Spotify, Apple Music and Google Play are major streaming platforms. (ABC News: Daniel Miller)
Infinite scroll: Will data centres end up eating our cities as we chew through more data?
In the history of recorded music, things started off pretty green.
- One study found carbon emissions from digital music have eclipsed that of vinyl, cassettes and CDs
- It is part of a broader recognition of the environmental impacts of the music economy
- Streaming platforms say they are either carbon neutral or their data centres are powered by green energy
From the early-to-mid 20th century, records were made partly from shellac, the resin secreted onto trees by the female lac bug, found in the forests of India and Thailand.
From there, as we transitioned to vinyl and then the plastic of cassettes and CDs, that renewable aspect was lost.
“Try not to think too much about the truly staggering amount of oil that it takes to make a record,” Father John Misty once sung.
Now, music is less owned, more accessed on demand.
So, does streaming solve this environmental problem?
Emissions from plastic versus emissions from data
The amount of carbon emissions from digital music has eclipsed that produced at the height of the popularity of physical music, according to research by Matt Brennan of the University of Glasgow and Dr Kyle Devine of the University of Oslo.
The pair totalled the plastic produced for vinyl records in 1977 (the peak year for US sales), cassettes in 1988 (the peak for that format) and CDs in 2000.
Despite increases in sales over that time, the amount of plastic used was generally stable.
In the 1950s, vinyl replaced the original method of making records: shellac. (ABC Gold Coast, Damien Larkins)
“And then around the year 2015-2016, when downloading and streaming are clearly the most widespread means of listening to recorded music, the amount of plastic drops dramatically,” Dr Devine told the ABC.
Good news, right? But data is not intangible, Dr Devine said, and storing it — as major internet platforms must do in centres across the world — requires a lot of electricity. (One US firm, Equinix, has 145 centres globally, including four in central Sydney.)
To compare the environmental impact of physical versus digital music, he converted the production of each into greenhouse gas equivalents, using available data and Greenpeace’s Click Clean scorecard, which rates internet companies on their commitment to renewable energy.
What he found was that emissions from plastic music products stayed steady over the decades, between 140 and 160 million kilograms a year in the United States. But in 2016, with streaming dominant, the output was about 200 million kilograms.
The data was collected in 2015 and 2016 and does not include YouTube, now a major home of music streaming.
Spotify declined to comment on the study, but a spokesperson pointed to its 2018 sustainability report.
That report said six of its seven data centres had been decommissioned and its data was now being held on the Google Cloud Platform, making its streaming and computing processes “nearly 100 per cent carbon neutral”.
Apple, which owns streaming platform Apple Music, said that, as of 2018, all its facilities were powered by clean energy. No-one at Google, which owns YouTube and Google Music, was available for comment, but the company says all its emissions are offset by purchases of renewable energy.
Even if the exact numbers are difficult to ascertain, Mr Devine said, this was not an issue music lovers could afford to ignore.
“If the economic costs of music is lower than ever before, the environmental cost of music is higher than ever before.”
The environmental costs of music are ‘hidden’
Berish Bilander agrees.
The scourge of plastic had become a major talking point in the past few years, he said, particularly as a result of high-profile campaigns like War on Waste.
However, “this [emissions from streaming] is something that’s quite hidden and as a phenomenon a lot more difficult to deal with”.
“People don’t get to see the impact of these ginormous servers that live overseas,” said Mr Bilander, the co-CEO of Green Music Australia, which campaigns for sustainability in the industry.
Cassette tapes gained mass popularity in the 1970s and 80s. By the early 90s they were superseded by CDs. (ABC News: Hannah Laxton-Koonce)
A study in 2010 found downloading music was less harmful — by more than half, on average — in terms of CO2 emissions than buying a CD in a store, largely because you didn’t need to drive your car.
But that was before streaming, which is more data-intensive.
In 2007, a report by Oxford University’s Environment Change Institute and the sustainability group Julie’s Bicycle found music companies were not very transparent about their carbon footprints, but that given the industry’s cultural power, they could be drivers of change more broadly.
It also warned the industry needed to be ready for an unexpected emissions bounce that might come about because of the computing power that would be required to stream music on demand.
Can we go back to shellac?
Mr Bilander said it was still early days for this conversation among music fans and businesses.
Focus has recently been on physical plastic waste, particularly at festivals, where emissions offsetting, composting toilets and flora regeneration are common. This week, a handful of musicians announced the creation of FEAT., a platform that lets musicians invest in renewable energy to offset the environmental costs of their output, particularly touring.
There are no easy solutions in this space, Mr Bilander said, adding that as with many technological advancements, there was a period of growth followed by a period of accounting.
Streaming platforms should do everything they can do reduce their emissions, he said, while fans should make direct purchases of downloads from their favourite bands when possible, saving a few streams but also earning the artist more money.
Going back to a reliance on those bugs in the forests of Southeast Asia would not be an option, at least at scale. Our relationship to music has changed too much.
“We expect unlimited access and unlimited storage to this music,” said Mr Devine, whose findings will be published in an upcoming book, Decomposed: The Political Ecology of Music.
“[But] recorded music is as finite as everything else right now, and if things keep going the way they are going, we may have to rebuild a kind of music culture that doesn’t expect those things.”