The Ethics of Listening to Music—Especially Vinyl—in this Age of COVID-19

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For those of us staying at home these days, music has become a Godsend. If you want to avoid the daily COVID count on TV or radio, music is a great escape. Most will turn to various streaming services, but one group of aficionados will be getting out the record jackets and dusting off the turntable. Yes, you may have heard the news. Vinyl is back and on a roll.

Rolling Stone reports that vinyl is expected to outsell CDs (in revenue terms) for the first time since the mid-1980s. In part this is because CD sales are flat, while interest in vinyl is growing, although sales of music on any physical medium are small in comparison to the revenues generated through streaming. CDs still outsell vinyl on a unit basis by about 2:1, but there will always be those who love records. And then there is the argument that sales of vinyl are actually much larger than reported because the figures don’t consider sales of used records, and many indie record stores don’t bother to report sales of new vinyl discs. Whatever the numbers, they are not insignificant, and they are growing. What is it about vinyl discs that continues to attract consumers, and who are these consumers?

There appear to be a number of factors that explain the renewed popularity of vinyl. Among these is supposedly better, or at least more authentic, sound quality. According to the music site TuneCore;

“Vinyl tends to present the widest range of frequencies due to its analog-to-analog production process. Digital music, because of its compression to keep file sizes manageable, doesn’t present as much of a continual range…”

But it goes way beyond sound. It’s all about the experience, the collecting, the community, the touch and feel of the real thing, the nostalgia and so on. In fact, one website lists 15 reasons to listen to vinyl, and only one of them is sound quality. Another is “vinyl is impossible to pirate”, which is a nice thought.

So who are these people in the vinyl community? Pre-COVID The Guardian sent out a snoopy reporter to a number of record shops in London to investigate the conclusion reached by the site YouGov that the vinyl revival is driven by “older music obsessives” rather than “young hipsters”. The Guardian’s reporter came up with mixed results. There were indeed a number of middle aged men browsing in the stores when she visited mid-week, in the morning, but also some women both young and middle aged, families, even a few millennials. It’s clearly hard to draw conclusions but it is reasonable to assume that there is a certain affinity for vinyl amongst people who remember first hearing their music that way, who have the time to look for records, the money to acquire them, the space to store them—and have a turntable.

Now we come to the tricky bit. What are the social values of those vinyl lovers? If they are aged-out hippies, are they still wedded to socially responsible causes, like environmentalism? Are they more likely to ride bicycles, eat organic kale and recycle everything from plastic bags to rubber bands, or are they the sort who drive pick-up trucks, eat barbequed ribs and throw stuff out when they’ve finished with it? Do they think trees are for hugging or for firewood? This is important because vinyl records have a terrible environmental track record and a high carbon footprint. Can you listen to Dylan’s “Singing in the Wind” on vinyl and not feel guilty about the future of the planet?

A number of people have written about the environmental impact of vinyl, including this author (“Copyright and Your Carbon Footprint”, here), when I was inspired by a British university study that compared the footprint of vinyl records, CDs and streaming music. Vinyl did not come out well, although both CDs and streaming have their own ecological impact. From a strictly environmental impact perspective, it is better to listen to your music on a CD player if you listen to a few tracks many times; however streaming is more environmentally friendly if you listen to many tracks a few times. I don’t think anyone has ever calculated where the break-even point is.

The environmental impact of music has been examined further by Kyle Devine, a professor of musicology at the University of Oslo, who has just published a book through MIT Press called Decomposed: The Political Ecology of Music”. The short version can be found in an article Professor Devine wrote for the Guardian, where he delves into the dark past and equally dark present of vinyl. It’s not just that vinyl is an oil-based product, thus adding to our consumption of fossil fuels, but the pellets that feed the pressing process come mainly from one supplier, the Thai Petrochemical Corporation in Bangkok, a company that has a less-than-stellar environmental record and has been accused by Greenpeace of dumping toxic effluent into the Chao Praya river. Just think of the burden of environmental guilt that fans of vinyl records carry with them!

What is the solution? Some purists have suggested that consumers return to the shellac records (the old 78 LPs) that prevailed until the mid-20th century, and for a few years beyond, since shellac is a renewable resource and is biodegradable. Devine looks at the production of shellac, which comes from the lac beetle. The beetle deposits a sticky residue on the branches of trees in South Asia, where the residue is harvested by hand. After collection, it is (was) melted and crushed. During the period when shellac was widely produced, exploitation of Third World labour was notorious in the industry. But shellac wasn’t the only ingredient in the discs. It was just the binding agent for a variety of fillers ranging from limestone to asbestos, asphalt, caustic soda, cement, flour and formaldehyde. A real witches’ brew. So perhaps going back to shellac records is not the answer. Like vinyl, cassettes and CDs are also plastic based; in fact the packaging of a CD is a bigger user of hydrocarbons that the disc inside and as cassettes and now CDs lose their popularity, a lot of plastic ends up in landfills.

There is a green alternative, “green vinyl”, which is being produced by some companies in the Netherlands, made from a recyclable, non-PVC material. The problem is, according to music purists, it lacks the sound quality of vinyl. If the environmental footprint of a product is its most important characteristic a solution might be more research, or the answer might be that consumers of vinyl records just may have to accept the consequences of their listening habits and go out and plant a tree as an offset if they really feel that guilty over their choice of music medium. After all, as I mentioned, and as Devine explores in his book, even streaming is not carbon neutral because of the devices you use for listening and particularly because of the huge amount of energy required to build and run all those server farms.

It’s not just listening to music on vinyl that poses an ethical dilemma. Devine talks about the “slow violence” of music;

“which comes in the form of Britain’s colonial control over the shellac trade and, with the relatively abrupt shift to plastic formats around 1950, the unemployment of workers in India and the United States. It comes in the form of major corporations migrating from one economically depressed community to another, taking advantage of cheap labour, leaving human and environmental wreckage in their wake. It comes in the form of recklessly extracting resources such as oil and cobalt in conflict-ridden geopolitical regions. It comes in the form of greenhouse gases emitted in the synthesis of plastic and the storage of data. And it comes in the form of mismanaged waste of various sorts. Music’s slow forms of violence…challenge assumptions about the goodness and beauty of music…”

Wow, music lovers. That’s a heavy cross to bear.

To unburden ourselves of all this guilt, do we have to forgo recorded music, and return to the days of singalongs beside the family piano or only attend live concerts—if and when they ever resume post-COVID? Music, after all, has the capacity to soothe the soul (although it can also be used for nefarious purposes), so let’s embrace it and use technology to enjoy it. As much as we all have an obligation (I believe) to be responsible environmentally, there is no need to make music the whipping boy for environmental degradation and economic exploitation. What about other forms of entertainment such as movies (celluloid, DVDs and now streaming impacts), books (cutting down trees), sports (what’s the carbon footprint of a hockey puck or a baseball bat?), and so on. The production of vinyl records may involve consumption of petrochemicals, but so does driving a car. We can ride a bicycle but bicycles have limitations. And we can restrict our music to live performances or streaming, but both of these have limitations.

When it comes to making ethical choices, let’s accept that there are trade-offs. We can still consume our music on vinyl with a clear conscience by consciously compensating for the larger carbon footprint in some other way. We all have to make some compromises between ideals and practicality. So when the COVID lockdown is over, cycle (not drive) to the record shop, put your purchase in a reusable cloth rather than single-use plastic bag, and give up red meat for kale, or whatever. Enjoy your vinyl. The sound quality is great.

© Hugh Stephens, 2020. All Rights Reserved.

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