Robin Millar, legendary British record producer and Chairman of Chrysalis Records Ltd and Blue Raincoat Music, thinks caring about the climate and producing physical media isn't exactly compatible.
According to Millar in a recent interview with The Guardian: "I am baffled that no large record company has had the backing of a big-selling artist to stop making physical records. How can anybody stand up and say 'save the planet'? Artists are awful for hypocritical bandwagonery." Which is on paper true and would probably be helpful, but is a lot more difficult in actual real-world application.
For starters, let's look at the current streaming landscape. If physical media went away, Spotify sure as hell isn't going to pay anyone's bills. So are musicians left to just travel around selling their merchandise (or shipping out merch)? Because according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), transportation accounted for 28% of all greenhouse gas emissions in 2021. So that's bad. Or are they to rely solely on digital downloads as platforms like Bandcamp get increasingly more questionable? Because being left at the mercy of digital retailers and streaming services could be a killing blow for a lot of bands.
Sure, streaming causes less pollution than creating physical media. According to Brightly, streaming creates about 55 grams of CO2 per user, per hour. This is in comparison to CDs, which emit 165 grams of CO2 equivalent; and vinyl, which emit well over 2 kilograms of CO2 per unit. So roughly three hours of streaming music is about on par with a single CD. It's not a ton, but it's not nothing either.
Millar does point out that "artists' global tours also contribute to harming the planet and could be screened online." Which we saw during the pandemic, though people's appetite for actual live music as opposed to streaming shows is clear now that venues are back open. And again, touring is really the only way that a lot of artists are staying afloat in the 2020s. Take that and selling their records online away, and a lot (I'd wager most) of our favorite bands are fucked.
So sure, is physical media production a problem in the grand scheme of pollution? Yes. But what else is everyone supposed to do? And I'm not talking about the Taylor Swifts of the world here – Swift could probably do two livestreams and make more than all my favorite bands combined ever have. This is more a problem for the non-megastars that are raking in tens of dollars on Spotify monthly, getting their trailers robbed on the road, and constantly living one medical emergency away from the end of their career (and maybe the end of a roof over their head).
And on a more logical note, if you don't own your music, you're just leasing it from streaming services. Which is a dangerous road to go down, in that you'll only be able to access whatever they've got.