Listening to music on the Internet feels clean, efficient, environmentally virtuous. Instead of accumulating heaps of vinyl or plastic, we unpocket our sleek devices and pluck tunes from the ether. Music has, it seems, been freed from the grubby realm of things. Kyle Devine, in his recent book, “Decomposed: The Political Ecology of Music,” thoroughly dismantles that seductive illusion. Like everything we do on the Internet, streaming and downloading music requires a steady surge of energy. Devine writes, “The environmental cost of music is now greater than at any time during recorded music’s previous eras.” He supports that claim with a chart of his own devising, using data culled from various sources, which suggests that, in 2016, streaming and downloading music generated around a hundred and ninety-four million kilograms of greenhouse-gas emissions—some forty million more than the emissions associated with all music formats in 2000. Given the unprecedented reliance on streaming media during the coronavirus pandemic, the figure for 2020 will probably be even greater.
The ostensibly frictionless nature of online listening has other hidden or overlooked costs. Exploitative regimes of labor enable the production of smartphone and computer components. Conditions at Foxconn factories in China have long been notorious; recent reports suggest that the brutally abused Uighur minority has been pressed into the production of Apple devices. Child laborers are involved in the mining of cobalt, which is used in iPhone batteries. Spotify, the dominant streaming service, needs huge quantities of energy to power its servers. No less problematic are the streaming services’ own exploitative practices, including their notoriously stingy royalty payments to working musicians. Not long ago, Daniel Ek, Spotify’s C.E.O., announced, “The artists today that are making it realize that it’s about creating a continuous engagement with their fans.” In other words, to make a living as a musician, you need to claw desperately for attention at every waking hour…
Devine holds out hope for a shift in consciousness, similar to the one that has taken place in our relationship with food. When we listen to music, we may ask ourselves: Under what conditions was a particular recording made? How equitable is the process by which it has reached us? Who is being paid? How are they being treated? And—most pressing—how much music do we really need? Perhaps, if we have less of it, it may matter to us more.
A full consideration of the ethics of music production and sales could raise a number of concerns. In addition to the environmental issues, how about how musical acts are treated? Who profits from streaming? How many people in the music industry come out in the end as better people?
In a non-COVID-19 world, it seems like an answer would be to support local live music. Even though live shows take up space and energy, if the musicians do not have to travel far, the audience is taking it all in without any recording and equipment for listening on their own standing in the way, and there is a positive collective spirit, this might be the ideal. This shifts the attention away from music as a commodity – I can own or stream a tremendous amount of music – versus music as an experience. Alas, this might be hard to do even without a pandemic given propensities toward large tours (particularly the mega-tours of the most famous acts) and lots of travel.
Thinking beyond music, this line of argument highlights how many of the direct outcomes or effects of consumption or actions are even further removed for people when information, products, and experiences are put through the Internet. If I am streaming, I may know the data comes from somewhere. But, how many people have seen a data center, let alone have some idea of what is involved?