In his song “Now I’m Learning to Love the War”, Father John Misty confronts art’s materiality and its environmental impact: “Try not to think so much about / The truly staggering amount of oil that it takes to make a record / All the shipping, the vinyl, the cellophane lining, the high gloss / The tape and the gear”. With these lyrics, Misty observes the seeming contradiction between music’s cultural value and the uncomfortable realities of its mass manufacturing in vinyl records.
A similar idea underpins musicologist Kyle Devine’s award-winning monograph Decomposed: The Political Ecology of Music (2020). Devine asks what a musicology without music might look like, foregoing aesthetic and cultural analyses of musical recordings in favour of studying the materials and labour that go into their production. He critically examines the recording industry through the lens of “political ecology”, which is “defined by critical attention to the principles of action and the forms of social order that link material environments and human culture” (18).
As such, Devine investigates scientists, engineers, and programmers instead of composers; manual labourers instead of performers; and physical media and (un)natural resources instead of songs. The result is a sobering look at the recording industry’s destructive practices—both old and new—and their environmental consequences. While geared towards an academic readership, Decomposed is eminently readable and will appeal to anyone with even a passing interest in music history, the recording industry, and the environment.
The bulk of the book is divided into three chapters, each focused on a key material associated with a particular era’s dominant recording formats: the shellac of phonograph discs (1900–1950), the plastic of vinyl LPs, 45 rpm singles, cassettes, and CDs (1950–2000), and the data of digital music streaming (2000–present). Although each chapter centres on a material, Decomposed recounts a history that is just as concerned with geopolitics, scientific developments, and labour practices as it is with recording formats themselves.
Chapter 1 begins at the turn of the 20th century with the race to find a suitable recording medium for the phonograph. After experiments with tinfoil, wax, phenolic resin, celluloid, and hard rubber, it was shellac — a resin extracted from lac insects found in South and Southeast Asia — that became the key component of phonograph discs and the industry standard.
Over the course of the chapter, Devine leads the reader from India, where local labourers harvested lac in harsh working conditions, to Indiana, where a largely female workforce toiled in an RCA factory that provided limestone filler for shellac discs. The chapter also traces how the global flow of shellac was influenced by import taxes and wartime inflation. In doing so, Devine convincingly argues that recording formats cannot be separated from the supply chains and labour practices that produce them. Despite the biodegradability of shellac and the job opportunities it created, Devine cautions us that the associated environmental costs and exploitative working conditions are by no means worth returning to.
In the second chapter, Devine investigates how shellac shortages and durability concerns post-World War II resulted in the widespread adoption of plastic, leading to the rise of vinyl LPs and 45 rpm singles (and later, cassettes and CDs). While the shift from shellac to vinyl discs may appear innocuous, Devine emphasizes that the new reliance on the petrochemical industries was anything but harmless. Unlike shellac, plastic is not biodegradable, and the waste from producing and discarding plastic-derived recording formats is a massive contributor to pollution. Devine directly critiques the music industries’ complicity in these environmental damages, saying that “music is not simply a passive observer of the plastic age. It is an active contributor to petrocapitalism, an agent of petroculture” (100).
Decomposed is not a book about the recent vinyl revival or the comeback of cassettes and CDs, but Devine does warn us that “to return to LPs, cassettes, or CDs is to renew our vows to factories, to toxic waste, to the oil market, to wars, to human and environmental suffering” (128). In light of the recent surge in vinyl production—vinyl sales grew 94 percent in the first half of 2021—and the current problems plaguing pressing plants, it is unfortunate that this topic did not receive more attention. The frightening amount of waste generated from these plastic-derived formats may cause you to think twice before buying all those vinyl reissues, box sets, and coloured variants.
The third chapter leads us into the 21st century to address music’s digital turn and the rise of data. Devine objects to the all-too-frequent assumption that music is dematerialized in the digital age, echoing similar claims by scholars such as Jonathan Sterne in his book MP3: The Meaning of a Format (2012). He asserts instead that “digital music streaming is undeniably material, and it requires both a lot of energy and a lot of labor. To think otherwise is to be fooled by the commercial rhetoric of streaming and cloud computing, to underestimate the material infrastructure and energy usage of data processing, and to misunderstand their consequences” (131).
Music streaming’s infrastructure entails servers, cables, smartphones, laptops, headphones, and many other devices, all of which have staggering material and energy costs. Especially troubling is Devine’s claim that the recording industry seems to be producing more greenhouse gases in the digital age than ever before if we take into account all of the energy costs associated with streaming’s infrastructure and the increased consumption it encourages. So much for digital immateriality.
Devine’s focus on material histories addresses an inexcusable blind spot in musicology, but there are times when his arguments could have been sharpened by attending more closely to musical aesthetics and sounds. The moments he does do this — for example, his description of the surface noise of shellac discs as a way of literally hearing insects — offer compelling connections between materiality and sound that should be further explored in future work.
Although Devine limits his focus to recorded music formats, a similar approach could be taken to other music industries, such as the manufacturing of musical instruments or the energy costs associated with live concerts and touring. Indeed, this book serves as a starting point for a promising line of musicological inquiry that is already being taken up in additional projects by Devine and others.
Audible Infrastructures (2021), co-edited by Devine and Alexandrine Boudreault-Fournier, is a natural companion for Decomposed, containing a series of essays on the relationship between sound, music, and physical infrastructures. Devine also assesses the costs of music — both economic and environmental — in an essay co-authored by musician and scholar Matt Brennan.
Music does a lot of good in the world: it can bring people together, help us get through tough times, and contribute to social change. But these positives do not justify turning a blind eye to the ways in which the music industries are complicit in our current environmental crisis. Decomposed is a landmark contribution to musicology and environmental studies and is a wake-up call for anyone involved in the production, distribution, and consumption of music; it’s easy to point the finger at major record labels, pressing plants, and streaming services, but even casual listeners should also be aware of the consequences of their music habits.
A sense of pessimism and hopelessness pervades Decomposed. It offers no easy solutions. It doesn’t promise that things will get better. The faint glimmer of hope is that increasing awareness of music’s environmental impact may drive change in the right direction. As Father John Misty reflects, “Let’s just call this what it is / The gentler side of mankind’s death wish / When it’s my time to go / Gonna leave behind things that won’t decompose”.
Brennan, Matt, and Kyle Devine. “The Cost of Music“. Popular Music 39, no. 1 (2020): 43–65.
Devine, Kyle and Alexandrine Boudreault-Fournier, eds. Audible Infrastructures. Oxford University Press, 2021.
Sterne, Jonathan. MP3: The Meaning of a Format. Duke University Press, 2012.