Music is OK


So the increasingly good Grist slipped up and ran a very silly piece about a very silly study. It gives us a golden opportunity to revisit McCarthy’s Maxim (which I will take the liberty of de-genderizing):

One who refuses to do arithmetic is doomed to talk nonsense. The sad part is that the article also proves that arithmetic alone is not enough to protect you from nonsense.

The offending article, Your CD collection is greener than Spotify starts off claiming that

A new report crunched the numbers on your Spotify habit and concluded that it’s terrible for energy consumption.

Did you get that? “Terrible.” The very next sentence explains:

Streaming 12 uncompressed tracks 27 times uses the same amount of energy as making a plastic CD.

Terrible, isn’t it? You can only stream 324 tunes (27 times 12, that is) before the energy costs of the download exceed the energy costs of manufacturing and shipping the disk. (We ignore the costs of spinning the disk. Presumably you will only do that once, to load up your iPod iPhone, right?)

So what is this profligate energy cost? Well, bulk manufacture of CDs costs 42 cents per item which puts a ceiling on the energy cost. Let’s take a wild guess and grant that the energy in the CD ROM is worth a dime. So streaming a track is about 1/324th of that, or three one hundredths of a cent.

Suppose a CD is about an hour. If you listen to music nonstop it will take you a day without sleep to listen enough music to balance one CD. And ten cents will buy you roughly a KwH. So you are running about 4 % of a kilowatt, or about 40 watts when you stream. Sounds high to me but still really nothing to worry about.

Following Grist back to its source, we see this as well:

Separately, Bach says “unlicensed file sharing could consume the equivalent of up to four times the annual combined electricity consumption of all UK households”, while the 33 percent temporary reduction in web traffic seen by Sweden after it introduced anti-piracy laws in 2010 was equivalent to the electricity usage of 2,030 UK households.

Say what? OK, So Sweden’s power consumption for music was that of 6090 UK households, while unlicensed file sharing in general (or in the UK?) consumes that of all UK households, about 15 million of them? What makes the Swedes such lightweights?

Finally, consider the behavior that this sort of thing is supposed to evoke. “Oh, I’d best get the CD rather than downloading it. But I want it NOW. I know, I’ll drive to the store!

Suppose you are a typical American and happily make a twenty mile round trip out of it. How many times do you need to listen to a track before you break even on energy now? Well, you used a gallon of gas, right? So four dollars worth of energy? Well, now you have a factor of forty to contend with. OK, the gasoline is more expensive than the coal, so I’ll give you back a factor of four. So now you have to listen to 3240 tracks to make up for the trip. Maybe you should have bought more than one CD.

The real point, though, is that compared to our other activities, these numbers (though inflated I suspect) are ridiculously small.

We shouldn’t conserve water by squeezing every inch of the dishwasher full, or not getting a glass of water at a restaurant. We should stop watering lawns.

We shouldn’t let our kids unplug the microwave to stop “wasting” energy on the digital clock.

What we are wasting is our valuable attention, which ought to be directed to the big ticket items where it counts. We can solve our problems and we are not doomed, but only if we start thinking and stop acting symbolically.

The way we scare our kids is by acting like children. Let’s be adults and solve our problems. Don’t go carrying guilt about your music, whichever way you listen to it. It’s not a sustainability issue anyway.

We can sustain as much music as we want. Just enjoy it.


  1. I wonder what happens to the sum of human knowledge when nothing undigitized survives. We now have books from the millenia, but now you have to have the right software to peruse anything new. I came up with computers, and the old 8 inch floppies (7.5, whatever) are unreadable without a specialist, let alone more recent ones. Microfiche fades.

    Personally, I like my books and lists on paper. You can mark them, sort them, and you don't need power to use them. I know searchability is nice, but the idea that we will go on to use more and more power, world without end, is an itch that is becoming a disease.

    My age and prejudices are showing ...

  2. I share your distaste for the way this article was written, but not so much for the idea of discussing the issue in a sustainability context. Each activity, and the choices we make about how we engage in them, may contribute negligibly but collectively they matter, both in cummulative energy consumption and in a wider sense - the acquisitive instant nowness of the way music is consummed reflects a fundamental unsustainability in our culture. I see a benefit in taking a narrow issue like this and exploring in depth the implications that flow from it.

  3. I recently acquired a set of Encylcopaedia. When our cooperative global society collapses and all that digitised knowledge dissipates into the ether I'll be the one that people come to to find out who was prime minister of New Zealand in 1932.

  4. I just keep wondering what the correct ratio is between solar panel area, battery size, and volume on my imaginary green guitar amplifier. Can I afford to turn it to eleven?

    Or perhaps instead of my stack of solar powered amps, I can just broadcast on wireless and everyone can wear headphones. Won't annoy the neighbors as much either (unless it spills over into their frequencies).

    More seriously, this is another entry into the discussion of "do the small things matter?"

    I argue this with my wife all the time. The question of whether small acts of personal conservation are gateway drugs or placebos (I know, it's not the right pair of metaphors) almost certainly has no single answer - it probably depends on both the local (friends and family) and social (government, media) context. It is true both that the small acts add up, and that they're clearly not enough.

    It's also clear that the absence of basic mathematical sensibility (e.g., how could all my downloading possibly add up to a small fraction of my energy bill?) is a big problem. And, for most people out of junior high school, probably too late to change at this point.


  5. Yes, but the bottom line has to be a cost/benefit calculation within the context of the amount of energy we can actually afford. There can actually be good news on that front. And amidst all the bad news, music is very very good news. We can have as much of it as we want.

  6. I followed the links, and did a little fact checking, and here's what I concluded:

    1) the source of the problem analysis, linked to in MT's "second thought," is an uncited, undated EPA report which says there are "more than 100 million exit signs in use today in the U.S., consuming 30–35 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity annually." The story goes on to say, "That’s the output of five or six 1,000 MW power plants, and it costs us $2-3 billion per year," though it's not clear whether this comes from the EPA or the author's analysis.

    2) The story also notes that exit lamps used to use 2 15-20W incandescent bulbs, then switched to CFLs, and now to LEDs using less than 5W.

    3) The numbers about total electricity and cost are actually basically correct, IF you use the old ~40W per sign figure. I was surprised. Five or six 1000MW power plants is a lot of power. BUT: the power demand has been coming down steadily, so that new signs are under 5 W and can be as little as 1W or less. So while, without knowing the mix of old/new signs, one can't say how much power is currently being used, it is true the the potential savings against the original all-incandescent, all-the-time is very large. (Note that total US electricity capacity is around 1000 GW, or 1000 1000 MW plants, so the signs would have used about 1/2% of total US electricity.


  7. Incandescent EXIT signs are an easy pick for energy auditors, not just because of the electricity savings, but the labor savings as well. Sending an electrician around your facility every year replacing bulbs costs $.

  8. See if you can get some copies of "How Things Work" instead.

    On the main topic, this post (and though it's out of date, the whole back catalogue of the blog is generally good, too) David Mackay's 1% rule is a useful starting point - might need to be tweaked to cover articles like this:

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