Was there ever a book that you put off reading because you knew that it would change your worldview but you weren’t quite ready for it? Several years ago I bought Decomposed: The Political Ecology of Music (Kyle Devine), then guiltily abandoned it in my heap of unread books. This spring I finally overcame my apprehension and began.
Why was I so concerned? I am professionally an ecologist, and outside work a music obsessive. As a former small-time DJ (both club and radio) I’ve accumulated a substantial and likely valuable record collection which started in earnest in the early 90s and has grown ever since. Many of my 90s dance 12″s were given away when I had no further use for them(1) but for sentimental reasons the LPs have been retained through multiple house moves. I didn’t stop buying vinyl records in the CD age (I own both) and continued to do so until now. The so-called vinyl revival, of which there have actually been several, had no impact on my buying habits. I estimate that I spent roughly £1000 on music every year for about 25 years. I still daydream of one day opening a record shop or starting a label.
In the back of my mind I knew, as most surely do, that vinyl is a petrochemical product. By way of self-reassurance I had assumed that it was a minority side-product, of limited environmental impact by itself. In the past I’ve been happy to cut ethically problematic products out of my life, including tiger prawns and vanilla, or drive an electric car, but vinyl records were too bound up in my identity. Buying records is what I do, it’s who I am(2).
The first thing this book made me do was to critically reflect on how record-buying as a hobby is merely an extension of the central capitalist drive to sell us things we don’t need, particularly petroleum products. Audiophile claims about the superior sound quality are tenuous(3) and, outside a few minority subcultures, almost all new music can now be bought in alternative formats (including digital). This leaves my preference attached solely to the ritual of the needle drop, a habit which connects me to my analogue childhood, a youth spent in sweaty clubs, and a lifetime of crate-digging in basement shops with fellow vinyl junkies. We love the feel of vinyl because we’ve been conditioned by our culture to do so. Is that reason enough?
The next discovery, perhaps unsurprising, is the degree to which my hobby is anything other than harmless. One point that Devine makes forcefully is that the music industry constitutes much more than the commonly recognised axis of artists, agents, producers, distributors and retailers. As a fundamentally material product, music relies on industries with far-reaching impacts. This all adds up to a hefty carbon and environmental footprint, both directly and through the activities it supports.
Even if you overlook the environmental impacts of oil extraction and transport, the industrial production of petrochemicals is inevitably polluting with harmful consequences for both human health and the natural world. A large proportion of vinyl for the US market was formerly produced at Keysor-Century‘s factory just outside LA, a plant which became notorious for breaches of environmental standards, and has left a legacy of contamination. Now the vinyl used in records is more likely to be made elsewhere, particularly in Thailand, where oversight remains less stringent.
The advantage of vinyl is its durability and resistance to decay. The very features that make it a wonderful medium for the long-term storage of music are simultaneously its downsides once its useful life has come to an end. Some records go back into second-hand circulation or are recycled. Most end up as landfill. There they are likely to remain for millennia, leaching the products of their slow breakdown into soil and water.
Alas, there is no simple solution. Although digital music carries the promise of separation from petrocapitalism, Devine points out that it provides a classic example of Jevons’ paradox that increased efficiency tends instead to increase total consumption. We now buy an array of material electronic products to listen to our immaterial music files, while the physical infrastructure of data storage, processing and transmission is largely hidden from view. The music itself may be increasingly digital but the impacts have simply moved elsewhere and capitalism has found a way of selling us new stuff.
In a particularly telling set of figures towards the end of the book, Devine pieces together the fragmentary and uncertain quantitative evidence to examine the environmental impact of the global music industry at the peaks of shellac, vinyl and CD sales, then compares them to data from 2016 including digital music. There is half of a good news story: the mass of plastics involved in the production of music is falling. On the other hand, thanks to the popularity of streaming services, the energy costs, and therefore the carbon emissions, are rapidly rising.
The book builds a case for what it calls ‘the slow violence of music’. While its consequences are less immediately obvious than industries such as mining, or have lower aggregate impact than activities like transport, it is linked to both of these and causes its own separate pathologies. It is tragically ironic that an activity so closely connected to many protest and counter-cultural movements is itself so inextricably entwined with the same forces they seek to oppose. Pick up a physical copy of Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi and consider whether pressing it on a 7″ plastic disk manufactured from petrochemicals detracts from its intended message.
What then is the most ethical and environmentally responsible way to buy music? The obvious answer, as with all commodities, is of course to buy less. Beyond that, and assuming that you still want to support musicians and hear new music, my own best guess is that downloading and hosting music locally is the least harmful. This has the advantage, if you shop directly through record labels or hosting sites such as Bandcamp, that the producer receives a decent fraction of the purchase price, whereas streaming services only generate paltry revenue for musicians(4). You get to own the files and use them as you see fit without creating hidden energy costs.
So here’s my pledge. I’m going to give up buying new vinyl records and switch entirely to digital downloads. I have no qualms about picking up second hand records(5) but I won’t add to the existing problem. This habit will be harder for me to break than giving up smoking, but my conscience can’t maintain this blind spot any longer. Yes, it’s only a small thing, and very much a First World Problem, but we all need to start cutting back and I can’t pretend that my lifelong petrochemical addiction is necessary.
(1) Some might be shocked that I casually gave away large piles of records. Rest assured, the majority of 90s dance music was absolutely dreadful, and no-one wants to hear it any more, even ironically. The records were worthless. Some things are best forgotten.
(2) I hesitate to call myself a collector because my purchases are not linked to any concern about the value (present or future) of the records, nor to any completist accumulation of a particular genre or artist. I only buy what I want to listen to.
(3) You genuinely can hear the difference. I’ll happily prove it to anyone who has doubts. But to achieve this requires spending a lot of money on equipment and a well-pressed record made with high-quality vinyl. For the overwhelming majority of casual listeners there’s only downsides if sound quality is what you actually care about, and for the audiophiles among us we’re just spending lots of money on yet more unnecessary kit.
(4) I’ve heard it said that total royalties from physical record sales exceed those from streaming services, even at a time when vinyl is supposedly a legacy format. No wonder artists still want to release them.
(5) You can take many things but please leave me the pleasure of discovering a forgotten Crispy Ambulance 7″ in a dusty box at the back of a second-hand record shop.