layer, and a clear protective coating of acrylic plastic. 
2010s-presentMP3, streaming and downloadSource Downloading and streaming music on cloud: It takes a huge amount of energy to maintain the servers & data centres, and to generate electricity to keep these going. 

(For further details on these recorded music formats, please consult this paper or video)

The hidden environment cost of music

The following chart summarises the findings on economic and environmental cost based on the data collected in the United States – the largest music market in the world.

Summary of environment and economic costs of recorded music. Source

As seen in the chart, the use of plastic decreases significantly as the streaming service starts to dominate the market (61M kilograms in 2000 to 8M kilograms in 2016). As the music industry switches from a commodity industry (paying to own music) to a service industry (paying for streaming services), the distribution tends to shift towards a less material-consuming approach, shown by the drop in physical music revenue. A song is just a few clicks away on mobile apps, so why stocking up CDs anymore?

However, the assumption that streaming has reduced the environmental cost is somewhat simplistic. Brennan and Devine (2020) found that while the trend had resulted in lower consumption of plastic, it entailed a higher release of greenhouse gas (see chart). They made comparisons among the music formats by converting plastics production into greenhouse gas emission equivalents. The release of GHG, which remained quite stable throughout vinyls, cassettes and CDs, was estimated to reach 200m kilograms in 2016. With the quick growth in streaming revenues, we may anticipate bigger numbers in more recent years. This can be explained by the amount of energy needed to maintain data centres for playing music online. Data centres are also reported to account for water footprint – a covert cost of streaming. 

“Data centres contribute around 0.3% to overall carbon emissions, whereas the information and communications technology (ICT) ecosystem as a whole — under a sweeping definition that encompasses personal digital devices, mobile-phone networks and televisions — accounts for more than 2% of global emissions. That puts ICT’s carbon footprint on a par with the aviation industry’s emissions from fuel.” reported this Nature article. 

A diet of sound  

It is very difficult to say, however, which of the trend generate a bigger pressure on the environment: the amount of plastic, or the increase in GHG. 

What can we do? It’s unlikely that we would ever go back to physical musical products as the main medium. Research shows that the monetary cost of recorded music accounts for a small percentage of American’s average weekly income (Brennan & Devine, 2020). That is, streaming allows us to access to a huge collection of music, spending a smaller proportion of our wage compared to previous formats. We can’t go back to something less convenient and cheap. At the same time, choosing to enjoy only live performances is a radical option but not for everyone.

Music streaming companies have had plans to reduce their carbon footprint. Spotify, for example, has closed down their data centres (p. 27) and moved their operation to Google Clouds, which employ renewable energy. Apple states that all facilities are powered only by electricity from renewable sources.

An interesting fact is that vinyl sales start to pick up again in recent years. IFPI report 2021 shows that vinyl had a 23.5% revenue growth, compared with 6.1% in 2019. There is some hope that maybe if shellac disks (quite similar to vinyl, not made of plastic) are produced instead of vinyls, we’d have a less polluting, non-plastic music format to buy. 

It is difficult to find an immediate cure-all option, but there are some recommendations that can be achieved quickly by individual listeners/users:  

  • For a concrete suggestion, this article suggests that you should download the your frequently repeated track, while streaming the others. It is suggested that if you stream an album more than 27 times online, buy the physical copy. You may also save some energy by opting for an average quality of sound or use wifi more than your 4G data. 
  • It is important to note that beside the economic cost, we are also paying the environment cost. The former might be fixed, but we can somehow reduce the latter by omitting some collective consumption habits, namely streaming campaigns. If you are a part of an artist’s fandom, you probably have heard of streaming parties to boost the streaming scores for your favourite artists.
    As streaming statistics play an important role in the song rankings on music charts like Billboard, fans are motivated to increase the number of streams on digital platforms such as Spotify or iTunes. Big fan accounts host online events during which participants repeatedly play songs from playlists designed to maximise the streams that are counted for the music charts. (These playlists usually feature different songs of an artist or relevant tracks from others since repeating a song too many times could causes the streams to be filtered.) While an official documented number of these streams is not published, it can be seen that the songs are over-consumed, eventually causing unnecessary use of energy.  

While the reason for a streaming campaign is understandable, it should be noted that this collective effort can cause an extra, unnecessary environmental cost. If a song is streamed fifty times a day while actually being listened to only twice, this does not generate “organic”/ real recognition for an artist. It might mislead the data of the public’s music taste, leaving music producers baffled over which type of music is actually attractive to the public. On a side note, streaming might not actually help musicians financially, in contrast with common belief.

Buying only one copy of one disc can help reduce the environment cost of listening to music. Source.
  • Similarly in the realm of physical disks, it can be a good idea (for hardcore fans) to refrain from bulk buying merchandise and CDs to boost the physical sales of artists so that they rank higher on artist or album charts. An artist’s popularity might be measured by the number of unique buyers – each buying one copy – rather than the large number of discs purchased by one person.
  • With CDs and vinyls, we can buy them from or donate them to secondhand music shops. Those precious memories of ours, let them live more lives before being dumped into the residual waste bin. Some suggestions on how to repurpose CDs can be found here.
  • You may select the music platforms which use renewable energy or are more transparent of their energy use possibly by referring to NGO Greenpeace’s ClickClean report.

While we can adjust our individual consumption of music products, a greater and more influential change, however, needs to come from the industry itself: employment of de-carbonized energy to run for data centres, a change in how we rank songs and evaluate artists’ success, and the replacement of virgin materials with recycled ones.

Cover photo source


Different sources of energy: which one is less “bad”?

Our growing addiction to energy: what could be the remedy?

Lesser-known renewables: tapping into the power of Nature and its habitants

2 thoughts on “A diet of sound: mindful notes to enjoy music in the streaming era

  1. While shellac is more eco-friendly than PVC, there’s a reason why people chose vinyl over shellac discs.

    Shellac records are heavier than vinyl, stiffer and not as flexible, meaning they are quite fragile. Moreover, the intrinsic surface noise (the sound the disc makes when it comes in contact with the needle of a turntable) of shellac records is much higher than that of vinyl. This makes a few hiss sounds when playing. Many people also use alcohol to clean the disc, which can cause the shellac to soften and melt easily.

    Currently, there are a number of companies that use recycled plastic to make vinyl and they are trying to make vinyl factories as eco-friendly as possible. Even the packaging is recyclable. They are trying to use as little PVC as possible in the vinyl production process.

    With CDs, maybe other artists should learn from Lorde. Instead of using CDs, Lorde released a “music box” made entirely of biodegradable material. It includes is a card that, when activated, the listener will receive the entire digital album on their device. Of course, the price is more expensive than CDs.


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