Streaming music has unintended environmental consequences, a new study says.

Although the shift from physical media to streaming has reduced cost and plastic pollution, using services like Spotify and Apple Music is driving up carbon emissions and contributing to climate change, a recent study says.

The Cost of Music is a joint venture between the University of Glasgow and the University of Oslo, and warns that the energy used to store and stream digital media is just as harmful for the environment as plastic waste.

The study looked at the costs of physical media over the past century, adjusted for inflation, and set that against changing average salaries and the average amount of a person’s weekly salary that would go towards paying for music across that period.

The study found that while music has never been cheaper to own – a vinyl record in 1977 cost an average of $28.55 in today’s money while a digital download in 2013 cost $11.11 – the amount people were willing to spend on music in those years dropped from 4.83% of their salary a week to 1.22%.

While this has reduced the amount of plastic wasted from CD cases, vinyl and other physical media, the amount being paid to musicians has dropped, and emissions related to the recorded music industry is believed to have increased.

Although the amount of plastics consumed by the industry dropped to 8 million kilograms in 2016 from a high of 61 million kilograms at the CD’s peak in 2000, when the study translated the production of plastics and the generation of electricity into greenhouse gas equivalents (GHGs), streaming generates far more. While GHGs peaked at 157 million in 2000 under the physical era, the generation of GHGs by storing and streaming digital files is estimated to be between 200 million kilograms and over 350 million kilograms in the USA alone.

Dr Kyle Devine, Associate Professor in Music at the University of Oslo, said: “These figures seem to confirm the widespread notion that music digitalised is music dematerialised. The figures may even suggest that the rises of downloading and streaming are making music more environmentally friendly.

“But a very different picture emerges when we think about the energy used to power online music listening. Storing and processing music online uses a tremendous amount of resources and energy – which a high impact on the environment.”

The study’s findings mirror similar warnings around the carbon footprint of running cryptocurrency mining operations and the CO2 generated by billons of daily Google searches sent to data centers around the world.

Dr Matt Brennan, a Reader in Popular Music from the University of Glasgow, said: “The point of this research is not to tell consumers that they should not listen to music, but to gain an appreciation of the changing costs involved in our music consumption behaviour.

“We hope the findings might encourage change toward more sustainable consumption choices and services that remunerate music creators while mitigating environmental impact.”

Read next: Longform Editions uses slow music to combat the streaming slog



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