Music and the Environment: How are Streaming Companies Impacting the Climate?
11 July 2022 – by Viktor Tachev
Many are unaware of the connection between music and the environment before hitting play on their devices. Listening to music has never felt more effortless or accessible than today. Despite vinyl’s renaissance, most people no longer store piles of vinyl albums at home. They are holding entire music collections in the palm of their hands.
Fueling Global Warming and Environmental Issues
Unfortunately, there are environmental concerns. With music streaming gaining popularity, data centre carbon emissions are rising and contributing to global warming. However, efforts to regulate emissions and hold streaming providers accountable are scarce.
How Does Music Streaming Affect the Environment?
According to Deloitte, streaming accounted for 80% of US recorded music revenues in 2019. With COVID-19 lockdowns and cancelled live performances, streaming revenues of music industry reached USD 4.8 billion by June 2020. In comparison, Japan’s music market revenue from streaming subscriptions grew by 128% year on year. In Q1, 2021, it generated USD 133.4 million.
Despite the rapid market penetration, streaming providers like Soundcloud, Apple Music and Spotify have been around for a relatively short time. Thus, the idea that they may have an environmental impact is new, at least to people who are not as familiar with the technology.
Music today is primarily digital. And the lack of having a physical product is often assumed as more sustainable. There is a widespread misconception that streaming services provide a greener alternative. However, storing and processing music digitally requires enormous resources and energy contributing to climate change. Today, people are paying less to have more access to music. But, the cost to the climate is formidably higher.
The Hidden Cost of Music
Researchers from the University of Glasgow and the University of Oslo warn that streaming music is silently killing our planet. The Cost of Music study showcases the soaring carbon emissions that come from recorded music consumption, which run in parallel with the falling financial cost.
Music professor Dr. Kyle Devine says that amount of plastic used by the recording industry has “diminished since the heyday of vinyl”. “From a carbon emissions perspective, however, 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,” said Dr. Kyle Devine.
The study shows that in 1977, the US recording industry used 58 million kilograms of plastic. That year’s total greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) were 140 million kilograms. Plastic use decreased significantly to around 8 million kilograms by 2016. In the same year, GHG emissions skyrocketed to 200-350 million kilograms in the US alone.
Streaming may have a lower carbon footprint than physical formats. However, its massive popularity outweighs any possible savings. Zero Carbon reported that in 2020, the usage of streaming services had risen by 70% compared to the previous year due to the pandemic. On average, an individual streams approximately 5 hours of content daily. This results in releasing up to 1.57 million tonnes of CO2 emissions, or 0.57 billion tonnes annually.
In a New Statesman interview, Sharon George from Keele University calculated that streaming an album for five hours equalled the plastic of a physical CD in terms of the carbon used. For a vinyl record, the comparative time is 17 hours.
As music streaming grows, more services are launching globally. The environmental cost will only increase with such a wasteful current model and no strict regulations.
What Can Music Streaming Companies Do to Reduce Their Climate Impact?
Vast portions of GHG emissions from leading music streaming providers are Scope 3 emissions. These emissions originate from various sources, including marketing, end-use and cloud services.
On its website, Spotify says that 42% of its GHG emissions come from listener streaming. To negate the environmental impact of user activity, the company relies on offset initiatives. However, carbon offsets can be an inefficient practice.
Since 2019, Spotify has acted on its renewable energy promises by shifting its content from traditional data centres to the Google Cloud platform. Google states that the platform is carbon neutral and intends to power all its data centres with clean energy by 2030.
As of 2020, Amazon Web Services, the home of many other leading streaming platforms, including Apple Music, powers 65% of its operations with renewable energy.
Although the solution is clear, none of these companies rely entirely on clean energy or are actively reducing their power use. Music streaming companies must also start holding the nodes in their supply chains accountable and pressure them to decarbonise their operations.
Clouds Going Green
By estimation, data centres consume 1% of global electricity. Streaming and other emerging digital technologies will increase the demand for data and network services. This will affect power use and emissions depending on renewable energy investments.
One of the biggest cloud service providers in China, Tencent, pledged carbon neutrality in its operations and supply chain by the end of 2030. The company is committing to using green power for all its electricity by the next decade. This decision comes after an internal review showed the company’s total GHG emissions were equivalent to 5.111 million tonnes of CO2 in 2021.
In Greenpeace’s 2021 Clean Cloud report, Tencent ranked first on the clean energy scorecard among China’s cloud providers due to the company’s progress and transparency. Alibaba, on the other hand, ranked fourth due to poor transparency, limited renewable energy usage and a lack of carbon neutrality commitments.
As an industry reaction, many initiatives are now tackling the problem. Vilvit, for example, proposes building a global music repository to answer the duplication of catalogues across data centres. That way, all music streaming services could access one energy-efficient source.
Music and the Environment: Moving Towards a More Sustainable Relationship
The environmental issues of music streaming are now in the spotlight. What the world misses today is a clear vision and plan for action with an immediate and measurable impact. Music streaming companies need to engage with innovation and ensure that sustainable operations don’t come at the expense of listeners.
by Viktor Tachev
Viktor has years of experience in financial markets and energy finance, working as a marketing consultant and content creator for leading institutions, NGOs, and tech startups. He is a regular contributor to knowledge hubs and magazines, tackling the latest trends in sustainability and green energy.Read more