The Hidden Cost Of Music
By Chien Tat Low 22 December, 2020
Endlessly streaming Christmas songs? CWR's Dr. Low shows the cost of doing so & what you can do better for the climate
The Christmas season always puts me in a good mood and I could “legitimately” loop my favourite Christmas song, “All I want for Christmas is you” (AIWFCIY) by Mariah Carey from my digital devices out loud at home – yup, my home-made boom box. And yes, I have two entire months to indulge in such a Christmassy vibe because we all know the Christmas season starts in November as soon as Halloween is over. This is when you can already see the shops putting up decorations and hear Christmas songs surging everywhere.
Streaming music has never been easier…
Streaming music has never been easier – be it for you commute, at work or even for sleeping and of course if you are having a party or celebrating a special occasion, like Christmas. Thanks to the internet, AIWFCIY has also become one of the most-streamed Christmas song of all time, with more than 143mn plays just in the 2018 Christmas season. Clearly, I’m not alone.
Compared to the physical copies of music that used to be how we listened to music (CDs etc.), digital music gives us flawless music quality without the plastic and packaging. So, surely it must be more environmentally friendly right? Let’s find out.
Plastic is doing better but carbon emissions from streaming >2x of the vinyl era in the US
From a plastic pollution perspective, digital music is more environmentally friendly than physical albums. A study from the University of Glasgow shows that the plastic used in the physical music production has dropped dramatically from 58,000 tonnes in 1977 (the US sales peak of the vinyl), to 8,000 tonnes by 2016 when downloading and streaming take over.
So, yes, it seems the plastic and packaging that comes with CDs and vinyls make them worse for the environment but as you can see from the graphic, it isn’t that simple when you also consider carbon emissions. Our popular music and video streaming services are polluting in other ways as they consume energy and can have a large carbon footprint, as every byte of data requires energy to generate and transfer from data centres to cell towers to our devices. You can see more on just how big a carbon footprint watching YouTube or Netflix has and the shocker footprint from the popular song “Despacito”, in our article here.
… but online music has resulted in significantly higher carbon emissions than ever before from the industry
1977: 140,000t CO2e
2016: 200-350,000t CO2e
Indeed, the study from the University of Glasgow also shows that “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.” The research shows the GHGs from recorded music were 140,000 tonnes in 1977 (vinyl era) in the US, 136,000 tonnes in 1988 (cassette era), and 157,000 tonnes in 2000 (CD era). By 2016, it is estimated to have been between 200,000 tonnes and more than 350,000 tonnes. And remember this is only in the US.
However, it is unclear that whether this study has taken into consideration of the delivery of physical albums to stores and households, which could be substantial from an energy and carbon emission perspective.
Global music streaming is on the rise = more water footprint; has COVID made it worse?
There are more “hidden tracks” to streaming music, it also requires water. Streaming music from data centres needs water to generate electricity to power them as well as to cool them. So just how much water are we talking about? Well, if you are like me, someone who used to stream the best quality as possible, you will use 0.11 gigabyte of data per hour just to listen to the songs. Spending an average of 2 hours each day streaming music for a month of will use 6.74 gigabytes, which works out to 1,378 litres of water. is the equivalent amount of water to almost 7 bathtubs.
Water footprint of streaming of Spotify’s Top 10 songs 2018 Xmas season = 459 Olympic swimming pools
According to Spotify, the top ten most streamed Christmas songs in 2018 reached more than 767mn plays globally. If each song has an average length of 4 minutes, the water footprint of these ten songs is equivalent to filling up 459 Olympic standard swimming pools. Remember, this is just the water footprint of ten songs in Christmas season (November-December) on Spotify, which has about 50mn tracks more in its platform. And Spotify only accounts for 1/3 of total paid subscribers of music streaming services.
In 2020, the number of music streaming subscribers in all streaming platforms including Apple Music and Amazon Music surged to 394mn as more people around the home stayed home due to the COVID-19.
Global subscribers surged to 394mn…partly due to COVID-19
Assuming average user spends 2 hours streaming music every day and each song has an average length of 4 minute, it can be extrapolated that the music streaming platforms contribute to at least 6.46trn L of water footprint in 2020. This is equivalent to the volume of water needed to fill the High Island Reservoir in Hong Kong nearly 23 times over.
Be mindful in the digital age – average is the key
The purpose of this article is not to discourage people to listen to the online music. But we can be more mindful of using digital technology these days, including personal digital devices – mobile phones and TVs.
ICT sector = >2% of GHGs
(same as aviation industry)
Although the carbon and water footprint of streaming one song seems trivial, the cumulative effect of internet use could be substantial. According to Nature, the information and communication technology eco-system as a whole – under a sweeping definition that encompasses personal digital devices, mobile-phone networks and televisions – accounts for more than 2% of global carbon emission. While this may not seem significant, it is the same as the aviation industry’s emission from fuel. Therefore it’s time to rethink and curb our “mindless” streaming and more broadly internet habits.
Small habit changes help, so start now!
“Average” is the key here. For example, we could download the songs that you would loop repeatedly instead of streaming and opt for average quality instead of top-quality. Streaming music with medium quality instead of top quality could cut the data usage by almost 40%, and you probably won’t even notice the difference. We might also need to reconsider “unintentional” music streaming for the sake of “background noise”. Anything we can do to reduce carbon emission is important, no matter how small it is.
All my favourite songs like AIWFCIY are already stored locally in my phone so that I don’t spend unnecessary data to loop the same songs, and save my carbon and water footprint for the sake of Christmas.
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