Transcript Great. You clicked and you’re back listening. Thanks. This episode, in part I want us to bug out. To get down. Get into the groove. [SFX: warm crackle of vinyl]. So far in these Data Stories, this podcast, we’ve delved into the world of data and activism, data and optimism, and, not forgetting data and Love. Today the focus is on data and music. Today we’re talking about analogue format. Focusing on it as being an our ecological friend; an ally in combat climate change. And there are bonuses for music engineers too. Creativity speaking, analogue apparently helps artist get into weird experimentation, and we’ll see how this works in the ‘dark wave’ of King Krule and his release of Man Alive! on the Panther Records and XL Recordings this month.
And the idea that analogue, spinning vinyl rather than streaming your music can save the planet? Yep seriously! But more simply, what gives, with these music streaming platforms like Spotify? Ecologically they pollute massively more than any other recorded music format throughout the history of, well, recorded and produced music; surpassing both the eras of vinyl and CD, making the streaming format the biggest ever polluter of them all.
It is 2020 and in terms of music production, analogue basically means vinyl, vinyl records. The format is, not only on trend, and turning record labels a proﬁt, it’s good for breaking up the monotony of your neighbourhood. I mean how many record stores have you spotted recently, for me it’s in the dozens, in the 11th and 12th districts of Paris. Even, beyond the commercial growth of analogue, new research reveals that listening to your favourite track, your favourite music artist on vinyl – not streaming it – it shreds, literally minimises greenhouse emissions, those pesky CO2 emissions. At this point then I’m thinking… Does Greta stream? Do eco-activists dream of electronic streaming?
But, literary puns aside, on saving the planet, the experts suggest we have just 18 months left to drastically reduce carbon emissions.
Playing Vinyl then… Yes playing a track on vinyl on a deck… [Pull the needle, squrrrrrrrrr], you monster, eyeehhh, careful with that stylus, you ﬂamin’ muppet, vinyl picks up scratches you know!?
Sorryyyyyyyyy dude… I’ll be less clumsy. ‘But, dude, you basically saying me that me spinning vinyl reduces C02? Ain’t vinyl just as bad, plastic from petroleum. Toxic? More fake news! How’s spinning a few tunes gonna stop climate change?
Ok man, fake news it aye. Literally, pumping out sound waves from an analogue format like vinyl takes a fraction of the energy consumption that’s otherwise generated by playing the same music tracks through streaming service like YouTube and streaming platforms, the likes of Spotify.
‘So I am telling you that the quantity of electricity generated to spin this piece of plastic and for this tiny diamond stylus, this needle, and for it to pick-up the sound waves embedded in the peaks and troughs, the etched groove of that record’s surface, to amplify that into an audible sound, to amplify that analogue sound, there’s less pollution than on streaming.’
‘Yep. Listening to that same dope on your bins, your AirPods, your B&Os, well whatever leading brand of ear furniture through which you choose to listen on; streaming the same dope through YouTube or Spotify, on repeat, repeat, repeat… on auto-play, that requires bandwidth which in turn requires energy production. Man… fossil fuels.
And heaps of the server centres which host these dematerialised digital units of music, the binary zeros and ones which we jack into, ‘these tracks’ you are burning fossil fuels with each stream. We’re talking coal. Streaming is BBQing the planet.’
Let’s get to another room to get on with this episode and leave our audiophile, out vinyl junkie to his own devices; after all, we’ve got a podcast to get on with. Where we at? Yeah, so, ok. Today’s story, data story: we’re talking about data and music: particularly the commercial spectrum where music formats have gone from analogue to digital over the years and the format trend is possibly edging back to analogue for the sake of the planet.
And well, is this habit of streaming actually BBQing the planet? Tentatively I’m going to say yes but equally, no! Why so? Let’s delve into platform streaming versus radio stations to see what is actually going down in the UK market. So is Spotify anytime yet going to be taking over traditionally radio, traditional broadcast radio?
Well, trading as Spotify Technology S.A., its free-tier service has attracted 25% of the ‘wake-up’ and ‘early-evening’ market, wake-up and early-evening are the peak periods when a high proportion of the working population are going to work and returning from work. This 25% of listeners absorbs the millennial age bracket range, something like between 18-34 years old. And that quarter, that 25%, although behind traditional radio stations, is still a high percentage, and increasing.
