The global music landscape has enabled consumers to discover a wide range of genres, sound and artists via music streaming apps such as Spotify, Apple Music and SoundCloud – thanks to digital technology. Spotify is now the global leader in music streaming with a worldwide community of over 200 million active users and an estimated 130 million paying subscribers.
Based on data from the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), the global revenue from music streaming in 2017 grew to 41.1 percent of the music industry’s total income of US$17.3 billion.
A 2019 Statista report revealed that music streaming revenue in Southeast Asia amounted to US$254 million last year and is projected to grow to US$293 million by 2023.
Streaming music appeals to users as it allows them to store thousands of songs offline on multiple devices, making purchasing music downloads unnecessary.
Despite the allure of digital media, vinyl records stand to be one of the fastest-selling and growing mediums for music. And surprisingly, the re-emergence of analogue formats such as cassettes and vinyl are happening in parallel to digital streaming. According to media reports, global vinyl record sales in 2015 was valued at US$416 million and is expected to reach US$800 million to US$900 million in sales this year. Nevertheless, with the current coronavirus crisis, the projection of sales for 2020 reported last January might be affected.
In Southeast Asia, the cassette revival is an underground fixture. There are no vinyl-pressing plants here, but cassette plants still dot the region. In Malaysia, the cassette has become an inexpensive format for fledgling artists to get their music heard. The manufacturing cost for cassettes can be as low as RM4 (US$1) per tape, compared to RM60-80 (US$14-19) for a single vinyl record. The high cost of vinyl is also a barrier for many young bands and DIY labels in Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines.
“Cassette culture isn’t going away anytime soon. The tape revival, which started kicking-in in Malaysia two years ago, has been a good thing. New bands have something to put out. Tapes are also not as expensive as records. You can now release something that is affordable and also very artsy,” Radzi, owner of Teenage Head Records – a Malaysia-based indie record store told local media.
Harmful To The Environment
Vinyl is short for polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and its production process is not particularly eco-friendly as it involves toxic acids and consumes a lot of energy. Andie Stephens, associate director of Carbon Trust, a corporate carbon footprint measuring company, said that the environmental impact of vinyl include energy used in the extraction of crude oil from the ground and the subsequent processing and manufacturing.
Recycling of PVC is also an issue, as it takes at least 100 years for it to decompose. A 2019 article, ‘The environmental impact of music’, by Sharon George and Dierdre McKay from Keele University, revealed that the sales of 4.1 million records would produce 1.9 thousand tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2).
The idea that streaming is a zero-carbon medium for listening to music is a misconception. All streaming services depend on a network of energy-intensive server farms consisting of computers. Music is not stored on personal computers or smartphones and is instead, stored on servers within huge data centres.
“An expected by-product of digital growth has always been a decrease in the perceived heavy environmental cost associated with physical products,” wrote Dagfinn Bach, author of ‘The dark side of the tune: the hidden energy cost of digital music consumption,’ which was published in 2012.
Data centres generate an immense carbon footprint. These warehouses run 24 hours a day every day, producing heat that needs to be continuously cooled. This entails a massive amount of electricity, which in most cases relies on fossil fuels for its generation.
Even though vinyl has a higher upfront cost of production, it may have a lower footprint over time. According to Sean Fleming’s article, ‘Streaming music isn’t as green as you might think,’ featured by the World Economic Forum (WEF), the carbon footprint of a vinyl record remains the same no matter how many times it is played, requiring only enough electrical energy to spin the record and provide its amplification.
“A very different picture emerges when we think about the energy used to power online music listening. Storing and processing music online uses a tremendous amount of resources and energy – with a high impact on the environment,” said Kyle Devine from the University of Oslo, who led a research on the environmental cost of recording formats.
Streaming may reduce the upfront production of carbon but it makes increased energy demands and emissions every time a song is played. Bach wrote that streaming an album over the internet 27 times can use more energy than the manufacturing and production of its vinyl equivalent. This is something to think about the next time you stream your favourite song.