Digital Music Consumption Has Led to Increase in Greenhouse Gas Emissions, New Study Finds

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Digital consumption of music has led to "unintended" environmental and economic impacts,  a new study has found. 

Published on Monday (April 8), the research -- a collaboration between the University of Glasgow and the University of Oslo --found that despite a sharp drop in the use of plastics in music production over the last two decades, the "storing and transmitting" of digital music files has actually led to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) by the industry.

"These figures seem to confirm the widespread notion that music digitalised is music dematerialised," said University of Oslo Associate Professor and lead researcher Dr. Kyle Devine in a statement, referencing statistics citing the decrease in plastics use since the year 2000. “The figures may even suggest that the rises of downloading and streaming are making music more environmentally friendly. But a very different picture emerges when we think about the energy used to power online music listening. Storing and processing music online uses a tremendous amount of resources and energy -- which [have] a high impact on the environment.”

While the recording industry’s annual use of plastics decreased from 61 million kilograms to around 8 million kilograms between the years 2000 and 2016, the rise of downloading and streaming has actually led to a significant increase in the amount of GHGs released by the recording industry, the study found. Those figures were reached by “translating the production of plastics and the generation of electricity (for storing and transmitting digital audio files) into greenhouse gas equivalents." Researchers discovered that the amount of GHGs generated by the streaming and downloading of music online is actually much larger than the amount that was once generated by the production of plastic used to make vinyl records, cassettes and CDs in earlier decades. 

During vinyl’s peak in 1977, the study found that 58 million kilograms of plastic were used by the recording industry, an amount translating to GHGs of 140 million kilograms. That rose to 61 million kilograms of plastic -- or GHGs of 157 million kilograms -- at the height of CD sales in the year 2000. But by 2016, despite a nearly eight-fold decrease in the amount of plastic used, researchers estimate that GHGs generated by music streaming and downloading in the U.S. alone rose to between 200 and 350 million kilograms, representing a significant increase.

Researchers behind the study suggest that the rise of digital music consumption has coincided with a decrease in the price of recorded music -- itself driven by a decrease in the price consumers are willing to pay for it -- thereby resulting in an uptick in the sheer amount of music being consumed.

“The advent of streaming over the last decade, now means for just $9.99, or just over 1% of the current average weekly salary in the USA, consumers now have unlimited access to almost all of the recorded music ever released via platforms like Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube, Pandora, and Amazon,” said a press release publicizing the study.

Researchers emphasized the the point of study was not designed to discourage people from listening to music, but rather to be more mindful of their consumption habits.

“The point of this research is not to tell consumers that they should not listen to music, but to gain an appreciation of the changing costs involved in our music consumption behaviour,” added Dr. Matt Brennan, a Reader in Popular Music at the University of Glasgow. “We hope the findings might encourage change toward more sustainable consumption choices and services that remunerate music creators while mitigating environmental impact.”

Entitled The Cost of Music, the study has also informed a “multimedia art project” by Brennan -- under the artist pseudonym Citizen Bravo -- that includes an album entitled Build A Thing Of Beauty. The sole physical copy of the album is currently housed within a traveling “interactive musical sculpture” entitled SCI★FI★HI★FI in the U.K.

Additionally, the study will be featured in a forthcoming short documentary of the same name that is slated to screen at music conferences in the U.S., U.K., Canada and Australia between April and June of this year.