Is Streaming Music Killing The Environment?

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Is Streaming Music Killing The Environment?

Its hard to deny the impact that streaming services have had on the music industry. The enormous shift in both the label’s approach to digital distribution as well as the effect of the popularity of services like like Spotify, Rdio and Napster has had on popular culture is too much to ignore.

The seachange was even given the official seal of approval by the UK’s Official Charts Company, who are introducing – for the first time – a Top 100 chart to reflect the popularity of streaming.

But there’s another impact that streaming music could have outside of the music industry that no-one has yet considered: the environmental impact.

Wired reports that according to a forthcoming report, the amount of energy consumption associated with millions of users streaming music and videos online could do more damage to the eco-system than we think.

In a study put together for MusicTank, Dagfinn Bach, the founder of Bach Technology, proposes that sending such large amounts of data around the world damages our environment based on the large amounts of energy consumption needed by the servers that store the content that we stream and access everyday on the internet.

In an interview with MusicTank‘s Eamon Forde, he explains that “if you look at a photo on a screen, it costs energy to transport the data from a server to you. If you’re watching a video or listening to a song, it’s even worse.”

Rather than simply spouting spooked environmental rhetoric, Bach should be considered a reliable authority. After all he says he was involved “with the first mp3 trials” as well as “co-ordinating on the first online-demand services across Europe.”

His most recent work has involved the investigation into the effects of digital consumption in relation to streaming services. His report hypothesis that most of the energy that’s destroying the environment is from the datacenteres that stream online content. More specifically, the heat that these large datacentres generate.

While the air conditioning systems required to cool such excessive heat is consuming “three to four percent of the world’s electric energy – more than aviation,” claims Bach; and that was “three years ago.” These kinds of statistics are only likely to increase, particularly given the growth that digital streaming services are already experiencing.

If they’re consuming as much energy as the aviation industry now, while in its infancy, what kind of long-term damage will they be doing to the environment if it continues to grow at an alarming rate.

But how is digital streaming any more harmful than simply purchasing digital music content of the iTunes store for instance? Surely both sets of digital information need to be stored on a computer or a server somewhere?

According to Bach’s report, yes and no. There are two kinds of information that are stored when you access digital content. Bach would describe a piece of music on the iTunes store as ‘static’ content, where as streaming the same song from a site like YouTube or a service like Spotify is considered ‘dynamic.’

Think of it like a digital bank vault, whereas ‘static’ content only needs to be stored once, or cached, into this vault – ‘dynamic’ content instead needs to be constantly taken in or out of the vault, whether it’s being accessed or not, which means more manpower; or in this case, energy consumption as those proverbial vaults, the data centres, are constantly being accessed.

It’s a layman’s way to describe what is a far more technical process, but essentially Bach’s fear is that the gradual shift of the music indsutry – and its consumers – towards prioritising ‘dynamic’ content over ‘static’ content means more power being used. Or in Bach’s own words, “[we're] moving towards an uncontrolled development.”

Bach argues that the solution is a greater use of local caching to store online content, “ It doesn’t make sense to transport something to you every time that you want to consume it, because in music you transport the same thing many, many times,” he says.

With new technology of connect devices like smartphones and tablets on the increase, Bach suggests a combination of both static and dynamic content, where more services use a monthly service fee to access content that is cached. Much like Spotify already does. Where “static content could easily be downloaded and stored, while only dynamic content is streamed.”

The elephant in the room on the issue however, is licensing. Record labels are notoriously stubborn when it comes to who gets access to the same music that makes them money. Having openly embraced streaming services as a happy meeting point between consumer demand and avoiding giving away digital content, many major labels would be reticent to step back towards a combination of the two models of digital distribution.

“It’s a big step for the music industry,” Bach concurs, but he notes that’s what’s important for ensuring the environment’s safety isn’t mutually exclusive to what benefits the purse strings of major labels. If labels won’t consider the tress, maybe they can consider something that really scares them, piracy.

Bach recommends the importance of labels to “start thinking about it… before thy know [it], someone has started to mass-produce memory cards with huge music catalogues. Selling it on the streets in countries where there’s a long tradition for this kind of piracy.”

Bach implores the keyholders to music and other online content to address these issues as early as possible rather than get bogged down in negotiation licensing standards, “the music industry has to come to the front seat and take the steering wheel in their hands.”

While Bach’s report demonstrates how the growth of the streaming music revolution could have long-term consequence on the environment, but it also poses another question, is the music industry doing less damage with newer models compared to the old model of mass CD and DVD production?

After all, the process involved with factory mass production included chemicals proven harmful to the environment as well as deadly polyvinyl chloride (PVC), never mind the greenhouse gases involved in the mass shipping and transportation moving physical stock.

Though accurate statistics are difficult to track, an inverse look at the way Warner Music Group started their ‘Green Initiative’ hints at the pollution the music industry was generating.

Notably that they saved  “nearly 4,000,000 pounds of solid waste” through recycling reduction and around “9,500 tons of wood” by introducing recycled packaging. Inversely, imagine how much damage they were doing originally …and that’s just one major label.

Surely the mass energy consumption of the streaming music services is the lesser of two evils. Regardless, future studies like Bach’s will help us to better understand the environmental damages we’re doing every time we access online content.


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