Where Your Music Collection Comes From, And Goes To

I caught up on reading I had missed when it was first published. It is rare for me to miss a Dylan profile, but in May, 1999 I was preparing for our first lodge management project, so no wonder. Alex Ross avoids the tedium that makes me often wish I had not bothered with a Dylan profile. I recommend the profile whether or not you care about Dylan. If not just for clear writing, the quality of the cultural observation transcends the main subject.

Today I am happy to have read another article by Alex Ross, this one much shorter. If you watch the video above it will give a good indication of whether you will find the article worth your while. It reviews the ideas in the book to the left, which offers a great segue from yesterday’s post. We are learning to be more aware of where the things we consume come from, and what it took to produce them, store them, deliver them, and the footprint they leave from production and after consumption:

Listening to music on the Internet feels clean, efficient, environmentally virtuous. Instead of accumulating heaps of vinyl or plastic, we unpocket our sleek devices and pluck tunes from the ether. Music has, it seems, been freed from the grubby realm of things. Kyle Devine, in his recent book, “Decomposed: The Political Ecology of Music,” thoroughly dismantles that seductive illusion. Like everything we do on the Internet, streaming and downloading music requires a steady surge of energy. Devine writes, “The environmental cost of music is now greater than at any time during recorded music’s previous eras.” He supports that claim with a chart of his own devising, using data culled from various sources, which suggests that, in 2016, streaming and downloading music generated around a hundred and ninety-four million kilograms of greenhouse-gas emissions—some forty million more than the emissions associated with all music formats in 2000. Given the unprecedented reliance on streaming media during the coronavirus pandemic, the figure for 2020 will probably be even greater.

The ostensibly frictionless nature of online listening has other hidden or overlooked costs. Exploitative regimes of labor enable the production of smartphone and computer components. Conditions at Foxconn factories in China have long been notorious; recent reports suggest that the brutally abused Uighur minority has been pressed into the production of Apple devices. Child laborers are involved in the mining of cobalt, which is used in iPhone batteries. Spotify, the dominant streaming service, needs huge quantities of energy to power its servers. No less problematic are the streaming services’ own exploitative practices, including their notoriously stingy royalty payments to working musicians. Not long ago, Daniel Ek, Spotify’s C.E.O., announced, “The artists today that are making it realize that it’s about creating a continuous engagement with their fans.” In other words, to make a living as a musician, you need to claw desperately for attention at every waking hour.

Devine’s findings may, at first glance, provoke a helpless shrug. Every field of human endeavor entails some form of environmental destruction, and the music industry is perhaps no worse than any other. A sour critic might point out that printing a book about the political ecology of music makes its own contribution to the despoliation of the planet. But Devine isn’t interested in inducing guilt; he simply wants us to become more aware of the materiality of music. He writes, “There is a highly intoxicating form of mystification at work in the ideology of musical culture more generally.” As a result, music is “seen as a special pursuit that somehow transcends the conditions of its production.” Devine’s critical history of recording formats throws a necessary wrench into that mythology of musical purity.

When Devine goes back to the beginnings of the recording industry, he notes how often the innovations of Thomas Edison, Emile Berliner, and others were tied up in the science and business of chemicals. Edison experimented with wax, celluloid, and phenolic resin, in the process becoming an early leader in the manufacturing of synthetic plastic. Berliner favored shellac, which depended on a resin produced by the Asian lac beetle. Shellac was the dominant format until the advent of vinyl, in the mid-twentieth century. The harvesting of lac, in India, involved horrible conditions for laborers, although the material itself was biodegradable and therefore less environmentally troublesome than the plastic formats that followed.

Polyvinyl chloride, from which vinyl records are made, is produced from the hydrocarbon ethylene. It is a petrochemical—and indivisible from the baleful behemoth of the oil industry. The physical hardiness of the material has added to the quasi-spiritual aura surrounding the long-playing record: decades-old vinyl records can still produce a rich, evocative sound. But the same hardiness means that vinyl is exceptionally difficult to dispose of, once its usefulness is at an end. Often, it winds up buried in landfills. Devine naturally does not overlook the irony attendant on the much bruited vinyl revival: progressive-minded hipsters who fetishize vinyl are widening their carbon footprint in ways they may not realize.

Read the whole article here.

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