Digital music streams could harm the environment even more than compact discs – so green-minded operators should introduce caching, or even ship their entire catalogues on a single chip.

Those are two options posited by a fascinating MusicTank report on “the hidden cost of digital music consumption”, which examines energy used by the emerging cloud media access model.

“Streaming or downloading 12 tracks, without compression, just 27 times by one user would, in energy terms, equate to the production and shipping of one physical 12-track CD album,” writes report author Dagfinn Bach.

“Repeated streaming of individual tracks may not necessarily be a desirable long-term solution with respect to energy consumption for the life cycle of a sound recording.”

Bach forecasts global data traffic hitting 1 yottabyte by 2027 could require more than a fifth of the planet’s 2010 electricity consumption – something which “depends on sprawling server farms and a complex, energy- sapping network infrastructure”.

Spotify’s app already has a kind of built-in local cache to avoid the necessity to repeat song streams. Bach says “a ‘close-to-consumer’ cloud solution might be the most environmentally-friendly option” for online content delivery.

Cut out the cloud?

But he also moots more radical options for reducing streaming’s carbon footprint. A 1 petabyte drive capable of storing all the songs ever recorded could soon cost just $100, Bach says, observing Moore’s Law.

Right now, the entertainment industry is simply not configured to give away its entire life’s work library – the music sector only last year finally embraced making its roughly 20 million digitised songs available through access services, whose DRM is effectively managed centrally. Pre-loading the whole kaboodle on one drive, even if encrypted, would give executives palpitations about another generation of value destruction, just as they can see subscription access as growing revenue.

Bach says such a drive could ship minus the metadata required to play the songs it contains, which itself could be accessed only via paid subscription from the cloud. But such a drive would clearly be lacking new releases, in a music industry that is fixated by this month’s latest hit.

Nevertheless, MusicTank – a network group for the music industry – is concerned enough to have scheduled an upcoming conference about streaming-music energy consumption.

And the topic will be discussed during a session with data centre power firm Verne Global’s Tate Cantrell at GigaOM’s Structure:Europe conference on October 16.

Cost of YouTube

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.

Bach also calculates current YouTube energy consumption is around 0.1 percent of 2010 global electricity levels, rising to one percent by 2013.

Photo by Boris Ryaposov via Shutterstock