A Cranky Response to an Alex Ross Piece on the Environmental Footprint of Digital Music

24 September 2020 ☼ MusicCommentaryInteresting Things I Read

The piece, in the New Yorker, is seemingly a review of the book Decomposed: The Political Ecology of Music, although the book came out almost a year ago; I’m not sure what timely hook the piece might have. I haven’t read the book itself: Amazon’s listing summarizes its main point as that recorded music has always been a significant exploiter of both natural and human resources, and that its reliance on these resources is more problematic today than ever before.” Ross says at one point that the author isn’t interested in inducing guilt,” but guilt is a pretty effective marketing tool.

So: should you feel guilty about listening to music digitally? Apparently, in 2016, streaming and downloading music led to energy use that resulted in about 140 million kilograms of greenhouse-gas emissions. To put that in perspective: this BBC carbon footprint calculator from last year estimates that a single cup of coffee generates about 0.4 kilograms of emissions, and I found a company that imports and sells coffee-shop equipment who estimates that Americans drink 400 million cups of coffee a day. Even if that back-of-the-envelope calculation is exaggerated and we mark it down to 300 million, we still get about 120 million kilograms of greenhouse-gas emissions, per day, from one country, or three-quarters of what digital music streaming worldwide is responsible for in a year. That one country is the biggest greenhouse-gas-emission offender, admittedly. Nonetheless: if you’re trying to reduce your carbon footprint, dropping Starbucks would be more effective than dropping Spotify.

This isn’t mentioned in Ross’s essay, which concludes:

Our demand that all of musical history should be available at the touch of a finger has become gluttonous. It may seem a harmless form of consumer desire, but it leaves real scars on the face of the Earth….. 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.

There are two problems with this argument. One is that it conflates the costs of production with consumption. This may seem like a silly response: if you consume something, then how can you not be responsible for the costs of its production? But part of Decomposed is showing that the environmental costs of recorded music have varied over time. Records are petroleum-based; CDs, being smaller, use fewer resources to produce than records do. (Also, anything that involves magnetic tape is notoriously hard to recycle, as the box of VHS tapes in my garage, waiting for proper disposal, can attest.) It thus follows that if the costs of production change, the costs of consumption will also change. Which is to say, is the problem with the consumption of digital music, or that the energy that powers the server farms on which that music is stored is produced by carbon-producing means? If said server farms converted to wind or solar energy, should digital-music listeners feel less bad? Ross doesn’t say. And in not saying, he’s vulnerable to the counterargument that he’s just trying to make consumers feel bad about their consumption, and that the environmental costs (such as they are) are just a convenient hook.

Here’s the second problem—and I’ll admit I’m biased, interested as I am right now in a music industry that cannot get any sort of physical product to international listeners. (If you know of a store selling Q-pop CDs and related ephemera that can ship to the United States, please do tell me immediately.) But when you call upon people to consume less, especially of as nebulous a category as digital recorded music, how are they going to cut? Let’s ask the questions Ross wants us to ask: Who would gain and who would lose in a shrinking of music consumption? How equitable would that process be? Why wouldn’t it be that the already-established and the corporation-backed would be more likely to survive, and smaller independent musicians and labels less?

Let me further illustrate with a hypothetical. Suppose the article had actually been about the environmental costs of e-readers, or of reading online more generally. (Someone actually tried to figure this out, and came down on the side of paper books versus e-readers, though not as strongly as I would have predicted.) Suppose Ross had concluded, How many essays do we really need? Perhaps, if we have less of them, they may matter to us more.” And then people followed through and began to consciously limit their essay-reading consumption. Which source of environmentally damaging essays would they be more likely to give up: some random blog, or the New Yorker?