What follows is a guest post by Michael L. Moore.
Despite growing up in the 1990s, my first introduction to physical media was through vinyl records. My parents had countless of them left over from their youth, and spinning The Jackson Five Christmas Album every holiday season was as much tradition as Santa Claus coming down the chimney.
I didn’t quite understand how it all worked—how a 12” black disc with several circular grooves could emit “Little Drummer Boy” from the floor speakers—but between the big, bold cover art and the fun, retro turntable, my entry point into physical media began with wonderment.
But by the time the ‘90s arrived, popularity in vinyl was waning. Most of my physical media memories actually involved buying CDs and VHS tapes. I fondly remember the good ol’ days of heading to Sam Goody to purchase the latest pop album on CD or Hollywood feature film on home video.
And I’m sure I’m not the only one who remembers the Friday night ritual of wandering Blockbuster in search of a great weekend rental, then picking up a pepperoni pizza on the way home.
By the end of the twentieth century, physical media had become a mainstay in all our lives. It became part of our collective family tradition. Nowadays, this tradition is becoming more and more outdated. It’s becoming outdated to the point of being obsolete.
The biggest reason for this, of course, is the rise of streaming services. For music, you can easily download apps like Spotify, Tidal, Apple Music, and even YouTube Music. For television and film, the choices are even more vast. Between Disney+, Netflix, Hulu, HBO Max, Amazon Prime, Paramount+, and The Criterion Channel, there’s no need to ever leave your living room, let alone your house. And those are just the paid services, mind you. Hop onto Tubi, a free, on-demand video service, and you have access to movies by Stanley Kubrick and Spike Lee without having to pay a single cent.
Singing the Praises of Streaming
Despite being a physical media collector—I collect vinyl, CD’s, DVD’s, Blu-rays, and even (physical) books—I should point out that I’m also a fan of streaming media content. I’m a paying subscriber to many of the aforementioned on-demand services.
And it’s no surprise why. Streaming provides the two most attractive offers to consumers: low cost and convenience.
Why pay $10 for one album on CD, when you can pay $10 to have access to millions of digital albums? Why spend $20 for just one movie on Blu-ray, when you can use that same $20 to watch literally the entire series run of Sons of Anarchy on Hulu? Or get caught up on Black Lightning via Netflix?
In many ways, physical media is a languishing dinosaur that somehow survived the twenty-first century comet strike of technology. And on top of losing the battle in cost and convenience, it cannot be overstated how much physical space is required to store physical media.
After all, as one collects more and more physical albums, TV shows and movies, where exactly does all of this stuff go? How much work, effort and money must one invest to store a collection of media that’s already digitally available? And at a fraction of the cost?
In an age where some people are moving away from consumerism and towards minimalism and sustainability and tiny houses, one has to wonder if it’s more than a little bit absurd to purchase a $40 Mariah Carey vinyl record—when the album is fully available on Spotify. Or pay $20 to own Hitchcock’s Psycho on a 4K Blu-ray disc—when you can just rent it for $3.99 from Amazon Prime.
On top of that, physical media is a hustle. I can’t recall how many times I’ve purchased Terminator 2 over the past twenty years. From VHS to DVD, to special bonus features on Blu-ray and limited editions box set releases, companies are doing their absolute best to convince me that I need the latest version of an old product I already possess.
The popularity of digital media cannot be divorced from the prevalence of cloud services. As consumers, we probably don’t fully understand every aspect of how services like iCloud work, but we’re more than familiar with the concept. Essentially, if you were to purchase a digital movie within the Apple ecosystem, you could be on different devices (and even in different physical locations) and still have access to your content.
Even if you deleted it from your device.
And that’s because your digital media purchases are stored “in the cloud.” Whether you remove a purchase to free up space on your device, or you simply click the wrong button by accident, “the cloud” is always available to make your media consumption needs as convenient as possible.
And that’s what makes digital media so popular. It bends to your needs. It adjusts for your lifestyle.
That’s not the case with physical media. Not only will moving it from one location to another likely be burdensome, but physical media is always susceptible to the dangers of the real world—theft, natural disaster, deterioration, and even (in the case of some CDs and DVDs) disc rot.
Why Physical Media Matters More Than Ever
It would seem that, at this point, anyone who owns physical media should give up.
Dump your collection in the trash.
Give it away.
Sell it to another fool.
The past is the past. Time to step into the future.
But the truth is a little more complicated.
While sales of physical media do seem to be on a downward trend for CDs and Blu-rays, sales of cassette tapes and vinyl records continue to remain strong. I think there will be a big CD resurgence at some point in the next decade or two, but the revival of cassettes and vinyl records show that people aren’t quite ready to forfeit the analog world.
