The rising popularity of digital music streaming may be having unintended harmful economic and environmental impacts, according to new research.
A team from the University of Glasgow in the UK and the University of Oslo in Norway found that the price consumers are willing to pay for listening to recorded music has never been lower, while the environmental impact of listening to music has never been higher.
It seems that as the cost of music has fallen, carbon emissions have risen. Streaming does not have entirely negative environmental effects, and the study suggests that there was a significant reduction in the use of plastics as consumers turned away from vinyl, CDs and cassettes.
In the year when CD sales peaked – 2000 – 61 million kilograms of plastic was used by the recording industry in the US. That fell to about eight million kilograms by 2016. But the researchers say the impact of downloads on carbon emissions may, on balance, be harmful.
"These figures seem to confirm the widespread notion that music digitalised is music dematerialised," said Kyle Devine, from the University of Oslo, who led the research on the environmental cost of recording formats.
"The figures may even suggest that the rises of downloading and streaming are making music more environmentally friendly," he added. "But a very different picture emerges when we think about the energy used to power online music listening. Storing and processing music online uses a tremendous amount of resources and energy – with a high impact on the environment."
Devine and the other researchers argue that the shift towards streaming recorded music from smartphones and computers has resulted in a far higher amount of carbon emissions than at any previous point in the history of music.
For their part, digital music suppliers like Spotify and Apple say they are taking these issues seriously.
"We believe that transparency breeds trust and respect," says Spotify, one of the biggest music streaming services. "That is our north star as we progress along our environmental sustainability journey."
The subscription service says it has a number of pilot projects to promote sustainability and that its streaming and computing platform is "nearly 100% carbon neutral."
Apple says that all of its facilities in 43 countries around the world are powered solely by electricity from renewable sources, and that their products are designed “with great care to reduce their carbon footprint.”
The researchers hope their work will encourage more moves in this direction, and will make consumers think a little harder about the way they appreciate their music. Forty years ago, during the vinyl era, US consumers were willing to pay almost 5% of an average weekly salary for an album.
That fell to 1.22% by 2013, the peak year for digital album sales, they point out. The rise of streaming in the past 10 years means that consumers now have access to almost all the music that’s ever been released for a cost of less than 10 dollars a month – just over 1% of current US average weekly incomes.
“The point of this research is not to tell consumers that they should not listen to music, but to gain an appreciation of the changing costs involved in our music consumption behaviour,” said the team's leader, Matt Brennan, from the University of Glasgow.
“We hope the findings might encourage change towards more sustainable consumption choices and services that remunerate music creators while mitigating environmental impact.” – dpa