Is streaming the sustainable alternative for physical media? Kyle Devine says no, and he should know. An interview with the author of Decomposed: The Political Ecology Of Music.

Whether we accept it or not, streaming has an impact on our environment. And most people don’t. Kyle Devine wants to change that. He holds a position as Head of Research and Associate professor at the Department of Musicology in Oslo and conducted research on the history of materialities of recordings. In his book Decomposed: The Political Ecology Of Music, he takes on everything from the exploitation of workers and nature in India for the fabrication of shellac records in the early 20th century to the shift to plastics after World War II and the widespread use of streaming services nowadays.

Not all that is solid will melt into air, argues Kyle Devine (Photo: SPEX).

One of Devine’s assumptions is this: the digitalisation of music does not entail the dematerialisation of music. In fact, the opposite is true. In the age of streaming, the amount of greenhouse gas emissions has at least doubled in the compared to a time when record sales were at their all-time peak in the 1980s and 90s. How could this happen? SPEX caught up with Kyle Devine about the impact of streaming, a possible abolition of flow-like metaphors and why we are going to need fair trade recordings.

SPEX: In your book you define the history of commercial music recording and its impact on the environment. Why is it important to know about how records were made in the past and how we use streaming services nowadays?

Kyle Devine: A lot of people may not be aware of what records were and are made of. We can see that the globalisation of music did not just happen in the 1980s with World Music. Going back to its original formats, records have always been global, regardless where the music has come from. We need to think about the globalisation of the music and its industries as more of an ongoing process than a more recent one. At the same time, we must not only focus on what records were made of, but also how records were made. This allows us to see that people around the world were exploited under brutal conditions to mine necessary resources. There is a temptation to look back to that era in the history of recorded music and just look at the facts: sure, shellac is biodegradable, it’s a naturally occurring substance, it’s renewable – which are undoubtedly positive things. But if we go back and look how the people who made the material for the records were treated, it’s a cautionary tale when it comes to romanticising that as a possible solution to the energy issues surrounding recorded music today.

It’s necessary to understand our past in order to create a better future.

Yes, that is the overarching picture. It is about stressing the fact that all our recordings are made out of stuff. They do not just happen to be there. If we are going to make critical choices about what recordings are made out of moving forward, it’s important to know about the conditions that surrounded previous ways.

One common misconception about our changing media consumption habits is that streaming is an inherently greener way to listen to music simply because it’s not visible as a material product. How can we materialise the impact of data music?

One way would be to write a book about it with graphs and pictures. (laughs) Another one is to use general tools like the Click Clean Scorecard by Greenpeace. It’s interesting to use because it’s free and it confronts you with a report card that shows how certain streaming services fail the test of commitment to use renewable energy. It’s a slight shock of awareness. The visualisation is important here. I’ve worked with the Canada Science and Technology Museum that has a display partly based on the book. From early on, we talked about where we would place a pile of shellac, a pile of limestone and a pile of plastic to show that all these things went into a record – with additional lines to say where each resource came from. We imagined it to be illustrated live while being hooked up to a streaming service. So, when you press play, a world map would light up. But nobody in the world of streaming wanted to give me any of that information.

You mentioned Greenpeace’s Click Clean Scorecard to compare certain music streaming platforms and measure what kind of energy they use. Are there any positive examples that surprised you?

I say Spotify even though I don’t want to pick on them. Spotify has recently started releasing social and environmental responsibility reports. As part of that, they include information about their electricity usage which is a level of transparency I had not seen before from a music streaming service. They claim that between 2016 and 2018 the amount of electricity the company had used went way down. The reason for this is simple: the report only covered the electricity used by Spotify’s own servers. Between 2016 and 2018, though, they stopped using all of their own servers and transferred its service to Google servers. Even though it seems slippery to frame things like that, still, the general step of transparency is important. For example, Google claims that they’ve been running carbon neutral since 2007. And that’s good. But it doesn’t mean that they do not emit any carbon emissions  – which is their goal, ultimately. They do invest money, and they are looking at these things. I see positivity in that. But at the same time I see a far bigger problem which I illustrate in the book by stressing the Jevons Effect: the more efficiently we use resources, the more of these resources we seem to use. That’s been true since the 19th century. And that’s where we enter uncomfortable territory. Even if we achieve carbon neutrality there is a tendency in the discourse about carbon emissions that forgets about the labour questions and the exploitation of labour that would still be at the root of carbon neutrality.

