This Is It…why Michael Jackson could have been digital media’s biggest ambassador.

The other night, I let my girlfriend convince me to see Michael Jackson’s This Is It. Not that I don’t like Michael Jackson – he was definitely one of the most talented artists of our time – it’s just that I’m not a big fan of pop music. Anyway, towards the end of the film, where MJ performs his ballad against the depletion of our rainforests and then speaks about how he adamantly disapproves of the environmental disaster, it occurs to me that perhaps no one informed Michael of the large negative impact his music sales have also had on the environment. He is the biggest selling solo artist in history – Do you know how many environmentally unfriendly vinyl, CDs, and DVDs that equates to? I couldn’t find a straight answer on the web, but I’m sure that the actual figure is astounding. Some web sources have quoted 750 million, others 850 million, but the following website has a pretty detailed break down resulting in a much lower number. Let me be conservative about this and use the 335 million music album and 13 million DVD sales figures from this site, since we will use this later on for an important calculation. Now NOTE that these figures are as-at June 18th 2009 (less than 1 week from MJ’s death). In less than one month from his death, MJ’s music sold another 9 million CDs…now putting all that together, with the continued projected sales from his death, gives us a massive number of plastic and aluminum based manufactured products…and a big impact on the environment.

Now to the point of my first ever blog: Being so environmentally conscious as he seemed in This Is It, Michael Jackson may have been open to the idea of taking a different approach to selling his music…by making both the This Is It soundtrack and movie available exclusively in digital format would have helped him make a more positive impact on the environment, something he seemed to consider as very important. Just image: No production or distribution of millions of environmentally damaging CDs and DVDs, but only the encoding and transcoding of digital files for download directly to digital devices, which could then be burned onto a disk, if desired. For most people working in the film or music industry, this notion may seem absurd, but let’s just pretend, for the sake of my blog (and the environment), that MJ would have wanted it this way…let’s imagine Michael, so environmentally aware and passionate about making a difference, insist on the ‘digital only’ distribution clause in his revised contracts. Now before you think of ways to bash this blog, let’s go through some numbers and see how many football fields of rainforest Michael Jackson could have saved if he were still alive and a digital media ambassador…

The production of DVDs/CDs:

The inherent environmental cost of producing DVDs and CDs (disks) is something that most people don’t think about. Disks are made of plastic (polycarbonate to be precise), which should be obvious, but most people don’t know that they also have a layer of aluminium sputtered onto the surface. Not only is aluminium highly toxic to produce, it also uses a large amount of energy to manufacture. Add this to the inherent environmental issues of plastic, and you have a pretty lethal item on your hands that cannot even be recycled. However, the process of printing (or decorating) the disc is one that arguably has the most potential for environmental cost. There are various different processes for this, but all involve a great deal of waste and the flushing and disposal of environmentally damaging chemicals. There are environmentally more sound options, such as digital printing, but these are not viable for large volume production jobs – And Michael Jackson’s This Is It is definitely a large volume production job!

Let’s disregard the environmental issues from the printing process for the sake of simplicity and just look at the notion of ‘embodied energy’ required in production of blank disks. Embodied energy is defined as the available energy that was used in the work of making a product. By calculating how much embodied energy is used in producing a typical DVD/CD, not looking at the printing process, one can estimate the total energy usage from the This Is It release and from Michael Jackson’s total lifetime album sales. And with this, we can estimate how many football fields (or acres) of eliminated rainforest this embodied energy equates to.

The distribution of DVDs/CDs:

This is another important element that should be included in any estimation of the environmental effects caused by the sale of a manufactured product; however, for the sake of keeping things relatively simple, I have not included this factor in my calculations. But, I welcome any contributions that would help me generate this number.

Total sales forecast for the This Is It soundtrack and movie:

Let’s assume that This Is It, the soundtrack compilation, will sell 150% more than the 2003 compilation release of Number Ones (7 million world-wide), making the forecast 17.5 million units (over its longevity) – Again, open to any feedback on this assumption from those of you who know the music industry well. Unfortunately, I don’t have access to Gfk data to get accurate global DVD sales figure, but let’s take Mamma Mia numbers for the US (6.5 million units from the-numbers.com), assume fewer European unit sales (4 million units) and let’s use a 2 million figure for the rest of the world. Equaling a total of 12.5 million units (over its longevity). Personally, I think that these are conservative estimates, but I’m open to other opinions and sources.

