The price that users are willing to pay to listen to music has never been so low, despite the enormous environmental impact hidden behind the new ‘online’ consumer model.

An image of a person listening to music.

It’s easy to feel nostalgic for the days when music lovers saved all week to go to the record store on Saturday and take some LP. Then they would go home with their brand new vinyl carefully protected by a plastic bag, put it on the record player, and lowered the needle to listen to the tune non-stop.

This anachronistic ritual is resurrected every April 13 on International Record Store Day, in which music lovers stand in long lines to get limited editions of vinyl music from their favorite artists. For a decade, this annual event has been promoted by the industry in an effort to support the independent record stores, so damaged by the era of streaming.

What time those …pxhere, CC BY-SA

Could it be true that previous generations placed more value on records than current fans? We tend to be reluctant to believe the myth that we are living in a “golden age” of music and give credibility to the children of the baby boom of the middle of the last century, who long for days that will not return, in which music, for some reason, had more importance than now. Thus, we decided to inquire into the figures to verify if they offered us a different version of the story and it turned out that they did, but it is much worse than it seemed.

We conducted research on record production and consumption in the United States in which we compared the economic and environmental costs of different formats at different times. And we found that the price consumers are willing to pay for the luxury of collecting records has changed dramatically.

The price of a phonograph cylinder in 1907, its year of greatest production, would be, according to the value of money today, around $ 13.88 (€ 12.41), and those of shellac from 1947, their year of greatest production, they would cost about $ 10.89. A vinyl album in 1977, when the Sex Pistols put out Never Mind The Bollocks, would cost $ 28.55 today, compared to $ 16.66 for a cassette tape in 1988, $ 21.59 for a CD in 2000, or $ 16.66 for a cassette tape in 1988. $ 11.11 from a digital download in 2013.

1977: the pinnacle of rock ‘n’ roll.losgofres, CC BY-SA

This decrease in the relative value of the recordings acquires a more pronounced character when observing the disbursement based on the salary divided by weeks. In 1977, consumers were willing to pay around the 4.83% of your weekly salary for a vinyl. The percentage drops to 1.22% for a digital disc in 2013.

How could it be otherwise, with the arrival of streaming the music consumption model changed. What used to be a commodity market, where people took copies and kept them, is now a service-providing industry where customers must pay for temporary access to music stored in the cloud . For $ 9.99 (just 1% of average weekly salary in the United States), consumers enjoy unlimited ad-free access to almost any existing music album through platforms such as Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube, Pandora or Amazon.

The environmental perspective

Although users are paying less for the music they listen to, the tables turn as they review the environmental costs. If we apply logic, one might think that lower physical production equates to infinitely lower carbon emissions.

In 1977, for example, the industry used 58 million kilos of plastic in the United States. In 1988, at the height of the cassette boom, the number dropped to 56 million. When CDs took over in 2000, it again rose to 61 million. Then came the great digital dividend: with the appearance of downloads and the streaming, the amount of plastics used by the American recording industry declined dizzyingly up to 8 million kilos in 2016.

But, while these statistics seem to support the idea that digitized music is dematerialized music and therefore more environmentally friendly, we still have the problem of the energy used to enable reproductions online. Storing and processing files in the cloud depends on huge data centers that require huge amounts of resources and energy.

To be able to appreciate this matter clearly, let’s translate into greenhouse gases the production of plastic and the electricity used to store and transmit digital audio files. In 1977, the GHGs produced by music recordings in the United States reached the 140 million kilos. In 1988, 136 million. In 2000, 157 million. The estimate for 2016 places the emission of these gases between 200 and 350 million kilograms (remember, only in the United States).

Matt Brennan/Kyle Devine

Obviously, the topic does not end here. To truly compare the present and the past (if possible), one would have to take into account the emissions produced by the manufacture of the devices in which we have listened to music at different times.

Similarly, the amount of fuel used in distributing LPs and CDs to stores should be analyzed, to which should be added the cost of distributing music players, both in the past and today. Likewise, we could not stop comparing the emissions generated by the recording studios and by the elaboration of the instruments. It would even be convenient to contrast the Concert broadcasts in the past and present. We could go on and the investigation would be almost endless.

In any case, even if the comparison between the different eras were different, the main question would remain the same: the price that users are willing to pay. paying to listen to music has never been so low, despite the enormous environmental impact hidden behind the new consumption model.

The objective of this research is not to end one of the great pleasures of life, but to encourage music lovers to become aware of the decisions they make within the consumption of culture. Are we financially rewarding our favorite artists in a way that accurately reflects what they mean to us? Are platforms streaming the ideal business model to facilitate this exchange? Is cloud streaming the best way to listen to music from an environmental sustainability point of view?

There is no panacea solving all these problems but reflecting on the costs of music and its changes throughout history is a step in the right direction.

*Matt Brennan, reader in Popular Music, University of Glasgow y Kyle Devine, associate Professor in Musicology, University of Oslo.

** This article was originally published on The Conversation.