The Swedish-based streaming giant spans and is valued at $26 billion (dollars) However even after nearly 14 years of trading, even today, the company makes a loss. Annually, it bleeds around $10 million (dollars). So literally the company over 14 years has survived even though it’s never turned a proﬁt! But as a data-producing company, this data aspect seems to attract external investors, all the same. Data is today’s valuable trading currency.
But right now which of its streaming subscription models is more ecologically-friendly? Freemium (free-tier service) or Premium (paid-tier service)? Freemium is annoying but you don’t pay, you just have to put up with annoying adverts interrupting the music. To put a stop to the annoying adverts, the incessant publicity, you pay for the Premium service; you pay around 10euro monthly, half that cost for students, and half more for the all-in so called ‘family’ subscription which allows you to bypass, or avoid publicity.
Freemium (free-tier advertising supported) or premium (paid-tier, bypassing publicity) then? Which of the streaming options works out as being the more eco-friendly of the two? Freemium or premium? Have a quick think? [pause]… while I just go see how other Paul is treating that vinyl.
So Freemium or premium? Which of the two can slow down this ecological BBQ?
For me I ﬁgured the free subscription model emits less C02. Simply because listeners have less autonomy on skipping tracks. Yes, in free-tier mode you can skip a track, but the feature is limited to 3 per hour. So I though, less skipping means less streaming, so less bandwidth. But, haaaaa, it seems not the case. It’s in fact a personal radio station.
You basically are forced into listening, as if in radio mode, to publicity plus a pre-deﬁned playlist. Unlike broadcast radio which transmits one queened signal to, let’s say millions of potential listeners. Spotify radio is technically totally diﬀerent to transmission radio to an estimated to have 217 million active users at any one time, it means that as many streams, exactly the same amount, that’s 217 million stream across 59 countries are being delivered to listeners at any one time. Hmm, so, the free-tier sub model then? I don’t think so. The publicity-supported subscription model has probably reached its peak. Free-tier models encourage more streams, so encourages an ever increasing release of C02 emissions.
What about then, the Premium paid-tier model then? Ok. Well for all the ﬂexibility of skipping tracks and playing anything from the last 100 years of the back catalogue of music, I suppose Spotify’s best feature for reducing C02 emissions, is the ‘play oﬄine’, feature. Press the ‘oﬄine track’ option and you the tracks get localised in your device’s or laptop’s cache, its oﬄinememory, it’s internal memory. Listen even when you can’t catch the wiﬁ or there’s no 4G or 5G network signal.
Even if you were to play the tracks on repeat 20 times a week, if they’re download to your device; it still equates to only one stream, and that was the stream required for oﬄining the track. Therefore oﬄining uses a fraction of the bandwidth, and so less carbon emissions. That BBQ doesn’t seem so out of control anymore, then.
But noooooo. Streaming platform bosses and shareholders, its ﬁnancial investors, have a big responsibility on their shoulders to rethink the business model. Instead of sitting back and and waiting for their big fat-dripping juicey ﬂame-grilled rump steak to come oﬀ this global BBQ, they have begun to react to this little problem of CO2 emission. More on that later.
In the meantime then, how can we, us, how can you and me do our part in slowing down this impending BBQ? Do you need to stop streaming, do you need to stop this podcast? I’m part of the problem if I’m encouraging you to stream this? Aghhhhh. We’ve obviously got to get back to some way of enjoying music collectively, or at least oﬄine. Here’s some analysis through a look at the latest Panther Records / XL Recordings release from King Krule called ManAlive!
Released just last Friday, 21 Feb (and played on my home deck numerous times) maybe this album is a game changer; an attempt at pushing us to a more collective music listening experience, beyond the tyranny of the streamed playlist. Come on! Krule, that’s K.R.U.L.E., he titled this new record Man Alive! A warcry. ManAlive! I repeat, to save the planet the experts say ‘we have just 18 months left to drastically cut emissions’. Man Alive! King Krule, you’ve got this!
