Music streaming: more environmentally damaging than you'd think

Our Culture Editor looks at how music streaming services can actually rack up a pretty massive carbon footprint

Maud Webster
23rd November 2021
Credit: Pixabay

You may assume that obviously streaming music would be more environmentally friendly than listening on ‘physical’ forms of music media - like vinyl, or CDs - however, we are now seeing this isn’t quite the case.

A fascinating article by the New Statesman from last week dove deep into considering how environmentally friendly music streaming actually is; the piece speaks to a lecturer in environmental sustainability, Sharon George, who explains: “There is this association that ‘in the cloud’ means it’s intangible, but there is a carbon footprint when you stream music,”. When you stream, you both use charge (thus, electricity) to power the device you're listening in, but you're also triggering a chain of data getting transmitted through servers (also requiring electricity).

Though on a per-play perspective, streaming has a much lower carbon footprint than comparative physical formats like CDs (by three times) and vinyl (over thirty times), the massive boom in music consumption, thanks to the accessibility of platforms like Spotify and Apple Music, means the low emissions is outweighed by the sheer amount of streaming which is taking place. Data gathered for the New Statesman article found that the carbon footprint generated by Spotify streams alone of the single ‘Drivers License’ by Olivia Rodrigo, since January 2021, is greater than flying roundtrip from London to New York a stunning 4,000 times. Stats like this really put into perspective the immense impact streaming has environmentally.

Earlier this year, Spotify announced their plans to carbon-offset their audio advertising, starting with O2 adverts for which 1,500 trees were initially planted offsetting 320 tonnes of carbon. However, are these moves too little too late? Considering the aforementioned example of 'Drivers License' churned out 4,180 tonnes of carbon - if this is the impact of one individual track, the mammoth task of offsetting all streamed music is virtually out of the question.

When pondering over the future of music going into this decade, Courier writer Tom Moorcroft highlighted the impressive ability for streaming services to propel new artists into the spotlight: "with the rise in streaming of all platforms, never mind music, we can see that the availability of music has increased massively. The ability for younger artists to get their music out to the world has given the future artists of the 2020’s the platform to promote their talents across the globe."

Music fans clearly see streaming services as an integral part of the music industry going forward into the future. Given this inevitability, we must ask ourselves if we think it's the responsibility of streaming services, like Spotify and Apple Music, to be doing something about this - and if so, what?

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AUTHOR: Maud Webster
she/they | third year architecture & urban planning student @ newcastle | co-head of culture for the 21/22 academic year

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