The Digital Music Question(s)

October 26, 2011

One of biggest points of contention for the original participants in the No Stuff Experiment was whether or not digital media counts as stuff. Is a book I read on a Kindle or Nook or a song, TV show, or movie I play from my iTunes library a material good? And, perhaps more importantly, is digital media a sustainable alternative to print books, CDs, and DVDs?

I’m not much of a technology buff, but I’m also not opposed to the advance of technology. I appreciate the fancy electronic gadgets in my life and the ease they bring to certain mundane tasks. I love a good word processor, for example. The Internet allows me to conduct my rudimentary research for these blog posts from the comfort of my home. Etcetera, etcetera. Still, the whole new world of digital consumer goods is a little overwhelming to me, and so I’ll be tackling the issue piecemeal. Today, because ebooks are too big a part of my work life,* I’ll start with music.

It’s pretty clear that by purchasing music through iTunes, Amazon, or one of the streaming services that also offers downloads folks are avoiding the environmental costs of mining, manufacture, and distribution associated with CDs. CDs are made from various mined metals and petroleum-derived plastics that are processed, molded, stamped, sputtered, coated with lacquer, and printed with chemical dyes until they look like what you bring home from the music store or, since those are a dying retail breed, Target. The jewel cases CDs are sold in are made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a controversial material made from some potentially carcinogenic chemicals as well as some decidedly carcinogenic ones. And here is the kicker: the EPA estimates that, after all this mining and processing, 100,000 pounds of these products become obsolete every month and millions of CDs are thrown away each year.

In addition to saving us the upfront costs of manufacturing and the hassle of eventually having to find a way to dispose of these things in an environmentally responsible manner, buying from a digital music service saves us the fossil fuel involved in transporting CDs from the manufacturer to the store to the home via plane, truck, rail, and car. I found one study on this particular topic, and it was written by a couple university professors for Microsoft and Intel. The study compared six scenarios of music delivery: (1) CD bought at retail store, (2) CD bought from e-tailer and delivered by truck, (3) CD bought from e-tailer and delivered by air, (4) album downloaded as MP3 or MP4 files and used digitally, (5) album downloaded as MP3 or MP4 files and burned to a CD, and (6) album downloaded as MP3 or MP4 files, burned to a CD, and stored in a jewel case. The researchers concluded, “Purchasing music digitally reduces the energy and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions associated with delivering music to customers by between 40 and 80 percent from the best-case physical CD delivery, depending on whether a customer then burns the files to CD or not. . . . This reduction is due to the elimination of CDs, CD packaging, and the physical delivery of CDs to the household.”

Technology has undoubtedly made a giant leap forward in the eco-friendliness of music delivery. And with cloud-based services, like Amazon’s Cloud Player, Google Music, and Apple’s iCloud, delivery is becoming even more streamlined. These services store single copies of songs in the cloud so that multiple users can access them without downloading individual files into their personal digital music libraries. The Guardian discusses the potential energy savings of this method here.**

Still, we haven’t covered a bunch of hidden energy costs: powering our personal computers, charging our digital music devices, and powering and maintaining music e-tailers and all those server farms. And these are just the few power sucks I can think of off the top of my head. This brings us back to those original questions.

uno.  Is digital music a material good? I’d be hard-pressed to argue that digital music is material—it’s not physical; I can’t touch it. But it is “manufactured and produced for sale” (Merriam-Webster’s definition of the noun good), and it can clutter up your iTunes library as quickly as CDs can fill your shelves. Channing and I have a shared iTunes library on our shared home computer. It contains what to my amateur eyes appears to be every Grateful Dead recording known to man. With shocking frequency, I encounter albums in the library that I’ve never heard before, either because the music is Channing’s or because I purchased something and then forgot about it (shame on me). Just the other day, Channing told me he’s always surprised what is and is not on his iPod, probably because he has just as hard a time navigating our vast collection as I do. Moral of the story: if it creates clutter, I’m going to consider it stuff. I think we were right in deciding that digital wares fall in the “nonessential stuff” category.

dos. Is digital music a sustainable alternative to CDs? It’s better, sure, but I don’t think it’s especially sustainable. At least not while we’re relying on fossil fuels as our primary energy sources. Refer back to those hidden energy costs. Sigh.

Hey, I love music, and I want everyone to feel free to buy digital music with a clear conscience. No impact is an admirable goal but a tough one at this stage of the game (for me, anyway). So all I’m asking is that next time you go on an iTunes shopping spree you make your purchasing decisions with a little more attention and care than I used when buying those albums I still haven’t listened to. Think not just about the monetary cost but the environmental costs as well, and then, once you’ve narrowed down your selections to those you just don’t want to live without, pat yourself on the back for not buying CDs.

*I work in book publishing.

**This article led me to several other articles about cloud computing. If you’re interested, the Guardian discusses the energy and climate change issues surrounding cloud computing here and here. Greenpeace updated its cloud energy data in April 2011, and you can find that report here.


3 Responses to “The Digital Music Question(s)”

  1. Sarah Says:

    What about the environmental and human impact of manufacturing those electronic music players that are becoming increasingly disposable as the next best thing comes along?

  2. Bernice Says:

    Up until 5 years ago I was one of the digital slaves who keep those server farms running. I am still in that industry working for a company that manufacturers the equipmrnt used in the server farms. I will read your links at some point, but I wonder if anyone has compared the energy and human cost beween manufacturing the physical media vs making the digital media widely available.

    The year “An Inconvenient Truth” was released, I saw a clear movement in the industry to reduce the energy footprint of the server farms, though it was a greenwash. The intent was not to REDUCE the overall energy footprint, but to enable more computing power within existing footprints.

    Now that the economy is in crisis and panic is infusing the market and the industry, most efforts at “greening” the industry seem to have been subsumed by a push for more, bigger, faster, cheaper. Manufacturing is almost entirely in the far east for low wages and questionable working conditions and less environmental regulation. On the design end, corners are being cut; materials standards are being lowered which means it will need to be replaced sooner; Safety features have been reduced, increasing safety exposure for those who use and service the equipment. Servicers themselves are being squeezed — pushed to work longer hours for lower pay and fewer benefits. And if you’ve never seen the inside of a server farm, I can tell you it is a starkly dehumanizing place to work.

    That is the story for the US, at least. I know there are more efforts at using computing power to contribute to the greater good in some European countries. Denmark’s publicly owned power company uses a smart grid to maximize the efficiency of their power grid and make use of public solar charging sations for electric cars during off-peak hours. Sweden has a large server farm that uses a public swimming pool to cool the equipment, which in turn heats the pool, reducing the energy footprint for both.

    The question seems to be, are we using the “cloud” to improve sustainability and quality of life, or are we using it to further inflate greed and blind consumerism and the ever increasing addiction to “stuff.”

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