Let’s look at this CO2 emissions and streaming imperative then. In Google then, just as I got you to do last time for the Data & Love episode, and I want you to this time imagine keying in the searchwords ‘Spotify’ plus ‘King Krule’. The ﬁrst result, click it, and you’re on his Spotify page. Lovely pic there of the dude. A photographic portrait of Krule ﬂoods the screen and it’s the statistic we are interested in just above the green ‘play’ button. The number indicates a ﬁgure just shy of 1.5 million. 1.5 million being the quantity of monthly listeners who stream King Krule’s music.
So what can these metrics, these stats, these statistics reveal? They can help us roughly calculate Spotify’s ecological score. We can start at the inferior ﬁgure of 1.5 million monthly listeners for King Krule; maybe his fans get their Krule music ﬁx from other channels and formats other than Spotify or streaming. Vinyl maybe? But as a limitless source of digitised units of music, more than 30 million units or tracks, Spotify reaches across established and emerging global markets to attract all types of music tribes.
Continuing our search wee can seek out the nostalgia tribes, and count that Billie Holiday reaches an equally modest 2 million monthly listeners, (equivalent to an average US city). In the Korean market this metric rockets to 16 million monthly listeners for K-pop boyband BTS, (that’s a 1/4 of Korea’s population). And for the British 18 year old Billie Eilish, her monthly listeners peek astronomically at a staggering 60 million monthly listeners, (around the population of the UK).
Like the Chinese Tencent Music, and YouTube, the Stockholm-based Swedish platform Spotify attracts criticism for its greenhouse emissions. And so for the last few years the company has been considering ways of how to answer the problem of fossil fuel emissions coming from its server centres. And the eco-activist organisation Greenpeace has a website which rates the energy eﬃciency of all of the streaming services, it’s called Greenpeace’s Click Clean scorecard.
Making a ecological commitment, in 2017 Spotify did publish its ﬁrst publicly available sustainability report. In it the company committed to achieving carbon neutrality. In 2018 Spotify then decommissioned six of its seven data centres, migrating its server operations to the GCP, the Google Cloud Platform. This sounds good. They are putting their best foot forward. But, wait, yes they claim the new server, which uses Google Cloud, reduces its carbon footprint by 1,500 tons, making the streaming service almost entirely carbon neutral. But critics have said these popular streaming platforms, realising they have an imminent ecological-responsibility, have simply jumped on the ‘green bandwagon’. Basically it’s good business practice to be seen to be green. Alliteration there: Be seen to be green.
But the ‘green bandwagon’?! It’s when a company latches itself onto a massive trend which the public is passionate about. The new relationship realigns it with the values of the public. And so it makes good public relations PR to put the act of reducing ‘greenhouse gases’, C02 emissions at the heart of a capitalist business model. Business alchemy; basically reducing a catastrophic problem into a signiﬁcant business opportunity. It’s probable that Spotify Technology S.A’s data centre’s are pumping out less greenhouse gases yes. Less than it did 5 years ago, but, here is the issue?!
Achieving carbon neutrality doesn’t actually mean a business needs to reduce its CO2 emissions. All they need demonstrate is investment in renewables, renewable energy sources. The calculation is in the word ‘oﬀset’. Basically purchase, or better still, invest in renewable energy sources. And this investment can be oﬀset against the volume of C02 emissions. Continue to pollute but show you are willing to pollute less. It’s a good honest case of ‘greenwashing’.
A data story about music, a data story about analogue. The key aspect of today’s episode. Yeah, there may be renewed and growing commercial interest in new vinyl, which might just help reduce our individual ecological CO2 footprint.
One of this month’s latest vinyl releases then; as of 21 Feb 2020; and well worth getting your hands on is Man Alive! the highly anticipated release from South London born Archy Marshall, who through his aka name King Krule often talks during interviews of being raised an analog child: which basically meant drawing on the walls is family homes of mum’s and dad’s places and kept sketchpads of his drawings. Known to his parents as Archy Marshall this 20-something year old lad’s analogue hangover is making perfect business sense for his record label, Panther Records / XL Recordings. So that will give us a chance to talk about his sonic vision, which goes beyond an mp3 playlist.