It seems that one problem also revolves about common sense-terminology like „cloud-based services“. It suggests being invisible and nebulous by its original meaning.

There is an interesting history in using flow-like metaphors in order to speak about sound. The cloud, the stream … the Norwegian service is even called Tidal, which suggests waves. Tara Rodgers has done interesting work on this in her book called Pink Noises: Women on Electronic Music and Sound. I also take inspiration from Augustine Sedgewick who talks about flows. By talking about flows of things around the world, he says, we erase the fact that flows require work – which was a deliberate choice introduced by industries at that time in order to eliminate the consciousness of people for what it actually took to make material things. The Sedgewick article is about what it takes to get coffee in our cups, but it can be adapted to records as well. In my book I talk about the term „friction,“ which is based on an anthropologist called Anna Tsing. Instead of thinking about unimpeded flow, she suggests, we need to start thinking that none of this flows automatically. It all needs resistance and friction every step in the production process. Without energy and labour, no streaming can happen.

You also make a reference to a term which two French sociologists, Fabien Granjon and Clément Combes, introduced to describe a new social morphology of listening in the 21st century: digitamorphosis. What do you mean by that?

They build on an earlier term by another french sociologist called Antoine Hennion. Hennion writes about discomorphosis. He uses the term to talk about a shift that happened when people listened to and made music surrounding written scores. With a different medium of hearing and making music, people developed a new relationship to music. The relationship between how we make music, how we listen to music and the technological ways that encounter music are inseparable. They rely on each other and create one another. The way we listen to and make music and the technology we listen to music through and make music through are really the same thing. It’s not like there is an existing practice of music which gets attached to the technology. It’s a circular relationship. Granjon and Combes say that a similar transformation has happened when music got online. In that sense, the digitalisation of music provides grounds for a new relationship to music. Think about the access to the vast variety of music, for example. Or the recommendation algorithms that are needed to find the right music in this exuberance. We have to remember that it wasn’t always like this. There were times when people didn’t expect instant access to all the music in the world; when people didn’t just play YouTube videos constantly at the background while cleaning their apartment. There were different ways of engaging with music and different ways of listening to music. I hesitate to endorse this argument because you easily get trapped in forms of nostalgia, but it seems that there might be something to it. It’s not that people do not really listen to music. But there may be ways toward the future that would encourage a different kind of musical engagement.

More and more labels have started to pick up the idea of digital-only releases. They refer to ecological awareness and a reduced carbon footprint – something you would put into question. As we won’t stop listening, buying or recording music in the near future, what would you advise people in the so called music industry?

To release a single album digitally is going to be less heavy on the environment than releasing that same album on 5000 copies of vinyl. It’s a problem of scale. The question is caught up in the bigger picture where so many more people are releasing so many more albums which requires so much more electricity and server space. People don’t want to think about that. Partly because it’s counterintuitive which makes it difficult to understand and much more difficult to believe. For example, I was invited to speak at a big music conference in Los Angeles this past fall. It was a panel about vinyl and sustainability. Apart from me, there was someone from Ninja Tune, another person from a packaging company and somebody from a plastics supplier. The discussion revolved around lots of interesting issues. I was impressed. Especially with the person from Ninja Tune. They seem to be really committed to reduce their carbon footprint. In the end, however, I was worried that they would be mad at me for addressing the overriding problem. So, I tried to gently say that it’s good to talk about all these issues, but the discussion never cared to address the basic fact that all the records still are made of oil. Essentially, the frame of reference was that records are made out of oil. And that’s that.

In a conversation with Mike Rugnetta for Reasonably Sound you came up with the idea to create a fair trade-music format. Can you elaborate on this idea?

