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Environmental impact of listening to music higher than ever before, study finds

Updated: Apr 26, 2019

New study suggests the shift towards digital music has failed to deliver carbon savings

The shift towards the digital consumption of music has caused its carbon footprint to soar, according to a new study which warns the environmental cost of listening to recorded music has never been higher.

The study - a collaboration between Glasgow and Oslo Universities titled The Cost of Music - translated the production of plastics for records and CDs and the generation of electricity for storing and transmitting digital files into greenhouse gas emissions data in order to make a comparison of their carbon footprint.

"The transition towards streaming recorded music from internet-connected devices has resulted in significantly higher carbon emissions than at any previous point in the history of music," concluded Dr Kyle Devine, an Associate Professor in Music at the University of Oslo.

The research found that in 1977 - the peak year for vinyl sales - the recorded music industry produced 140 million kilograms of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In 1988, the peak for cassette sales, the figure dipped to 136 million kilograms, before rising to 157 million kilograms in 2000, the peak for CD sales. But by 2016 as digital streaming services dominated the industry the emissions footprint of recorded music had climbed to between 200 and 350 million kilograms.

The increase comes despite a dramatic drop in the amount of plastic used by the recording industry as a result of digitization. The amount of plastic used has plummeted from 157 million kilograms in 2000 to just eight million in 2016.

"Storing and processing music online uses a tremendous amount of resources and energy - which has a high impact on the environment," Dr Devine said.

Simultaneously, the study found that the financial cost of consuming music has never been lower. A vinyl album in 1977 cost $28.55 in today's money; a cassette tape in 1988 cost $16.66; and a CD in 2000 $21.59. But the advent of streaming means consumers can now access most of the music ever recorded for just $9.99 a month.

The study drew its figures from the US music industry. Advocates of digital services maintain that they have the potential to slash their emissions as a growing number of operators switch to renewable energy. But critics maintain that the IT industry's soaring energy demand threatens to outpace the shift towards cleaner sources of energy. 

Meanwhile, the music industry is facing on-going calls to cut its wider environmental impact. A 2010 study on the environmental footprint of the UK music industry pointed the finger of blame not at recorded music, but at live performance. Conducted by the University of Oxford's Environmental Change Institute, it found live music to be responsible for three-quarters of an industry total of 540,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions.

Similarly, U2 were singled out for criticism in 2009, when their world tour was estimated at the equivalent of a return flight to Mars.


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