This article explores the environmental issues related to the digital streaming and download of music. While vinyl and CD sales are still a a pollutant, the recent reliance on digital online services have shifted the majority of the environmental impact to online services. Most of the article is based on Kyle Devine's book Decomposed: the political ecology of music.
What is the carbon footprint of the online digital distribution of music through streaming and download?
Which platforms are the most/least polluting and are there alternatives?
Is this being addressed in the music community and if so, how?
While CD and vinyl records are an obvious source of plastic pollution, the environmental impact of online data transfers is less obvious, yet significant. Online cultural consumption amounts to at least 5 percent of global electricity consoumption (Aslan et al. referenced in Devine 2019). Devine (2019: 157-158) notes that plastic use in the US across all recording formats peaked at 6109600 kilograms in 2000, falling to 7845200 kilograms in 2016, while carbon emissions rose from 157 million kilograms in 2000 to over 200 million kilograms by 2016. These numbers coincide with a fall in the purchase price of music as the medium has moved from vinyls and CDs to download: a CD sold for 21,59 $ in 2000, while a digital album sold for 10.24 $ in 2014. Obviously, the download industry has been more or les outcompeted by streaming services that now offer unlimited streaming for around 10 $ per month.
How much data does streaming take? The different platforms have different streaming qualities with Spotify ranging between 24 kbps (free) and 320 kbps (premium), while Apple Music streams at 256 kbps. The approximate data usage is as follows:
24 kbps = 90 MB per hour
256 kbps = 1 GB per hour
320 kbps = 1.2 GB per hour
For calculating the CO2 emissions, see the article on videoconferencing in the NIME eco repository, where it is suggested that one GB of data amounts to 0.015 kWh, which, in Germany, would translate to roughly 0.0091 kg of CO2e. Take note, that this only applies to the immediate environmental impact on the consumer's end and not on the service provider's end.
Spotify and Apple Music offer download options for offline listening. It's easy to see that it only takes a few streams of an album to exceed the data usage of the same album downloaded.
In addition to streaming-based services, platforms such as Boomkat offer downloads in a variety of formats. For lossless auido, the least polluting way would probably be to download FLAC files as they are significantly smaller than WAV. VLC is available as an app for both ios and Android and will play any audio format.
The server farms used by the individual streaming and download services will have a significant environmental impact (Greenpeace 2019). See upcoming article in this repository for an overview of the different web services.
It is very difficult to think up sustainable alternatives for music distribution and consumption. One option is to rethink the nature of the release medium, since we are no longer tied to vinyls, CDs or casettes. Another is to prioritise repeated listening of downloaded music over the streaming of a variety of albums. Combining these considerations, we could imagine a physical item produced only to demand in order to eliminate stock. This medium could be of recycled materials and include a download code.
Brennan, M., and Archibald, P. (2019): The economic cost of recorded music: findings, datasets, sources, and methods
Devine, Kyle (2019): Decomposed: the political ecology of music. MIT Press
Greenpeace (2019): Clicking Clean Virginia: The Dirty Energy Powering Data Center Alley: https://www.greenpeace.org/usa/reports/click-clean-virginia/
University of Glasgow (2019): Music consumption has unintended economic and environmental costs: http://eprints.gla.ac.uk/183249/