The Environmental Impact of Streaming

Music is an odd type of good, in the sense that it doesn’t really have a physical form. Songs exist as a sonic entity and the only material we attach them to is the object which is used to deliver the music itself, so vinyl records, tapes, and CDs; but even today with the surging popularity of streaming, music seems to be living up more to it’s immaterial reputation. Now I always would have thought that this was a good thing.

One of the most well known concepts in economics is that externalities exist, and the most common example of an externality is that production can lead to pollution; and because music is becoming more and more immaterial I would have thought that the environmental cost which occurs due to it’s production and consumption would be tiny. That is until I saw a very interesting piece of research done by Dr Kyle Devine the Head of Research and Associate Professor, Department of Musicology, University of Oslo and Dr Matt Brennan Reader in Popular Music at University of Glasgow.

The study points out that since the move from physical to digital music has happened, there has been a massive reduction in the amount of waste in plastic materials which were previously used to make records. In 2000 there was a waste of 61 million kilograms of plastic as a result of the production of recorded music and as of 2016 this has fallen to just  8 million kilograms. However, there has been an increase in the amount of greenhouse gas emissions as a result of the energy which is required to stream music digitally.

As a result there is now an estimated 350 million kilograms of greenhouse gas equivalents of pollution occurring due to music, where as in 2000 before the streaming revolution there was only 157 million kilograms. These figures can be seen here in this cost of music info graph kindly supplied by Dr Devine for today’s post and also in the below graph.

Environmental cost of music

I emailed Dr Devine asking for his permission to do a post on his research and he was kind enough to answer a few of my questions. I asked him which music format he felt was better in an environmental sense, the current digital format or the physical formats of the past. He told me that

“The research suggests that greenhouse gas equivalents could be higher now (with streaming) than at previous times… That said, greenhouse gas emissions are only one part of the equation and it’s very difficult to say which format is “better” in terms of environmental and human costs. I don’t think we’re moving forward, and I don’t think looking back and getting nostalgic for earlier formats will help either… the main point is that the digitalization of music decidedly does not equal the dematerialization of music. I don’t have the answers—but having a conversation about all this is a key starting point to charting a new path forward.”

For anyone who is interested in learning more about the environmental cost of music Dr Devine has a book on the topic called Decomposed The Political Ecology of Music which can be found here. I would like to thank him again for his cooperation with me on this post and wish him the best of luck with his future research.

By Daragh O’Leary

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