switched on pop

Can Listening to Music Ever Really Be Sustainable?

Illustration: Iris Gottlieb

Against the backdrop of Earth’s deepening climate emergency, a source of hope for what lies ahead persists in the musicians who’ve at least tried to directly address the emotional toll of living in perilous times. The environment as a subject is nothing new in pop music, but modern climate anthems deal it with differently than the last great era of environmental music — think back to the he 1960s and 1970s, when Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” and Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” lit up the airwaves with a message of loss, but also of possibility. After half a century of further environmental degradation, artists tend to be more circumspect about the future. Listen to songs from the last few years and a range of emotions surface: rage and urgency on Anohni’s “4 Degrees,” somber self-reflection on the Weather Station’s “The Robber,” and practical solutions for eco-conscious eating on DJ Cavem’s “Sprout That Life.”

Musicians addressing the environment head-on only represents one side of the music industry’s engagement with the climate crisis. The way we listen to music impacts the environment. Streaming music uses a significant amount of energy, even though the technology seems to make sound feel immaterial. Kyle Devine is author of Decomposed: The Political Ecology of Music, which traces “the history of what recordings are made of, and what happens to those recordings when they are disposed of.” For Devine, recognizing the effects of the recording industry on the natural world and its reliance on human exploitation offers a chance to rethink our relationship with music, and drill down what we really value in a musical experience. In this week’s episode of Switched on Pop, co-host Nate Sloan speaks to Devine about the hidden costs of our modern soundtrack.

Nate Sloan: Could you give us an overview of the different stages of music’s materiality?

Kyle Devine: The stages of music’s materiality are that, between 1900 and 1950, most of the commercially successful recording formats were made substantially of something called shellac, which is a resin that comes from a bug, and that bug was mostly harvested in India during that period. But between 1950 and 2000, every single major or commercially successful recording format was made of plastic.

We’re talking about LPs, 45s, cassettes, and CDs. These are all different kinds of plastic, but they are all fundamentally plastic formats. And then since the year 2000, increasingly people listen to music as data, whether that’s direct downloading, or especially since 2015, subscribing to streaming services.

In this current data stage, I think we might have a perception that when we listen to music in the cloud it’s essentially this weightless, perhaps consequence-less, process. It’s in the ether. But you say that we might be misunderstanding the ecological impact of data-driven music. 

The tendency is to think of the history of recorded music as a history of dematerialization, a history where we moved from things that we have and we hold and are treasured objects on some level, to this history where everything is somehow up in the cloud, in the flow as part of some magic stream.

But one of the fundamental difficulties about talking about music in this way is that people talk about a move from the physical to the digital. And what I have been talking about, and many people have been talking about, is that the digital is physical.

If those file formats were nothing, if they took up no space, the hard drive on your phone or your computer would never fill up. Right? So these things take up space and, by taking up space, require energy. And so storing and transmitting and downloading all of this musical data requires energy. And then that energy is different depending on your local power grid and where that data is stored and transmitted. So when we are streaming music, we are burning coal. We are burning uranium. We’re using energy, essentially.

To imagine an alternate climate future might demand sacrifice and might demand a new system than the one we’re used to. And yet perhaps that alternate future wouldn’t be destructive to the way we enjoy and celebrate music. Can you imagine what a more sustainable vision of music consumption looks like?

Okay. So, what do we do? That’s an important question, but for me, the hidden assumption in that question is, “What can we do that allows us to continue doing as we have always been doing, but just creating a little bit less damage.” I call that solutionism. And I think that solutionism is very much a part of the problem.

It’s a mode of thinking and wanting to be in the world that allows us to continue as we have been doing. The real ways of addressing the problem require us to address what we actually want in the first place. Music has this draw for people politically, personally, in terms of community. And I think it may be one small place where we could really fundamentally ask: What do we want to sustain in the first place?

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Can Listening to Music Ever Really Be Sustainable?