The environmental impact of music streaming, explained
Streaming is a material-free way of enjoying music, but it also has a carbon footprint
Almost everything we do has an environmental impact, and being a music lover poses a number of challenges — from travelling to a concert to the excessive use of plastic bottles at festivals.
Over the past several years, the music industry has been gradually learning how to become more sustainable in the face of global warming. Focus has been rightfully put on large-scale problems like touring and music festivals, but what about the act of listening to music from the comfort of our own homes? Or when we're commuting to work or blasting our favourite tunes at a friend's party?
Musical formats of the past, including vinyl records and CDs, came with more obvious environmental consequences because of the toxic, non-recyclable materials that are used to make them, such as plastics and crude oil. But streaming has emerged with its own invisible threats to the environment.
Below is a beginner's guide to the many problems and possible solutions we are currently facing regarding music streaming's environmental impact.
How does music streaming affect the environment?
When you stream a song, our devices access electronic files that are stored on active, cooled servers sitting inside data centres around the world. Beyond the large amounts of energy those centres use, the retrieval and transmission of that information, which is transferred via wifi or the internet, also requires energy. The device you're using to listen to music is another factor, and oftentimes streaming drains your battery at a higher rate.
According to sustainability lifestyle blog Brightly, streaming (of all types of media) is now responsible for three to four per cent of the global carbon footprint.
OK, but streaming is still not as harmful as CDs and vinyl records, right?
It depends. While music streaming has taken over as the primary method of music consumption — a 2020 Deloitte article confirmed that streaming "accounted for 80 per cent of U.S. recorded music revenues in 2019" — our overwhelming reliance on accessing millions of songs at our fingertips is adding up to environmental damage fast.
According to Energy Tracker Asia, an average individual streams approximately five hours of content daily, including non-music content such as film and TV via services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and more. "This results in releasing up to 1.57 million tonnes of CO2 emissions," the article states, "or 0.57 billion tonnes annually." Sharon George, a Keele University lecturer in the department of environmental sustainability, told New Statesman in November 2021 that five hours of streaming was the carbon equivalent of one plastic CD case; 17 hours of streaming equalled one vinyl record.
Those numbers may not sound bad at first when you're thinking about your individual output of carbon emissions, but that same article illustrates just how alarming it really is when you look at it from a collective, global standpoint. New Statesman's own calculated example: "Spotify streams of Olivia Rodrigo's hit single, 'Drivers License,' since January 2021 is greater than flying from London to New York and back 4,000 times, or the annual emissions of 500 people in the U.K."
Of course, these numbers are constantly evolving and rely on some variables. Kyle Devine, a Canadian professor of musicology and author of the 2019 book Decomposed: The Political Ecology of Music, tells CBC Music that "the internet infrastructure is always changing, which means figures today are out of date tomorrow."
What is the best way to consume music, then?
That's a personal preference, as every format has its own environmental impact, and every method offers different sound qualities. Vinyl's resurgence in recent years reignited concerns over its production, so buying secondhand or vintage vinyl could be a more sustainable option. (Companies like Evolution Music in the U.K. are starting to develop ways to create vinyl with renewable and non-fossil fuel materials; last year, R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe released a 12" record made of bioplastic.) The same rule applies to CDs and cassette tapes, which have also made a comeback, though on a lesser scale. Streaming is material-free, but requires some mindfulness when it comes to how much, how often and which devices you're using to access streaming services.
So what can I personally do to reduce CO2 emissions when I'm streaming music?
Limiting the amount of music you stream is one thing to consider. Given the math above, a good goal is to try and limit the amount of music you stream to fewer than five hours a day. As Laura Marks, a professor at the School for the Contemporary Arts at Simon Fraser University and co-author of the paper "Streaming Media's Environmental Impact," told Brightly:
"Use fewer devices and keep them for as long as possible! Then, help to curb demand by moderating the time spent streaming, and decreasing resolution. So, basically, changing the habits that have been set in place in the past few years." She also added that streaming on smaller devices such as laptops and phones will emit less CO2 than streaming on a larger device like a TV.
Devine pushes back on the idea of limiting our music consumption, though. "That doesn't sound like the right way forward," he argues. To him, streaming shouldn't be viewed as a service as much as it's a good that we consume, "where each time you listen to something, you download it anew." A small change you can make — but one with big impact — is to download music versus stream it every time.
Streaming takes a toll on both the Digital Service Provider (DSP) and the listener's device. The former activates the servers where the songs live, requiring "power, massive cooling systems, internet connectivity, buildings and land," wrote AJR bassist Adam Met in Rolling Stone. Also, listeners use twice the amount of their device's battery life when they stream versus downloading. When you download songs or albums, according to that same Rolling Stone article, there is an 80 per cent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions because it will take less energy to replay. When you stream, you require the same amount of energy every time you hit play.
Downloading music from services also benefits the artist whose music you're listening to, as Met wrote: "It sends a signal to Spotify's algorithm that fans are passionate about the song. If enough people download a specific song, it could help the song show up on playlists like Today's Top Hits. And those playlists are what really drive additional plays (and downloads) on the service."
Devine also notes the rise of NFTs can present a surprising benefit to music listeners, pointing to a company like Serenade that creates digital pressings, essentially "trying to give you the experience of owning a traditional record without owning a record." While Devine says NFTs and blockchain have a deservedly bad reputation, "they're trying to shake that image and do something different, which I find interesting."
What are streaming services doing to regulate emissions?
In September 2021, Spotify joined the Exponential Roadmap Initiative and the United Nations' Race to Zero, which is a network of companies, scientists and non-governmental organizations committing to halve emissions by 2030. The company has also shifted from traditional data centres to the Google Cloud platform, which Google states is a carbon-neutral platform that intends to power all its data centres with clean energy by 2030. Amazon Web Services, home to services including Apple Music, also powers 65 per cent of its operations with renewable energy.
But even within these partnerships and initiatives, Devine says one of the most important things music listeners can continue to do is push for more transparency from companies, such as how they're improving carbon measures or the labour conditions of their employees. Steps are being taken, but only time will tell if these commitments are fulfilled.