“Streaming an album over the internet 27 times can use more energy than the manufacturing and production of its CD equivalent”.

Dagfinn Bach, R&D Director, Bach Technology AS

Digital’s sustainability…

The recordings business has at times been an uneasy bedfellow with technology, never more so than during the last decade which has been dominated by the disruptive and transformative power of the internet and developments in digital distribution.

It’s taken 10 years but, finally, it seems that licensed streaming and cloud services may be close to a tipping point for mass adoption. This marks what may prove to be the beginning of a dramatic shift away from an ownership model and towards an access model of music consumption. With over 500+ licensed digital music services currently in operation around the globe, new entrants are adding to an already complex and vibrant market.

The hope, mirrored by initial sales stats, is broadly that these services are growing the digital music pie by providing safe, high-quality alternatives to file-sharing at a reasonable-to-no cost to the general public, who are able to enjoy convenient access across a range of devices.

As well as making licensed music much easier and quicker to access, an expected by-product of this growth has always been a decrease in the perceived heavy environmental cost associated with physical products, including production and pressing of CDs/vinyl, shipping, storage and warehousing.

Yet there is a hidden cost to digital that receives scant attention outside the ICT sector – energy.

Digital music isn’t distributed in an environmental vacuum. While pressing plants for CDs and vinyl are becoming more rare, and with fewer lorries on the road transporting stock to stores, the growth in data traffic caused by digital content services comes with its own environmental risks and problems.

The embedding and signposting of rich, high bit-rate files required by various digital content services – especially online video – depends on sprawling server farms and a complex, energy-sapping network infrastructure. This is on top of the energy consumed in manufacture and operation of a vast array of devices.

From this perspective, do ever more complex cloud, mobile and streaming services represent sustainable consumption models? Or do they present us with an environmentally unsustainable future?

My very first research in this topic – though being only a minor part of a three-year R&D project funded by The Norwegian Council of Research, and conducted together with Fraunhofer Institute for Digital Media Technology and The University of Bergen – was aimed at identifying potential challenges and sustainable solutions regarding uncontrolled data traffic growth arising from online music and media consumption.

To the best of my knowledge, while various papers have considered ICT energy consumption overall (particularly issues around data centre and server consumption), notably less attention has been given to the energy cost of the data and network traffic itself, particularly in light of data traffic forecasts and capacity developments in memory cards.

The natural progression from the existing research was to consider the energy impact of data traffic and how to meet the potential piracy threat posed by the imminent arrival of ultra-high capacity memory cards that will enable the storing of all known recorded music in the world on one device.

I have presented these findings in MusicTank’s latest report – ‘The Dark Side Of The Tune: The Hidden Energy Cost Of Digital Music Consumption’ – which highlights the resulting energy costs of digital services, the potential impacts on network infrastructure and our ability to continue to meet forecasts of exponential growth in the volume of data traffic.

My forecasts might be shocking. These include estimates that unlicensed file-sharing could consume the equivalent of up to four times the annual combined electricity consumption of all UK households and calculations that streaming an album over the internet 27 times can use more energy than the manufacturing and production of its CD equivalent.

Could it be that streaming and cloud services, the digital content industry’s angels-in-waiting, are the polar opposite of what environmentally sustainable business models should look like, bringing their future as viable, long-term distribution models into question?

The report edited for MusicTank goes on to consider possible solutions, looks at existing technologies used by various players to reduce unnecessary data transfer, and addresses the need for more research on the topic. One major consideration is the distinction between offline consumption of downloaded files and the online streaming of data, and where the balance can be tipped back towards more energy-efficient practices.

Ultimately, the goal of the report is to challenge the myth that as the music industry increasingly weans itself off of petrochemical products, it is somehow becoming greener by default.

It is important to view this report as a first rather than a last word on the subject, and preferably as a mere conduit for further in-depth research and analysis. I hope this report shines a light on the issues at hand and leads to the start of an important debate, both within the digital business and beyond.

Sponsored by HP, ‘The Dark Side Of The Tune’ is FREE – download the PDF from Thursday 13th September from here.

In the interests of the environment, please think twice before hitting the ‘print’ button!

You can catch me at MusicTank’s forthcoming event, Thursday 11th October at which I’ll introduce and discuss this report with a raft of experts and commentators. See www.musictank.co.uk/events/energy-conference for info & to book.

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