Global trends show that music fans are less likely than ever to buy a CD or vinyl record and instead opt for streaming and online sales services. According to a BuzzAngle report from 2018, sales of physical CDs in the US fell by an impressive 18.5% last year. The shift from buying physical copies to digital music has led the American music industry to use less plastics than ever before. But moving away from manufacturing CDs and plastic packaging may not necessarily take the environmental benefits associated with reduced plastic use.
Instead, a pair of music researchers have proposed that the overall costs of maintaining streaming services cover a bigger toll on the weather.
The shocking theory was proposed by Kyle Devine, an associate at the University of Oslo, and by Dr. Matt Brennan of the University of Glasgow.
Professor Devine said: "Intuitively, you may think that less physical product means much lower carbon emissions. Unfortunately, this is not the case. "
The two researchers analyzed the economic costs of the music industry since the 1970s and the environmental impacts.
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Professor Devine found in 1977, music fans were willing to spend about 4.83 percent of their weekly income to buy a vinyl record.
In 2013, that number dropped to only 1.22%, compared to the purchase of a digital album.
The musicology professor said, "Consumers now have unlimited access to almost every recorded song ever released on platforms like Spotify, Apple Music, Youtube, Pandora and Amazon."
Increasing the volume and downloading of music has reduced the industry's dependence on plastics, but has boosted demand for other resources and power.
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Streaming services now need to allocate the computing, server, storage, and cloud capabilities needed for people to access their music online.
All this has a cost of increase in energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.
Professor Devine converted past plastics production into continuous emissions equivalent to greenhouse gases (GHGs).
He discovered in 1977 that the GHGs associated with physical music totaled about 140 million pounds.
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By 2016, it is estimated that GHGs have increased by about two to 200 million kg to 350 million kg.
The music expert said, "I'm a bit surprised. The hidden environmental cost of music consumption is huge. "
Professor Devine explored the environmental and human impact of the music industry in his book Decomposed: The Political Ecology of Music.
The book explores what happens to physical copies of albums when they are deleted, but also how features are being exploited to produce new songs.
A brief summary of the book says, "Today, recordings exist as data-based audio files. Devine describes the people who harvest and process these materials, from women and children in the Global South to scientists and industrialists in the Global North.
"It reminds us that vinyl records are derived from petroleum and that the so-called vinyl renaissance is part of petrocapitalism.
"The supposed immateriality of music as data is denied by the energy needed to power the internet and the devices needed to access music online.
"We tend to think of the recordings we buy as finished products. Devine offers an essential background story. "