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You are leaving behind carbon footprints while streaming your favourite music



Global warming and carbon footprints are the biggest threats mankind faces today.

They paved paradise / And put up a parking lot.”

 sang Joni Mitchell.

The song was inspired by her trip to Hawaii. The famous line was the result of her hotel room view – lush mountains in the background and pavement stretching far beneath it. Artistes have never stepped back on important issues facing mankind. Be it Micheal Jackson with ‘Earth Song’ or Bob Dylan saying “Man has invented his doom,” artists across the world have raised their concerns.

While musicians have contributed to raising awareness, music on its part has been a contributor. When the physical sale of music was at its peak, the plastic used for manufacturing lead to greenhouse emissions. Though physical sale of music has drastically dropped, the digital music space raises a new threat through carbon footprints.

‘The Cost of Music’, a new research conducted between the University of Glasgow and the University of Oslo, demonstrates how the economic costs of recorded music consumption have steadily fallen in recent decades while its carbon emissions costs have soared.

The researchers found that the price consumers have been willing to pay for listening to recorded music is the lowest. The environmental impact of listening to music has never been higher.

Dr Matt Brennan, of University of Glasgow, who led the research, said,

“The point of this research is not to tell consumers that they should not listen to music. It is to gain an appreciation of the changing costs involved in our music consumption behaviour.”

He further added,

“We hope the findings might encourage change toward more sustainable consumption choices and services that remunerate music creators while mitigating environmental impact.”

From Greenhouse Gases to Carbon Footprints

The research also looked at the environmental impact of the music industry in the US in terms of the plastics used and greenhouse emissions.

In 1977, during the US sales peak of the LP, the recording industry used 58 million kilograms of plastic. In 1988, the peak of cassette sales, the industry used 56 million kilograms of plastic. And in 2000, the peak of CD sales, the industry used 61 million kilograms of plastic. When downloading and streaming took over, the amount of plastics used by the US recording industry dropped dramatically. It went down to around 8 million kilograms by 2016.

The research shows Greenhouse Gases (GHGs) of 140 million kilograms in 1977. This figure was 136 million kilograms in 1988, and 157 million in 2000. By 2016 the generation of GHGs by storing and transmitting digital files for those listening to music online is estimated to be between 200 million kilograms and over 350 million kilograms in the US alone.

Dr Kyle Devine, an Associate Professor in Music from the University of Oslo, led the research on the environmental cost of recording formats.

“From a plastic pollution perspective, the good news is that plastic production in the recording industry has diminished since the heyday of vinyl.”

said Dr Kyle, adding,

“From a carbon emissions perspective, however, the transition towards streaming recorded music from internet-connected devices has resulted in significantly higher carbon emissions than at any previous point in the history of music.”

Impact of digital music

The music streaming industry changed the business model of consuming recorded music. Earlier, people bought copies to own, they buy temporary access to a music experience stored in the cloud. Current digital technology gives us flawless music quality without physical deterioration. Music is easy to copy and upload, and can be streamed online without downloading. The electronic files we download are stored on active, cooled servers. The information is then retrieved and transmitted across the network to a router. It is then transferred by wifi to our electronic devices. This happens every time we stream a track, which costs energy.

The new formats are material-free but they do have an environmental impact. The notion that music digitalised is dematerialised hence more environmentally friendly, is questionable. There is still the question of the energy used to power online music listening. Storing and processing music in the cloud depends on vast data centers. These centers consume a tremendous amounts of resources and energy. This leads to carbon footprints which the human race seeks to avoid.

carbon footprints

Change in spending pattern

The research indicates the change in spending patterns against the average salary of a US citizen over history. Consumers were willing to pay roughly 4.83% of an average weekly salary in vinyl’s peak year of production in 1977. This price slips down to roughly 1.22% of an average weekly salary in 2013, the peak of digital album sales.
With the advent of streaming, consumers pay about 1% of the current average weekly salary in the US. Consumers now have unlimited access to almost all of the recorded music ever released. This has led to an increase in music consumption globally.

As per the Global Market Report 2018, streaming revenue grew by 34.0% and accounted for almost half (47%) of global revenue. There were 255 million users of paid streaming services at the end of 2018. This surge will invariable result in an increase in carbon footprints.

Dr Brennan said,

“We see raising awareness of the findings as a first step towards developing alternatives, where music consumption can become both economically sustainable for makers while being environmentally sustainable for the planet.”


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