The hidden price behind streaming music

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The idea of listening to music via the internet feels like it should be environmentally friendly.

Instead of creating unnecessary waste through vinyl or plastic, we pull out or phone or jump on our computer and instantly listen at the click of a button. It seems like we have freed ourselves from the need to own records or CDs.

Kyle Devine recently published his new book “Decomposed: The Political Ecology of Music” and in it, he destroyed our precious illusion. Just like everything else that we do through the internet, to stream or download music you need to use energy. And a lot of it.

“The environmental cost of music is now greater than at any time during recorded music’s previous eras,” Devine wrote.

He has supported this with charts of data from various sources, in which he suggests that streaming and downloading music online used a hundred and ninety-four million kilograms of greenhouse-gas emissions – and that was in 2016 alone. This is 40 million more than the emissions which came from all music formats in the year 2000.

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Given how reliant the world is on the internet through this rough year, the total figure in 2020 will be much larger.

Due to the frictionless nature of streaming music, the overall costs are somewhat hidden. For example, the production of smartphones and computers are created through harsh labour.

Foxconn factories in China have horrible working conditions with new articles appearing which suggests that the Uighur minority are being forced into producing Apple’s new devices. There are also children mining away for cobalt, which is used in the batteries for the iPhone.

The most popular streaming service “Spotify” uses massive amounts of energy to power its servers. Their streaming services also involve themselves with exploitative practices, such as the low royalty payments. 

At first glance, Devine’s research may only provoke a weak shrug.

After all, everything that human’s do causes some sort of environmental destruction, and every other industry could be argued as just as bad if not worse. Devine isn’t here to try and guilt-trip you, he just wants us to be more aware of the price we pay for music.

“There is a highly intoxicating form of mystification at work in the ideology of musical culture more generally,” he wrote. Due to this, music is “seen as a special pursuit that somehow transcends the conditions of its production.” 

This isn’t to say that the early days were all that great either. When Devine started to recall the beginnings of the recording industry, he mentions the original innovators such as Thomas Edison and Emile Berliner often worked on new inventions which were heavily involved with chemicals.

Edison’s experiments often used wax, phenolic resin, celluloid, and later became one of the main faces of synthetic plastic manufacturing. Berliner preferred shellac, which was the main recording format until vinyl took over in the twentieth century.

The compact disk was introduced in the 1980s, which was actually less harmful to the environment.

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And in recent years, with the word turning towards recyclable materials, the CD might have been the least harmful format on the market.

In the future, we may find a way to avoid further damaging the environment. It’s possible we find a solution which uses less energy to download, and less energy to upload.

Just like it’s completely possible for streaming services to pay musicians properly, and for devices to be made through humane methods.

But as we advance further into the digital era, the likelihood gets smaller. Without a big player in the music streaming industry actively making a change to prevent this, our environmental footprint will get bigger and deeper.