Explore Issue 01 of LOOP Magazine

Featuring Sam Tompkins and Victor Ray as our cover stars, as well as internal spreads from Girli, Jords, Mysie, Finn Askew, Kara Marni and Master Peace

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Sustainable Music Series: The Carbon Culprits – Digital Formats

The silent assassin of the music industry is definitely streaming. You may be surprised by that, and on the surface, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think that streaming is a more sustainable option to physical formats, but this isn’t necessarily the case.

In fact, recent studies have found that streaming is more detrimental to the environment than the height of the CD/Vinyl-era!

“How can it be!?”, you may ask.

Well, providing access to hundreds of thousands of tracks 24 hours a day directly to millions of streamer’s devices across the globe takes up a lot of energy. To provide this service, streaming platforms like Spotify and Apple Music need to invest in huge Data Centres, which generate a huge amount of heat, so in addition to the energy required to power the computer servers, there is also the additional need to constantly cool these spaces.

A joint study from the University of Glasgow and The University of Oslo estimated that in 2016 the generation of greenhouse gases from streaming music was somewhere in the region of 200 million kilograms and over 350 million kilograms in the US alone. Multiply that across the globe, and it’s easy to see that this is a major issue.

The findings of the study were based on data collated, by the Recording Industry of America, concerning music streaming platforms in the years 2015 and 2016. The data was utilised to determine the average number of songs that were streamed in those years, which was factored against the amount of electricity that was required to download a gigabyte of data, which at the time was a quantity that was comparable to the electricity required to power a standard light bulb for 1 hour. The research also considered the kind of energy being used to power streaming platforms, such as fossil fuels, nuclear, and renewables, in order to create an approximated picture of the carbon emissions resulting from the explosion in popularity of streaming.

However, as is suggested by “approximated”, the study doesn’t necessarily paint the whole picture. In an interview in 2019, The University of Oslo professor and lead researcher on the above-mentioned study, Kyle Devine, told Rolling Stone:

“That electricity figure doesn’t include storage and processing in a data normal and it doesn’t include user devices and the electricity to charge your phone or anything like that,” he says. “There’s additional complexity ”” file resolution matters, it’s more data if you’re watching a video on YouTube versus streaming a high definition album on Spotify. The variables are almost endless.”

It’s not all bad though, streaming services are making an effort to be more sustainable and more transparent around their carbon footprint. Spotify for example has been publishing a sustainability report since 2017, detailing the company’s moves towards a greener business model. The biggest move the streaming service has made to date is to transition all of its data services to the Google Cloud neutralising the carbon footprint of this element of the business. This does shift the carbon footprint onto Google, but Google is committed to offsetting any carbon emissions that it absorbs from companies and individuals utilising their cloud services. Several of the other streaming platforms such as Apple Music and Soundcloud have made similar moves towards a sustainable model.

This is by no means an anti-streaming argument, as without streaming the recorded music industry would be on its knees by now. The rise in popularity in streaming has been the saviour of the sector that had experienced consistent drops in revenue throughout the early 21st century following the introduction of digital platforms, which struggled to fill the hole left by declining physical sales. Nowadays, streaming is integral to the success of any artist, big or small, as a revenue stream as well as a powerful discovery tool.

However, with COP26 imminently upon us, now more than ever, we must look at ourselves, our communities, and our industry to understand where we fit into the wider global climate change discussion. The time is now to engage with our peers to enact positive change to preserve the natural world in which our art form is born, lives, breathes, narrates, and inspires because if the planet is to die, the music will die with it.

Words by Darren Hay

Posted On 3 October, 2022