The Decider: Physical Media vs. Streamed Tunes

Is one way of playing recorded music greener than the rest?

A Lionel Richie vinyl record sitting atop a box filled with record sleeves next to an iPhone streaming the same album.
Photo by Sun Woo Baik

Physical media and streaming each have their own significant environmental impacts.

For the majority of the time that people have been able to listen to music at home, it’s been in a physical format. Recorded-music lovers first listened to their favourite songs on phonograph records. Invented in the late 1800s, phonograph records were made of shellac, a resin made from lac insects. In the 1950s, a new format took over: vinyl LPs—made of a hard-to-recycle plastic called polyvinyl chloride—soon outpaced phonographs in popularity. Though cassettes, which gained popularity in the ‘70s, were well-loved by listeners for their ability to rewind, pause, play, and stop, it wasn’t until the 1980s that vinyl records were usurped by a new format: CDs. These thin plastic discs took over the music industry and outpaced vinyl sales in the US by 1988, relegating LPs to a collectors’ format.

All that changed at the turn of this century, when music went from physical to virtual. Digital downloads became the mode du jour in the early 2000s, competing directly with CDs. In the 2010s, streaming took over as a frictionless way to access your entire music library. Today, most music is consumed through streaming services. Twenty-four percent of global music listeners are subscribed to a service like Spotify or Apple Music, and an additional 19% stream music on video platforms like YouTube. Other formats aren’t as popular. Only 10% of people buy their music—as either physical forms or digital downloads.

But don’t count the physical out: while video might’ve killed the radio star, vinyl records have recently been resurrected. “People are buying more vinyl records now than they have basically since the peak of vinyl in the late 1970s,” says Kyle Devine, a Canadian professor of musicology at the University of Oslo and the author of Decomposed: the Political Ecology of Music. In 2022, vinyl LP sales outpaced CD sales for the first time since 1987—a sign that these PVC discs are still a popular way to consume music, even as technological advances make streaming more common and more profitable for big music companies and executives. (Streams account for 76% of the American music industry’s total revenue, though the system isn’t profitable for many smaller labels and artists.)

So with the growing (re)popularity of vinyl and the continued prevalence of streaming, what is the greenest way to listen to music?

The plastic problem

Compact discs, or CDs, are made of a clear polycarbonate plastic substrate, with the music data etched onto a reflective metallic layer and covered with a clear protective coating of acrylic plastic. CDs can’t be recycled because they’re made from mixed materials that are hard to separate. 

Vinyl LPs are typically made from PVC, a plastic derived from fossil fuels. It’s produced using massive amounts of toxic chemicals like chlorine, which also leads to the formation of dioxins, a group of environmental pollutants. Not to mention all the ancillary plastic: new records usually come shrink-wrapped, with shiny promotional stickers. Record owners are also encouraged to buy polythene sleeves (another plastic product) to protect their records from dust and scratches. 

Undoubtedly, the growing demand for vinyl LPs, and the plastic needed to make them, is bad for the environment. But unlike vinyl’s first wave, many labels and manufacturers are looking into ways to green LPs. University of Oslo’s Devine says projects like Green Vinyl Records in the Netherlands are looking into making records using polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which is less toxic than PVC. “PET is part of the microplastics problem,” Devine says. “But it’s not as bad as PVC.”

Vinyl LPs are made from PVC, which is produced using massive amounts of toxic chemicals.

Some companies are experimenting with making records from bioplastics made from feedstocks like sugar or corn, Devine says. But these records aren’t used widely and the sound quality isn’t as good as PVC records. 

Some record labels, like Don Giovanni Records, an independent music label based out of Philadelphia, try to minimize plastic use by eliminating shrink-wrapping or using lighter records. Heavier vinyl LP records of 180 g are often touted for superior sound quality, but experts like Joe Steinhardt, owner of Don Giovanni Records and a professor in Drexel University’s music industry program, says that it’s just marketing—more PVC for the same sound quality.

On the plus side, records are reusable. “People will pay hundreds, sometimes thousands, for records from the 50s and 60s,” notes Steindhardt. “And when you’re done with a record, if you don’t want it in your collection anymore, you’re likely bringing it somewhere in your community like a thrift store or record store that will resell it,” Steinhardt says. “That’s not happening with streaming.”

Streaming’s invisible footprint

While streaming doesn’t come with the physical excesses of vinyls or CDs (the music industry used almost 61 million kg of plastic in 2000 when CDs were at their peak), it relies on energy generated with fossil fuels, increasing music’s carbon footprint. In 2016, the American music recording industry emitted between 200 and 350 million kg of greenhouse gasses, up from 157 million kg in 2000, according to a study by Devine

When you stream music, your device accesses electronic files stored on active, cooled servers in data centres, which are notorious energy guzzlers. According to some estimates, the world’s data centres (which also store data like YouTube videos and Netflix shows) use up to 651 terawatt-hours of electricity annually, which is equal to the electricity produced by the entire Canadian energy sector. 

Of course, not all electricity is powered by fossil fuels, but it’s hard to discern what is and what isn’t. Devine says that—because streaming services offload both streaming and data centre maintenance to cloud services (like Amazon Web Services, for example)—music labels don’t report these emissions in their own environmental reports. 

When you stream music, your device accesses electronic files stored in data centres, which are notorious energy guzzlers.

Steinhardt likens streaming a song to using a plastic fork or styrofoam cup. “What you’re doing [when you stream a song] is creating the file from scratch, sending it to your phone, listening to it and then throwing it away until the next time you want to listen to it,” he says. The constant adding-deleting-re-adding makes streaming more energy-intensive than downloading: while the initial download of a song or album might have the same energy usage as a single stream, there’s no need to retrieve the file from the cloud once it’s downloaded, which cuts down on energy use.

“It’s planned obsolescence and it’s incredibly inefficient,” says Devine. But for executives and those with power in the music industry, Devine points out, “it’s profitable.”

That’s the problem with streaming: while listeners can have any song or album they want (with some exceptions), they must use energy-intensive servers to get it. The format’s carbon footprint is significant—and growing. “Something like 70,000 new albums are uploaded to the streaming infrastructure every day,” Devine says.

The winner: It depends!

While the plastic that goes into making physical versions of music like vinyl LPs and CDs is certainly unsustainable, streaming requires energy from far-off servers, much of which is generated by burning fossil fuels. There are a couple of ways to help: while a single stream is negligible, downloading your most-listened-to music (which is an option on most services) is the most effective way to lower your music consumption’s carbon footprint. Buying an album on a physical medium—be it on vinyl, CD, or cassette, which is also making a comeback—can also be a greener option, especially if it’s an album you listen to a lot. One study found that streaming an album more than 27 times creates more emissions than simply buying the CD instead. 

Ultimately, music isn’t just a product. It’s art, and people form meaningful relationships to their favourite songs. “It’s a very valid use of our planet’s resources, and a very good use of our resources to make art and culture,” says Steinhardt. “It’s about not being wasteful as much as possible.”

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