Lara Williams: Taylor Swift can learn from Billie Eilish's album drop

Lara Williams, Bloomberg Opinion on

Published in Entertainment News

Not long ago, I lamented the lack of climate anthems. Perhaps we’ll find one on "Hit Me Hard and Soft," the third studio album from Billie Eilish that’s due to drop on Friday.

Having grown up in a household that prioritized sustainability, Eilish is one of the few big pop stars who’s spoken out about the climate crisis — and taken action. Her star power has led to some big changes: In 2021, she agreed to wear an Oscar de la Renta gown to the Met Gala on the condition that the brand stop selling fur (as well as the ethical concerns, animal skins and leather come with large carbon footprints). Eilish’s latest move is to give "Hit Me Hard and Soft" an ostensibly eco-friendly album launch.

The discs will come in eight variants; the standard black records will be sourced from 100% recycled vinyl, while the seven colored flavors will be made from either ECO-MIX — a recycled compound made of leftovers from other colors — or BioVinyl, made of non-fossil fuel materials such as used cooking oil and industrial waste gasses. Packaging will be eco-friendly; cassette shells — yes, cassette tapes are back — will be made from recycled shell pieces. Merchandise clothing will use residual dead stock from prior productions or materials such as organic cotton or recycled polyester.

It’s funny to write about vinyl in the streaming age (in 2022, vinyl records outsold CDs in the U.S. for the first time since 1987). Surely the most sustainable thing to do would be to not produce physical copies at all?

Nothing in life is free: Listening to music on a digital platform such as Spotify still has a modest carbon footprint. Five hours of streaming has the same carbon footprint as one plastic CD case, while 17 hours of streaming equals one vinyl record, Keele University researchers said in November 2021; that will have improved as data transmission and gadgets become more efficient and electricity grids rely more on energy storage and renewables.

But physical merchandise is a big cash cow for record labels and artists alike. That’s particularly true for those who haven’t made it to Billie Eilish-status and can’t make enough income from streams and touring alone; the profit margins for records and t-shirts are much higher. For mega stars, eschewing merch completely risks being out of the game when it comes to album charts and fan engagement.


This comes with a dark side: The rise of the vinyl variant. Knowing superfans are willing to buy anything and everything, some artists are arguably exploiting their audience — something Eilish criticized in an interview with Billboard Magazine:

“Some of the biggest artists in the world making f—ing 40 different vinyl packages that have a different unique thing just to get you to keep buying more. It’s so wasteful, and it’s irritating to me that we’re still at a point where you care that much about your numbers and you care that much about making money.”

After a backlash from a particularly passionate fan group, Eilish clarified that she didn’t want to single out any particular artist with that comment — but I will.

Taylor Swift’s latest album, "The Tortured Poets Department," comes in five different versions so far: The original, a Target exclusive on clear vinyl, and three limited editions each featuring a different bonus track.


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