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10,000,000,000 iTunes downloads and counting


Old school

The first test CD was pressed in Hamburg, Germany, in 1981. It contained a recording of Richard Strauss’s Alpensinfanie played by the Berlin Philharmonic and conducted by Herbert van Karajan. That little bit of music history/pub quiz trivia has been pushed further into the archives by a new milestone. Louis Sulcer of Woodstock, Georgia, downloaded the 10 billionth iTunes song, Johnny Cash’s “Guess Things Happen That Way.”

The iTunes download milestone must be seen as another nail in the coffin of the CD format. Digital sales of music has increased market share of music sales year after year as CD sales have fallen 65% since the year 2000. CD can be seen as the last link in the chain of music formats that Americans have rocked out to since vinyl hit the public in the 1940s. Leaving the implications of digital music on that industry aside, in purely environmental terms, digitizing music is very energy efficient.

CDs are pure polycarbonate plastic. In turn that means they are an oil-based product that takes a lot of energy to produce. Almost 700 billion CDs have been made along with jewel cases and that annoying plastic wrap you have to remove. Not only are compact discs not very environmentally friendly, they are frail pieces of technology. Jog your memory and see how many CDs in your collection skip, stutter, or do not work at all. Digitizing music is greener and more durable storage option for consumers.
The history of data storage on discs and tapes is goes back to Germany again with the invention of vinyl by chemist Eugen Baumann in the 19th century. Vinyl is romanticized by many music aficionados, but it is a very toxic combination of oil, dioxin and lead. Environmentalists say “no vinyl, that’s final.” From the commercial release of vinyl EPs in 1948 to the CDs being made in 2010, an environmental toll has been paid for the way people have listened to music.

The carbon footprint of music became substantially lighter with the invention of the mp3 by (surprise surprise) the Germans. The Fraunhofer Society, a German research institute, released the first mp3 software encoder in 1994.

Mp3s are nearly sixteen years old. The growth of the mp3 can be attributed to first piracy (Napster) and portability (iPod). The fateful day that sealed the fate of the CD was October 23rd, 2001. Apple’s iPod was launched, and with it, the capability of carrying your entire music library in your pocket. The iPod and iTunes have revolutionized the music industry in many ways, and though it was not a top priority at the time (rather an unintended consequence) it has greened the music industry.

CDs are on the way out, but they are fading slowly. In the meantime, record companies (also on the slow fade out?) are making an attempt to reduce the environmental impact of discs being produced. New cases are being made from renewable and recyclable packaging, which is a step up from the traditional jewel case. These may be the last incarnations of the good old compact disc.

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