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Responsible music and digital technology, the transition is still to come

While the ques­tion of the envi­ron­men­tal impact of music and the role the indus­try must embrace to make this issue its own is being rai­sed by a gro­wing num­ber of musi­cians, orga­ni­sa­tions and concert venues, a sys­te­mic approach to the pro­blem still seems out of reach. The com­plexi­ty of cer­tain fields, the lack of research and even the mis­con­cep­tions to which they are sub­ject repre­sents an even grea­ter delay to them being taken into consi­de­ra­tion. While the rise in the use of digi­tal media in our pro­fes­sions and the rapid increase in the num­ber of events broad­cast online have been at the heart of the pan­de­mic cri­sis, the unders­tan­ding and cal­cu­la­tion of its envi­ron­men­tal impact remains marginal.

Because it is less visible at first glance than the plas­tic waste that lit­ters fes­ti­val sites, the impact of digi­tal appears not to exist. So, what are we tal­king about exact­ly ? Research shows that the glo­bal digi­tal foot­print is due lar­ge­ly to the manu­fac­ture of equip­ment, with all digi­tal infra­struc­tures being hea­vy consu­mers of raw mate­rials. Your favou­rite band’s web­site or pro­file, strea­ming a song or video, this article that you’re rea­ding online, your stu­dio recor­dings sto­red on the cloud, they all consume energy.

What’s more, the shift towards digi­tal, or “dema­te­ria­li­sa­tion”, is often wron­gly per­cei­ved as an action aimed at redu­cing its impact, and recor­ded music as a step for­ward in this dema­te­ria­li­sa­tion – an evo­lu­tion from phy­si­cal disks to invi­sible num­bers. Howe­ver, research car­ried out by the Uni­ver­si­ty of Glas­gow in 2019 sho­wed that the price consu­mers are pre­pa­red to pay for lis­te­ning to recor­ded music has never been lower, while the envi­ron­men­tal impact of lis­te­ning to music has never been higher. In his book Decom­po­sed, Kyle Devine also offers a dif­ferent pers­pec­tive. He shows that recor­ded music has always been a major exploi­ter of natu­ral and human resources and that its depen­dence on these resources is now more pro­ble­ma­tic than ever. He traces the hid­den his­to­ry of recor­ded music, from the 1920s when 78s were made of shel­lac, an insect-based resin, through the expo­sure of wor­kers to toxic fumes and pol­lu­tion cau­sed in the Uni­ted States by the pro­duc­tion of vinyls in the 1970s, to child labour in mines where the rare metals used to make our mobile phones are extracted.

The split bet­ween digi­tal and phy­si­cal dis­tri­bu­tion never­the­less dif­fers accor­ding to musi­cal styles, and the impact of digi­tal is less rapid for musi­cal genres such as jazz or world music, for which some audiences are still atta­ched to the vinyl or CD object, the notion of album more than hit, and where a genuine mar­ket for reis­sues exists. 

The impact of strea­ming remains dif­fi­cult to mea­sure as the cri­te­ria and contexts can vary : whe­ther you’re strea­ming on a state-of-the-art phone or a recon­di­tio­ned com­pu­ter ; whe­ther you’re lis­te­ning to a song at home on your Wi-Fi from a rou­ter you share with your neigh­bours or via 4G on a train ; or whe­ther your elec­tri­ci­ty sources are rene­wable or not, etc. But one thing is cer­tain : sto­ring and pro­ces­sing music online consumes a huge amount of resources and ener­gy. Last year, the IFPI publi­shed a glo­bal music report esti­ma­ting that 77% of users had tur­ned to You­Tube to lis­ten to music in the pre­vious month, while the plat­form is wor­king with major record labels to remas­ter clips in HD, which are very large files and the­re­fore consume more. 

The idea becomes clear that the spread of digi­tal allows grea­ter acces­si­bi­li­ty for audiences. Musi­cal heri­tage avai­lable online opens a field of pos­si­bi­li­ties ; col­la­bo­ra­tive pro­jects are emer­ging, such as the fas­ci­na­ting sound­map “Sounds of the Forest” from Tim­ber Fes­ti­val, an open source libra­ry of  sounds from the world’s forests to which the musi­cians invol­ved in the 2021 edi­tion will respond with their creations. 


Howe­ver, the annual Digi­tal Report 2020 iden­ti­fies 4.54 bil­lion Inter­net users around the world, but also esti­mates that just over 40% of the popu­la­tion does not have access to the Inter­net, inclu­ding more than one bil­lion living in South Asia and 870 mil­lion across the Afri­can conti­nent. This also fails to take into account the dis­pa­ri­ty in connec­tion qua­li­ty, time zones, etc. that were brought to light during the lockdown. 

We recent­ly lear­ned that Womex, world music’s annual show­piece event, would be held online. The envi­ron­men­tal bene­fits of an online fes­ti­val com­pa­red to a face-to-face event should not be over­loo­ked, espe­cial­ly when we know that audience tra­vel often repre­sents more than 80% of the total car­bon emis­sions of an event, even more so if its scope is international. 

We are also seeing more and more immer­sive expe­riences emerge with VR (Vir­tual Rea­li­ty) music, used by groups to broad­cast their concerts around the world. Howe­ver, in its recent report Shift Pro­ject, a think tank on the decar­bo­ni­sa­tion of the French eco­no­my, reveals that a two-hour VR expe­rience requires an 8K video file (approxi­ma­te­ly 160 gig of data), and esti­mates that the impact of vie­wing in this way is far grea­ter than the car­bon foot­print per spec­ta­tor at an urban venue.

Arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence, vir­tual rea­li­ty, 4K, 8K : the most fashio­nable things are often the most pol­lu­ting. Also to add to that are the expo­nen­tial growth in Inter­net use and the roll-out of 5G (for com­pa­ri­son, the impacts of 4G are around five to 20 times grea­ter than those of a Wi-Fi connection).

The good news about the eco­lo­gi­cal and ethi­cal weight of digi­tal tech­no­lo­gy is that it is pos­sible to do bet­ter, much bet­ter even. What steps can we take to change our recep­tion, pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­bu­tion structures ?

Deve­lo­ping digi­tal culture also means unders­tan­ding its dark side” is the mis­sion sta­te­ment of the ins­pi­ring Fresque du Numé­rique pro­ject, which crea­ti­ve­ly and col­la­bo­ra­ti­ve­ly addresses the causes and effects of digi­tal tech­no­lo­gy on envi­ron­ments and the cli­mate, high­lights solu­tions for sus­tai­nable digi­tal tech­no­lo­gy and makes it pos­sible to raise awa­re­ness and train teams on these com­plex issues. It pro­vides infor­ma­tion about modi­fying prac­tices, encou­rages change towards more sus­tai­nable consump­tion choices, “digi­tal sobrie­ty” and ser­vices that remu­ne­rate those who make music while redu­cing the envi­ron­men­tal impact.



Gwen Sharp

Constanze Flamme

Gwendolenn Sharp is the founder of The Green Room, an organisation that pushes for environmental and social change in the music industry. She has worked with cultural institutions, festivals and environmental NGOs in Poland, France, Germany and Tunisia and has a broad experience in concert production, tour management, project design, international cooperation and the development of tools and strategies. Since 2016, she has been co-creating solutions with musicians and technicians focused on low-carbon touring and carrying out assessments, initiatives to raise awareness, and operational training on artistic practices and environmental issues. She is a member of the board of directors of the Réseau Eco-Evénements (REEVE) and an assessor for A Greener Festival (UK).

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