And with that mentality there’s no sign of him sobering-up and leaping solely into the dematerialised digital domain, for Marshall or Krule, whichever name you prefer, for sure, it’s obvious, for him it’s a no brainier to release his music with a well considered physical artistic printed component leading to a broader musical experience.
Being a kid who hated school, he fought not to attend, his otherwise analogue surroundings subsumed his imagination which spun his self-directed deeply focused musical discovery. For the London-born songwriter/guitarist creative honesty literally seems to ooze from his pores.
In the book titled The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter, from author David Sacs, a New York Times top 10 reader back in 2016, Sacs actually avoids the argument that streaming kills the audiable quality of music of it’s vinyl counterpart. But more focuses on the music making process. Analogue means less ﬁddling with auto-tuning music, favouring a more spontaneous sound. One of the sound engineers interviewed for The Revenge of Analog distills this problematic perfectly in two sentences:
“I think that sound quality is one of the smaller reasons why analog is used. Really, it’s the process. This stuﬀ ‘he said, sweeping his arm across a laboratory of painfully restored, fourthyear-old gear’, it was designed by musicians primarily to record themselves. The digital version Protools was designed by engineers.”
And with that idea chiming in my mind I was eager to know more if Archy Marshall aka King Krule chased the analogue sound, embracing the analogue process. I staggered pretty endlessly, ironically ramping-up my carbon footprint, trawling through an endless stream of music blogs and YouTube channels to see if it was the case. I just needed to know! And the website which hit that right note was Australian blog iOhYou. iOhYou, itself being a record record label had pitched the right question to Marshall.
Marshall’s response, his own words:
‘I think the album is built around that weird experimentation with analogue equipment. I recorded this LP in a studio with a guy called Andy Ramsey and he was the engineer. He’s the drummer in a band called Stereolab, and he had so much crazy equipment. I really got my teeth into it, and I spent hours creating pointless sort of delay channels and other shit like that (laughs).’
To which the interviewer of iOhYou chimes in with:
‘Fantastic! We love hearing stuﬀ like that’.
It seems then that Marshall’s engineer Andy Ramsey, a well respected musician himself from the legendary post-rock band Stereolab, provided the terrain for the sound of the King Krule’s album. On the outro, a ﬁnal note. The ﬁnal sleevenotes to end this episode. What about stopping streaming then? Well, if you stream, I’d favour listening to albums over tracks. Immerse yourself in the musician’s vision, and avoid playing one track from this artist and one from another. Ditch the dematerialised playlist. Nuﬀ said. Peace out! Get that stylus lined up.
And as an epilogue to this episode, what’s the journey? What’s been for my listening experience:
As a teenager I was spending my pocket-money and money earned from a paper round paying a lousy 6£ a week, on these records. So heading down to the local high-street record store you’d pick-up a standard 7” single, a 45rpm. I was that teenager heading to the local Woolworths in Dudley, but also OurPrice Records, but it was at the top of Dudley High Street, near the geographically-named Top Church where the real muso-haven was located. The place, still vivid in my memory, was called Record Rack. Blast form the past indeed.
For a lad growing up in an average UK town, record hunting was a much needed creative outlet. And Dudley also had the famous indie haunt JB’s, where most of the indie bands of the 1980s indie scene made debuts. We’re talking Pop Will Eat Itself, Chumbawuma, …shhhh, It’s where I experimented with LSD, but also a pretty sociable place where we collectively heard the news on the eve of Tony Blairs Labour government winning the election so tearing it out of the hands of the Tory conservative government.
In the meantime then, how can we, us, how can you and me do our part in slowing down this impending BBQ?
So my ﬁrst note to self: – have more house parties, that’ll reduce your ‘person streaming’ carbon footprint. Second note to self: – get clubbing more and attend some album listening parties and attend more gigs. Third, but not last note to self then is: – buy the tracks I play often on a permanent format: either vinyl or CD, or even FLAC download, and invest in a decent turntable or CD deck to play it on. Forth and ﬁnal note to self then is: – continue discovering bands on the app Bandcamp. Yeah, it is streaming. But at least on Bandcamp I can pay the artists directly if I like their tracks on the albums and then download the original ﬁles and listen to my hearts content.