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How we pay for our streaming habits: priced-out artists and server CO2


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The University of Glasgow, in collaboration with the University of Oslo, has released joint research that shows that while the amount spent on music per person has reduced dramatically, with the advent of streaming services, the environmental costs have shockingly increased.

In the run-up to Record Store Day 2019, which takes place on 13th April, the project finds that we pay less for recorded music than ever. At the same time, the way we consume means that the impact in terms of greenhouse gas emissions is at an all-time high.

Image by deepanker70 via Pixabay

While Norway-based Dr Kyle Devine, whose past research includes work on the loudness wars, tackled the environmental effects of contemporary listening habits, Dr Matt Brennan of the University of Glasgow took on the economic side of the question. The latter places a particular emphasis on the current injustice of the industry and how things are becoming increasingly harder for up and coming artists who see little revenue from popular streaming platforms.

For Brennan, however, a boycott is not the answer. It’s more about examining our habits, raising our awareness and consuming consciously. This means engaging with music in a different way. For example, if you can’t directly buy a vinyl record, go direct and attend gigs and don’t just bolt past the merch stand. Remember that, in a very real sense, and especially for smaller acts, you are crowdfunding for the next album.

Music consumption across the decades

Brennan is also interested in how things have changed over time and his work compares the various formats through which music has been purchased over the decades from an economic perspective. He found that vinyl was and still is the most expensive format to produce and to buy, followed by CDs. Cassettes, during their peak in the 1980s, proved the cheapest format, in line with their inferiority in terms of sound quality and durability. They seem to be enjoying an equal parts perplexing and endearing revival in the 2010s. Interestingly, gramophone records, with inflation factored in, were cheaper in their day than mp3s during the apex year of downloads: 2013.

The research also compared what proportion of a weekly salary one was, on average, willing to part with to enjoy recorded music across the decades. Brennan found that Americans (the study was based on US statistics) were prepared to give up 4.8 per cent of their weekly wages for an album in 1977, the peak year of vinyl. This is in contrast to a mere 1.22 per cent of the average salary surrendered in 2013 for digital downloads, which has reduced further to around one per cent today in the age of streaming. What’s worse is that the money from these truly amazing deals is not distributed fairly, with algorithms reinforcing biases and ensuring that just 10 per cent of all tracks accounts for 99.2 per cent of streams, which makes Spotify and Apple Music only worthwhile for the big names.

The environmental impact of how we listen

Dr Devine’s research happily contains some positives. One of these is that the music industry’s use of plastics has decreased and that the manufacture of declining CDs actually uses more plastic than vinyl. However, emissions have risen drastically due to the energy required to power servers. The consumption of recorded music resulted in 140 million kgs of greenhouse gas emission in 1977, this took a dip of four million kgs in 1988 (the cassette era) but has grown ever since and is estimated to have been between 200 and 350 million kgs in 2016.

The Cost of Music is a project that goes beyond research papers and fascinating statistics. Dr Brennan has also put together an album released through all available music formats from the phonograph cylinder to the digitally streamed mp3 file. Build a Thing of Beauty under the moniker Citizen Bravo is out now on Chemikal Underground Records.

Dr Brennan will also speak at the University of Glasgow’s Concert Hall this Thursday, 11th April.

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