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CDs and Music Streaming

CDs and Music Streaming


Date published

In a recent conversation with my Brother we touched on whether buying and listening to a CD or streaming a song via Spotify was better for the environment.  A CD needs to be manufactured from raw materials and transported against a streaming service that needs to be stored digitally before the internet magically makes music arrive on a device.  I’m pretty sure the internet works by magic right? 

I must confess, this question hadn’t crossed my mind before.

Not quite sure where to find the answer, I asked our new investment partners Sarasin for their view and found their reply to be really interesting.  Here’s what they said (source Sarasin and Partners LLP, September 2020).  

“In simplistic terms, to achieve environmental sustainability we have to reduce both our emissions and our consumption of resources (e.g. shift towards dematerialisation).

Streaming of content demonstrably achieves the latter (albeit the servers have to be manufactured – but so would personal devices – likely in higher number).

Energy supply to data centres has been progressively decarbonised and there are very few specific problems that would prevent such centres from running on 100% renewable grids.

Most of the academic research we have read suggests streaming is less carbon intensive than physical CDs. There is an article by Chris Weber et al in the Journal of Industrial Ecology that provides a good quantitative analysis comparing the carbon impact of streaming with CDs. Their conclusion was that streaming has lower carbon intensity in general.

There is also anecdotal, non-quantitative research from Keele University that provides a slightly different view; they argue that CDs last longer and if users download the music then burn it to CD their “music” carbon footprint will be lower. There might be some truth to this however the study, from what I can tell, is not peer reviewed and nor do the authors provide the underlying data set to prove the argument.

One general observation we would make of the studies “against” streaming is that they are static, they only provide point-in-time snapshots of the phenomena. This is important in technology because the efficiency of semiconductors increases by  around 30% every year. Which means that over time the resource consumed by streaming on a like-for-like basis will fall. That said we have observed an increase in streaming in recent years and this involves less offline (physical) music consumption and increased efficiency induced online consumption. One would expect the on-going increase in semiconductor efficiency to reduce the net power consumption for the streaming industry. But this would only be easily observable once the “shift” from offline to online reaches maturity – and for now there is no sign of that happening.”

Regardless of the above, streaming music is far more convenient than CDs and I’d be more than a little lost without Spotify….