Estimated total embodied energy figure for the This Is It soundtrack and movie production:

From the internet, I’ve been able to gather the following information to help me with the calculation:

  • Average weight of a single DVD (with no booklet) = 120 grams.
  • Average weight of a single CD (with no booklet) = 100 grams.
  • Embodied energy cost for plastics is between 60 & 120 Mj/kg.
  • Embodied energy cost for aluminum is between 227 & 342 Mj/kg.

Assuming that one gram of aluminum is used for every CD/DVD and taking a conservative approach to the DVD/CD formats (i.e., assume only use of single DVD/CDs in sales numbers and no double unit collector editions), I’ve come up with the following conservative total embodied energy cost (not including booklet production and disk printing) for the production of DVDs and CDs:

  • 1 single CD unit: 9.3 Mj
  • 1 single DVD unit: 11 Mj

Using the above sales forecasts, I come up with the following total embodied energy costs for This Is It:

  • DVDs: 137.5m Mj
  • CDs: 162.8m Mj

Estimated number of football fields of rainforest that the This Is It release will cost our planet:

There are 300 tons of biomass per acre of tropical rainforest. Biomass is essentially biological material derived from living things, or recently living organisms such as wood, waste, and alcohol fuels. Let’s assume that 100% of all biomass within an acre of rainforest is derived from wood. I found a figure for the energy content of wood fuel (air dried with 20% moisture) on the internet of 15 Gj/ton. So, in one acre of rainforest, there are approximately 4500 Gj (or 4.5m Mj) of energy stored – consider this ‘natures’ embodied energy.

So, how many acres of rainforest would give us the combined total of 300.25m Mj of embodied energy (for DVD and CD production of This Is It)? A simple calculation yields 66.7 acres…which are approximately 74 football fields.

The production (NOTE: not including distribution) of the CDs/DVDs of the This Is It release will probably cost our planet the bare minimum equivalent of 74 football fields of tropical rainforest…now that’s a scary thought! An even scarier thought is what MJ’s music and DVD sales have already cost our planet. Take 74 football fields of rainforest and multiply that number by approximately 12 (see numbers from the 1st paragraph) and you get 888 football fields of rainforest…and this is not even considering the recent sales of Michael Jackson’s previous albums, since his death.

Conclusion:

I would like to believe that if Michael Jackson knew of his music’s carbon footprint and that it has already cost the planet the equivalent of the destruction of at least 888 football fields of rainforest (at a bare minimum), then he would have thought hard and well about the benefits of digital entertainment. I would hope that he would have embraced the opportunity to drastically reduce his environmental footprint, by probably about 74 football fields of rainforest, with the ‘digital only’ release of his next compilation and DVD; which would have been his big global come-back concert in London, but instead has become This Is It. If someone had convinced him about the environmental benefits of digital distribution, he may very well have endorsed digital entertainment to the best of his abilities, turning into one of digital media’s biggest ambassadors.  His managers and producers wouldn’t have been too happy about the idea (clearly reducing their prospective sales and revenue forecasts); however, these same managers and producers did add that heart warming bit at the end of the This Is It film where Michael states ‘We can change…we can change’ over and over again – Perhaps they can change as well.

The more opportunities we have to endorse digital as the real future of entertainment, the sooner we will educate consumers of the benefits and ease that digital distribution can offer them, and the sooner we will make a more positive impact on our environment. As digital media services grow in numbers and improve in their usability, then consumers and advocates of digital entertainment should also grow.  We need ambassadors to the cause – actors, musicians, corporations – who can help with the education process and turn the mass entertainment consumer into a progressive digital entertainment purchaser.

Help me recruit these ambassadors…tweet, forward, publish, etc., this blog and spread the word of the environmental benefits of digital.

‘This Is It’…our chance to make a difference!

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3 Responses

  1. Your good intentions are notable yet there are so many things wrong with your analysis, it’s hard to determine where to start. I suppose working from the bottom to the top is as good as any other method.

