This Is Plastics: Plastics: The Soundtrack of Your Life


Plastics: The Soundtrack of Your Life

From songwriting to release, plastics play a crucial role in the contemporary music industry.


In the music business, there are plenty of opinions about where the life cycle of a song begins—whether in the booth or during songwriting—and where it ends—during mastering or even during release. While the lifecycle itself remains a debate, what can’t be argued is how crucial plastics are at every step. From the instruments played in songs, to the records listeners hear them on, plastics support musicians and their art. Not only that, but plastics also consistently replace the use of animal products for different musical applications, preserving rare wildlife in the process. All in all, plastics make the contemporary music industry possible.

Plastics are a Humane, Synthetic Alternative for Instruments

From the very first chord or note of a song, plastics plays an integral role through the instruments used. Historically, instruments like pianos, drums and guitars were made from animal products, and replacing those elements with plastics has since helped to preserve endangered species and reduce predatory hunting practices.

For example, so-called “catgut” string instruments, including guitars, originally used animal intestines, hence the name. Now, those instruments use metal or nylon strings instead, so no animals are harmed to make great music. Standard guitar strings, even those made of metal, are also coated in plastic polymer that makes them last longer, reducing the need to frequently replace the strings. Recycling also exists for musical instruments and their components. Music industry initiatives like the TerraCycle and D’Addario string recycling program makes it easy for musicians to recycle their used strings, giving the same plastic new life as a different product.

Additionally, the first drumheads were made by stretching the skins of goats, cows, or other livestock across a hollow base to create a taut surface with a unique sound. However, these animal products required frequent tuning and perform poorly in humid environments. Drumheads made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic have grown increasingly popular due to their durability and more consistent sound, and have since become the most popular drumhead used today.

Finally, piano keys are the most infamous animal product. They were initially made with the ivory of elephant tusks, a heavily-criticized, controversial material typically acquired through inhumane, and in many cases illegal, hunting practices. By the 1950s, ivory piano keys were replaced with white plastic, and in 1989 the use of new ivory in piano keys was banned altogether. Not only are plastic piano keys wildlife safe, they’re also more affordable and easier to maintain, and no elephants are harmed for their production. Over 98% of concert pianists today use pianos with white plastic keys, proving that plastic keys produce incredible music that is as good, if not better, than that of an ivory keyed piano.

Plastics Enables Clear Music

Plastics also have a crucial role to play in music recording. Many recording booths are insulated with polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic sheets, a high-density plastic that effectively block sounds to  ensure that recordings pick up only clear music with no background noise or interruptions. PVC sheets are especially beneficial to at-home recording booths due to their flexibility, as they can be installed on flat or curved surfaces.

Even for portable recording studios, plastic is preferred due to its lightweight, sturdy design that allows musicians to record when needed, even when on the road touring or otherwise unable to access a formal studio. Portable booths hang acoustic soundproofing blankets from PVC pipes to create a soundproof booth, and plastics are the perfect material because it is strong enough to hold its structure under the heavy blankets, and light enough for easy transport, unlike other metal or wood frames.

Put Your Plastic Records On

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, supply chains are strained—and the music industry is not exempt. Vinyl records, like recording studios, are made of PVC plastic, and are resurging in popularity with demand levels not seen since the record heyday of the 1980s. However, recent supply chain issues have limited the supply of the plastic resin used to make vinyl, forcing artists to wait months for their records. These delays have had far-reaching reverberations—so  much so that even pop superstar Adele delayed the release of her much-anticipated “30” album by 6 months to make sure the launch would include vinyl records.

Vinyl remains critical to the music industry because it benefits both musicians and listeners. In the digital age where streaming music is the norm, vinyl records are physical representations of music that listeners can own themselves. Colored LPs (full length albums) and special design variants add to the allure of ownership and sets vinyl apart from CDs, as records can be displayed and treasured as collector items, and for some, enhance the listening experience. For musicians, especially smaller independent artists, vinyl is also more profitable than streaming; 450,000 streams on Spotify earns artists the same profit they would make on just 100 sales of an average-priced vinyl. While superstars like Adele benefit from both, smaller artists may take weeks if not years to accumulate that number of streams, but can sell 100 records with just one album release. 

Musicians are also looking to plastics’ versatility to facilitate circularity through their records. A recent collaboration involving Universal Music Group and singer-songwriter Nick Mulvey led to the creation of ‘ocean vinyl’ records made from recycled ocean plastic. This is the first commercially available vinyl made from recycled plastic vinyl, and an exciting sign for the future of fully circular albums.

The contemporary music industry clearly relies on plastics to produce the soundtracks of our life, allowing musicians to master their art and listeners to have a high-quality experience. Plastics’ usage in vinyl records and cruelty-free instruments also shows how versatile it is as a material, fully immersed in every stage of music. Even further, innovations like the Ocean Plastic LP show what’s possible for innovation and prove that the lifecycle of a song can contribute to the circular economy.

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