Dear Prudence, have you ever thought about sustainability and music? By Ross Primmer

I was recently drawn to an article in the New Statesman, comparing the carbon dioxide equivalent of emissions emitted during the manufacture of the three most common formats for consuming music – streaming, CD and vinyl.

The manufacture of a vinyl record is roughly the same as manufacturing 3.3 CDs, streaming for 19 hours, or driving 5km in a petrol car.

It is perhaps easier to understand and visualise the carbon emissions associated with a physical product, versus the huge power-hungry data centres which streaming services rely on. However, streaming has also been accompanied with a huge increase in the consumption of music worldwide.

In 2022, there are 487 million people estimated to be subscribed to a streaming platform. This means that despite streaming being by far the most efficient “per unit” way to listen to music – the overall footprint of music is increasing. It is estimated that in the USA carbon emissions of recorded music formats increased by 45% in the period 1977-2016 with 94% of this increase in digital formats.

There are clearly limitations to this study. Is renewable energy being used? What if you buy your records and CDs second hand? What is the CO2e footprint of the equipment you are using? How power hungry is the amplifier you play your music through? Etc.

This is known as the Jevons Paradox, which occurs when technological progress increases efficiency but also increases overall consumption. In short, as things become cheaper, more people consume the resource and on a global scale consumption increases (in some cases massively!). For example, in 1985 the single Do They Know It’s Christmas achieved 3.8 million sales in the UK through CD/Vinyl/Tape and reached #1 in the Charts. If we compare this to the UK’s current #1 Easy on Me by Adele, it has been streamed 24 million times in the UK alone (streams on week ending 28/10/21).

However, the purpose of this article is not to stop you listening to music. Far from it. As I write this article, I am enjoying the benefits of a well-known streaming platform! In my opinion, I think it is more than fair to say that the cultural, societal, and even economic benefits of music listening vastly outweigh the negative impact from the carbon it generates. As renewable energy plays an increasing role in energy generation globally the carbon footprint of streaming will likely to improve too.

The publication of the New Statesmen article shows that we can get locked into the “carbon tunnel” which fixates on carbon, to the detriment of other sustainability considerations which must be factored in to form a balanced picture. In the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, for example, many music venues and artists face significant financial challenges. Losing them would be a huge cultural loss to society.

The World Wildlife Fund also highlighted the instrument manufacturer, Fender, as scoring zero trees in their 2019 Timber Scorecard Report – meaning they have failed to communicate meaningful information about the sustainable sourcing of the timber they use.

As such, the carbon emissions associated with music consumption is perhaps a metaphor for the often glossed over and uncomfortable fact that we need to consider both efficiency savings and overall consumption to develop truly sustainable solutions.

My advice to Prudence would be… stream away, buy the odd CD or vinyl for your favourite collection, go to a few gigs, and, if you’re considering buying that Fender you always wanted, maybe get a second hand one!

If you’d like to get in touch on any of the above or are looking for advice on your sustainability strategy, please reach out to me on [email protected].

For more information

Ross Primmer
[email protected]

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