    Rainforests… Not a single tree in the rainforest would be damaged by the production of the DVD or CD unless of course they were produced down in the tropics. You might argue that pine trees in the U.S. would be cut-down to produce the paper used in the packaging of the DVDs and CDs, but that wouldn’t be a very powerful argument since paper companies in the US grow those trees for the specific purpose of cutting them down just as farmers cut down corn stalks.

    DVD Carbon Footprint… The home entertainment industry has significantly reduced its “Carbon Footprint” in the last three years and in fact, was not very bad before that. To help you with your analysis, three years ago, the footprint of a single DVD through its entire lifespan (creation to destruction) including that of the raw materials to make it was about equivalent to the footprint of driving your car exactly one mile down the road. Since the industry started focusing on “Green” initiatives, that footprint has been reduced 20%. If you’d like to research these efforts, I suggest contacting the DEG (Digital Entertainment Group) and asking about the cooperative multi-studio efforts they have been coordinating.

    335 – 750 Million… Not to belittle the point, but please remember that in MJ’s heyday, there was not an internet capable of massive digital downloads and there definitely wasn’t a personal computer in everyone’s home. That aside, you left out of your analysis the footprint of a fully, non-physical digital distribution. What is the footprint of the home computer system, the hard drives needed to store massive media files or the centralized storage station for collective storage of digital media? Is the production of a hard drive more environmentally friendly than production of a DVD? Is the infrastructure of a pure digital method “green”? Fiber optics manufacturing, existing cable replacement, storage, destruction of the obsolete leylines… how does that impact the environment? Home system upgrades… monitors, set-tops, processors, hard drives… how do they get replaced? Do they pollute landfills? Is their manufacture “greener” than physical media? What is the total comparison, apple to apple of physical versus non-physical digital media?

    All of that being said, I agree with you that MJ could have been a decent ambassador of environmentalism if he had been approached.

  2. Mark –

    You have some very good points, so thank you for your comment. I agree with you that the home entertainment industry has done much to reduce their carbon footprint, so things are improving.

    Please note that I have been quite careful in my write up to not directly attribute rainforest depletion to the production and distribution of disks. By using the phrase ‘equivalent of’ I eliminate the direct correlation. Since MJ’s film specifically addressed the issue of deforestation, I wanted to do an analysis that compared the energy consumption in the production of disks to that stored in an acre of typical rainforest…not an easy thing to do and it does cause confusion (as you have pointed out), but using the concept of embodied energy is a way of doing it. So, I agree with you that the production of disks does not directly cause deforestation.

    Clearly, the environmental impacts MJ’s 300+ million album sales could not have been avoided, since this was before the emergence of digital entertainment; however, the point I make in my blog serves to educate readers of MJ’s carbon footprint and that perhaps if someone had informed him before the release of his comeback album (and if MJ were still alive), Michael Jackson may have agreed to a 100% digital release.

    Regarding your point about the footprint of the home computer system, the hard drives needed to store massive media files or the centralized storage station for collective storage of digital media, etc. I actually did look at the environmental impacts of the manufacture of a computer compared to that of a DVD player (assuming that a computer hooked up to the same TV as the DVD player, would be able to replace the DVD player as a hard drive that stores all of the films and also acts as a digital player – Which is currently a viable digital Home Ent. solution). The results may surprise you. Just looking at the concept of embodied energy. A typical DVD player uses over 6 times the amount of energy to manufacture than a desk top computer and almost 10 times that of a notebook. Check it out on http://www.wattzon.com/. This is an interesting site.

    Thanks again for contributing!

    Cheers, Claudio.

  3. I have no problem buying cds which I will most likely keep for the rest of my natural life because I consider all of the jobs that are saved/created by the purchasing of CD/DVD manufacturing in the U.S. If we go to digital downloads only a lot of people would lose their jobs. I like owning a hard copy of a cd/dvd. I have never thrown one into the garbage either. I would rather re-sell it or give it away to someone who appreciates it. Also, if my computer crashes my digital downloads might be lost. Also, if I did do a digital download I would make a backup copy onto a CD which would most likely be inferior quality so I’d rather just buy a mass produced copy.

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