In the first part of a monthly series on sustainability in the music industry, David Hatton discusses the environmental impacts of how we consume music.

Everyone listens to music. It’s entirely unavoidable. Whether you’re a 1000-deep vinyl collector, a low-key Spotify playlist shuffler, or an office radio listener, listening to music operates at some level of significance in every single one of our lives.

But somehow, unlike other substantial facets of day-to-day living, the environmental impact of music is rarely discussed. Why is this? Is it because it’s something we enjoy and we are scared to question it for fear of its demise? Or maybe we assume that the damage it does pails in significance to the effects of other industries.

While both things may be true, it’s now more important than ever that we are honest with ourselves in terms of our consumption across the board.

So, let’s get started: what effects does listening to music have on the climate?

The environmental effects of streaming

Listening to music online requires a device. For most people, that device will be a mobile phone, laptop, or TV. Generally, these devices serve other purposes, so it’s not entirely fair to include the effects of their production on the climate in this article. However, it’s also just as important not to forget the effect that devices like these have before they reach you. Production, travel, and even use all lead to fossil fuel equivalent emissions, with most of these occurring during the production stages.

But even if we push that to one side and isolate the environmental cost of streaming, music still has a real problem. While streaming for an hour only amounts to 100 grams of C02 equivalent, this statistic only serves to hide its real impact. For applications like Spotify to function, data centres must be constantly running, meaning that without sustainable sources of power the existence of music streaming is a constant source of emissions.

On top of this, one of streaming’s biggest strengths is also its greatest flaw. The ability to play anything, anywhere, at any time was what drew many to these platforms, but that means that people expect instant access to music, with the amount of music people consume rising year on year. These are just some of the reasons that streaming now has twice as large a carbon footprint than that of the CD era.

At this point, you may be wondering what the alternative is. Until a few years ago, the future of physical music appeared dire, but vinyl sales especially have started to reverse this trend. This begs the question: is the renaissance of these formats more of less sustainable than streaming?

“For applications like Spotify to run, data centres must be constantly running, meaning that without sustainable sources of power, the existence of music streaming is a constant source of emissions.”

Should we go back to physical music?

Sadly, the answer is nowhere near a straight yes or no. Physical music, while a one-off purchase, emits a lot more to be played once than its streaming counterparts. On top of this, you still require power to listen to these formats, whether that’s a CD, cassette, or vinyl player.

Indeed, physical music has actually gotten worse in terms of its carbon footprint. Once made of shellac, the producers of vinyl records have shifted to PVC, meaning that the production of around 4 million records is equal to 400 people’s yearly footprint.

Once again, things don’t look good. However, all hope is not lost, first, we must look to those distributing music, and try to encourage change.

What should we expect of the big players?

The first thing that could be pushed for is all but a given: sustainable power needs to be used. If these data centres could run on entirely sustainable means, such as wind, solar, or geothermal energy, then the environmental cost of each stream would be entirely on the user. While not removing the entirety of emissions, this would take away a large chunk of the problem.

This is by no means a simple task and would likely require government intervention. Of course, this is something we should all be campaigning for across every industry (in fact, many already are), although we remain some years off a carbon neutral energy grid, even if governments and industry begin playing ball.

Why is this? Maybe because it’s the cheaper, easier option, or maybe it’s because they believe they require more energy than they can afford to spend on sustainable options. Either way, money is the incentive. While some streaming services such as Spotify are starting to move to cloud services, as well promising to move towards sustainable energy sources, this could be too little, too late.

So, what might a solution look like? One cause starting to gain traction is that of Vilvit. The initiative aims to convince these big players — the streaming services: Spotify, Tidal, Soundcloud, etc. — to join together for the sake of the environment. This would require creating a centralised, collective cataloguing system, that was kept running by wind. Hence, preventing each individual platform from having to use its own catalogue of music, as well as creating a sustainable data centre and ultimately reducing the environmental cost of listening to music.

It’s fair to say that effectuating change at an industry-wide level is outside of the remit for most music lovers. That said, many are happy to do what they can at an individual level, to enjoy the music they adore as sustainably as possible.

What can you do?

The obvious option here would be to reduce, or ultimately stop your consumption. But I cannot suggest something that I wouldn’t dream of doing myself. Similar issues come if you expect people just to listen to live music, or even play it themselves.

The first thing you can do, however, is to pick the most sustainable streaming service you can, although this can prove difficult. Despite sites like Greening of Streaming dedicated to change in the industry, it can often be quite hard to see through the greenwashing and astroturfing that big companies purport.

Some things you can do, however, are small things such as not listening to music on YouTube if you’re not watching, or not leaving streaming services running when you aren’t listening — for example setting limits on how long it will play, say if you fall asleep to music — which can make a difference on a mass scale.

Listening to music in physical form is also not an entirely lost cause. Buying a record to listen to once is considerably worse than streaming a song once, however, buying a record that will be listened to over and over will create a smaller footprint than streaming an album regularly.

Going out to record stores will not only help an industry that refuses to die, but will also reduce potential delivery and travel implications. On top of this, second-hand vinyl, CDs, or cassettes generally have very little new effect on the environment, and as such, buying pre-owned music can be a sustainable option.

“Buying a record that will be listened to over and over will create a smaller footprint than streaming an album regularly.”

All in all, it can sometimes be hard not to paint a bleak picture, but there are things each of us can do from the individual to the macro level. We cannot, and will not, eradicate music, but we can prevent it from damaging our future, so that’s what we have to do.