Owith the release of his new album MidnightsTaylor Swift is set to reclaim her weekly record-selling title from Harry Styles, who eclipsed sales of her previous album in June. Records, in this case, refers to vinyl, the genre your (grand)parents used to listen to, and now, apparently, your middle-aged daughters too.
Swift is likely to achieve her latest feat not just because of her immense popularity, but a clever marketing ploy that presents her albums as collectibles as much as listeners: fans can choose from four vinyl editions of the same $29.99 album, each with a different cover. Superfans can put all four together into functional wall art with the addition of a clock kit that retails for $49.
But vinyls are made from non-recyclable plastic in a process that produces approx. 0.5kg of CO2 per album, the equivalent of driving two miles in a gas-powered car. All in all, it’s not much, but buying four copies of an album as part of fan art exceeds environmental responsibility standards. What happened to album covers that could be unfolded into a poster?
Vinyl records have been outselling CDs since 2021, which coincidentally was when Swift’s previous album, Red, broke the record for first-week vinyl sales. Not that CDs are much better in terms of their plastic and carbon footprint: when digital downloads became the dominant form of music consumption in the United States, the industry shifted from using 134 million pounds of plastic per year in 2000 (CD peak), to 17 million in 2016.
“Midnights”, jade green edition vinyl
So streaming is better, right? It depends. Even though streaming formats are plastic-free, that doesn’t mean they don’t have an impact on the environment. Electronic music files are stored on servers that run on a continuous stream of energy. Fetching files and playing them through networks and routers also consumes power. Researchers from the Department of Environmental Sustainability at Britain’s Keele University estimate that streaming an album for just 17 hours would produce the same amount of carbon emissions as creating a vinyl record. For CDs, it would take five hours of running time. So hardcore fans who plan to listen Midnights repeatedly for the next few months would do better, ecologically speaking, to buy the vinyl.
For the casual listener, streaming is more sustainable, says Kyle Devinprofessor of musicology at the School of Environmental Humanities at the University of Oslo and author of Broken down: the political ecology of music. “One on one, streaming is a much more efficient use of resources,” he says. For him, the biggest concern is the scale and culture everywhere, all the time of streaming. Some 487 million people around the world subscribed to music streaming platforms in early 2021, creating a significant carbon footprint. “If people started listening to records as much as they stream, vinyl would be a lot more carbon-intensive,” Devine says.
Or, if like Swift, musicians continue to turn their records into collectibles instead of albums to listen to.
There is an alternative. Several start-ups, including a British organization called Evolution Music, have started producing plastic-free vinyl from plant-based materials. Evolution Music’s first compostable 12in, released last month, featured tracks from REM and UK’s Michael Stipe Beatie Wolfe. The music industry is starting to pay attention to sustainability, Devine says. Swift should be too. “Especially with its fan base, a younger generation that is hungry for change when it comes to climate issues.”
It may not be too late for Swift to go green, he says. “Nothing prevents it from switching to a bioplastic format when this production runs out.” This would be a collectible scrapbook, wall art or not.
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