The truth is: there will never be an absolute fair trade music format. However, we have to ask ourselves what a format might look like that does not put additional pressure on our environment. Records made of bioplastics might be ideal. We would still need plastic, but the records would be made from food waste.

To close the circle.

Yes, and it circles back to the question digitamorphosis goes through. The social expectations that we have as listeners and how we may need to shift these expectations is essential here. A record made out of bioplastic probably won’t sound the same as a record made from PVC. It’s going to have a different sound, a different feel. And that might take time getting used to as listeners. The same happened with every single format through the entire history of recording. When MP3s were introduced, they were low bit rate and people hated the sound. When CDs were introduced, they were marketed as perfect, but a lot of people hated the sound. Even when electrical recordings were introduced in the 1920s, people hated the sound compared to previous acoustic music. The important message here is, though: People got used to it and eventually fell into love with these formats because they have their own signatures. A record made of bioplastic will not sound as clean as a CD. Maybe it won’t sound as warm as a record. But maybe that’s the price we want to pay for a sustainable alternative.

Maybe it should be something new, something that is not created to sound like a vinyl record.

We should not expect them to sound certain ways, yes. We should be willing to accept and embrace the differences. Especially if we can have records with a fair trade sticker on it.

Mark Fisher once wrote that the cause of the climate-catastrophe lies in its impersonal structure which, even though it is capable of producing all manner of effects, is precisely not a subject capable of exercising responsibility. Relating to your research, how could we approach a cultural shift to a responsible way of thinking about the impact of music on the environment?

I admit, the discourse about individual responsibility and the individual sense of guilt is problematic. I take inspiration from a Canadian scholar called Max Liboiron. She directs a feminist, anti-colonial lab specialising in monitoring plastic pollution. You can watch interviews with her on YouTube. One time, she is asked: „What can we do about ocean plastics?“ She replies that on an individual level nothing we do matters. In terms of a bigger change it does not matter if you bring a woven bag to the grocery store instead of taking the plastic one. She says though, on the level of individual ethics and how we live in the world, all of this matters a lot. Her answer to the question on how to solve the problem with ocean plastics is not at all about the responsibility of individuals but rather about regulating the oil industry. Relating to my book, I am not saying that everyone should cancel their Spotify subscription. I don’t think that this would be effective. I am not advocating for people to stop listening to music. And I don’t say that we should stop streaming music and start downloading it again. What I am saying, though, is that we need to regulate this industry and introduce a new level of transparency. Imagine streaming companies need to tell us what impact our streaming has. What resources are needed for one song we listen to on the bus. It won’t solve the problem, but we could develop an awareness for it.

How should this awareness look like?

The paradox we are facing is: awareness with the climate catastrophe has never been higher and, still, it is not leading into the change the scientific community says we need. Besides all of that, awareness is also tied to the neoliberal offloading of responsibility where individuals should monitor their behavior. As individuals, the impulse is to ask what are we going to do and how do we fix it. On a larger scale, it requires a cultural shift. We’ve seen that recorded music has always contributed to the exploitation of human and natural resources. Rather than thinking we can simply fix or undo the harm, perhaps a more meaningful response would be to mourn the transgressions and losses that may be attributed to recorded music.

How are we going to consume music in 2029?

I see two things happening. First, in ten years time streaming will be even more prevalent than it is today. Streaming companies will find ways of achieving carbon neutrality which does not mean the carbon emissions will be going down. It will probably go up. They will start offsetting the emissions with investments in green technology. So, the idea that streaming is weightless will be hard to get out of most people’s consciousness. Second, it seems to me like this vinyl revival phenomenon is going the way of craft brewing. The production might disperse – and also shift to a local level more. For example, local bands have access to self-made recording devices and do short runs of records for their friends. At a space where there’s also a live stage and there’s probably craft beer and maybe a little book store as well as like a gastropub-style restaurant. I don’t necessarily see that as the solution. But I see it happening.

Kyle Devine
Decomposed: The Political Ecology Of Music
(MIT Press)
Ist am 20. September erschienen.