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How sustainable is streaming music?

Listening to music on the go is key to our increasingly digitised world. Ever since Apple launched iTunes at the turn of the millennium, we’ve become accustomed to a facile musical experience. The ability to find and centralise obscure songs in a playlist has made the majority of existing listening technologies redundant. However, this evolution to music streaming services (such as Spotify, Apple Music and YouTube Music) also raises many ethical questions: what’s the carbon footprint of my playlist? do the artists in my playlist get paid?

As the world turned from cassettes and CDs to streaming services like Spotify in the 2000s, there was a noticeable shift from ownership towards access. We no longer purchase and download music, we simply rent it. As of 2020, Spotify now boasts over 271 million monthly active users. The switch from physical to digital music formats over the last two decades has led to a huge reduction in use of plastics. The peak of CD production came in the year 2000, when the US industry was using 61 million kilograms of plastic. In 2016, this dropped to just 8 million kilograms of plastic, as digital formats took over. This is all thanks to streaming.

However, the same research highlights that the environmental impact of streaming far outweighs plastic use of physical products – buying CDs could actually be greener than listening to music digitally. Why though?

The transition towards streaming recorded music from electronic devices has resulted in far higher carbon emissions than at any previous point in history. Storing and processing music online uses a tremendous amount of resources and energy, which has a significant impact on the environment. Much like the carbon footprint of e-books we looked at a few weeks back in VyraNews # 7, the environmental effects of streaming are largely invisible. We can visibly see a
plastic CD collection on a shelf, but we can’t physically see a virtual playlist consisting of 10,000 songs on Spotify.

Every time we stream a song, it costs energy. The song has to be stored somewhere, usually on massive servers that require a constant supply of electricity and need to be kept cool (it is estimated that the US emits over 350 million kgs of greenhouse gases per year because of the need to run remote servers 24/7) . The devices we use to listen to music all need power to function. The output we hear the songs through also needs to be manufactured and disposed of, which ultimately drives up the carbon footprint of our musical streaming habits.

So, how can we become more musically sustainable? It’s a tough one to get right at the moment. Theoretically, the carbon footprint of streamed music could be reduced to a fraction of what it is now if we switched to sustainable energy at a quicker rate. If we utilised the heat from the servers for other useful purposes, such as district heating or saltwater desalination, then streaming would be the clear winner. However, at present, the industry has never emitted more greenhouse gases. Although Vinyl and CDs are associated with less emissions, it is highly unlikely that we will give up our musical liberties afforded by access to instant streaming – not to mention the affordability. Our best option at the moment would appear to be stop playing music if you’re not listening to it.

Although the switch to renewables will make music streaming more environmentally viable, the artists may ultimately decide the fate of the industry. Spotify typically pay anywhere between €400 to €5,000 for one million streams of a song. The same amount of CD sales could mean over €1 million for the artist.