It also cannot be overstated why physical media matters in a digital world. While some people always try to hold onto the past with an iron grip because they’re fearful of change, others are genuinely worried about how the future may impact their access to their favorite television shows, movies, and music albums.
The world is rapidly changing. And with that comes new perspectives and attitudes about old media. And sometimes, that can mean content getting censored or removed from a service entirely.
Tina Fey recently made news for proactively requesting that some of her 30 Rock episodes that featured characters in blackface be removed from streaming services and syndication. And before that, a popular 1991 episode of The Simpsons that featured Michael Jackson’s voice (“Stark Raving Dad”) never found its way to Disney+ after HBO released the 2019 documentary Leaving Neverland.
And ever wonder why an album you love never made it to Spotify or Tidal? Or why a movie or TV show you planned your entire weekend around suddenly disappeared from Netflix or Hulu? Well, you can thank exclusive rights deals and licensing agreements for that.
And if you think digitally buying a movie or album will save you—well, it won’t. Apple is currently facing a lawsuit over how the corporate giant may have misled people who bought music on iTunes into believing their purchase would remain on the service indefinitely. Although it’s a little unclear if Apple truly has nefarious motives here, it at least appears that Apple wants to have the option to remove your access to digital media on their platform—even if you purchased it.
Yikes. We’re now moving into a digital realm where we may have to reevaluate the definition of purchase and possession.
In the end, these corporate business relationships leave consumers in a constant state of powerlessness. You’re no longer paying to purchase a product and have access to it in perpetuity. Instead, you’re now paying to borrow content—even if you bought it. And at any given point in time, that content can be altered, severely censored, or removed.
Physical media might just be your only refuge.
Breaking Our Digital Obsession
Everything changes. Some things get better. And some things get lost.
There are many reasons why it’s important to dust off old notions that physical media is a relic of a bygone era. The first being that there’s a high cost to our obsession with digital media consumption and convenience.
Nowadays, we spend so much of our time staring at devices.
Checking work emails on our computers.
Watching YouTube clips on our tablets and phones.
Responding to friends and family on social media.
This takes a toll on our mental wellbeing. We may think digitally connecting with others brings happiness, but some sociologists think otherwise. There’s a reason why the term “digital detox” has become so popular in the last decade. With NFT’s and digital art gaining popularity, and Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) creeping around the corner, we’re diving deeper and deeper into a digital world that resembles “The Matrix.” Will we ever unplug?
Physical media gives us a break from endless scrolling and screen eye strain. It allows us to appreciate a hardcover book jacket’s use of embossing or spot gloss. It allows us to marvel at the artistic expression seen in the artwork of a 12” x 12” vinyl record cover.
I’m not suggesting we boycott Spotify or cancel Disney+. After all, how would I have survived the pandemic without WandaVision and Baby Yoda? But physical media provides a better-balanced entertainment diet, one that doesn’t require trading your mental wellbeing for low monthly prices and instant accessibility to content.
Physical Media vs The Digital Algorithm
A further benefit of physical media is that it allows for more organic exploration of content. By contrast, with digital media, you’re restricted by the recommendation structures of a faceless algorithm.
With physical media, there’s something innately satisfying about genuine discovery. Maybe the artwork or typography on a vinyl record cover catches your eye, causing you to open up the gatefold and read the liner notes. Perhaps a DVD or Blu-ray cover features a catchy quote from Roger Ebert on the front, or features one of your favorite character actors on the back.
Growing up, I was always fascinated by movies at Blockbuster that featured the artwork of the talented Drew Struzan. An incredible artist who’s famous for some of the most iconic movie poster art in history (Back to the Future, Coming to America, Indiana Jones), Struzan’s artwork captured my imagination. It didn’t matter that I never watched the trailer for some movie, or that I had never even heard of it. Struzan’s detailed and inventive artwork stimulated my mind to speculate on the film’s story and to get excited about its characters.
For years in the 1990s, I always wanted to watch the movie Adventures in Babysitting with Elizabeth Shue. Not because I ever saw a trailer—I didn’t. Not because I had friends singing the movie’s praises—they weren’t. I wanted to see it solely because Struzan’s artwork made the movie look like an exciting adventure every time I passed by it at the video store.
This experience of discovery isn’t quite the same when everything is digital or lives in the cloud. Algorithms on various platforms will recommend you movies and music—but it’s often based on what you have previously watched or listened to. And its ultimate aim is engagement, not putting you in touch with interesting or new things.
You’ll likely never be “recommended” Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope if the last film you watched was Reginald Hudlin’s Boomerang. You’ll likely never receive the “suggestion” to view a Billy Wilder movie if the last film you watched was directed by the Farrelly Brothers.
While digital media is great for giving you tons of viewing options, its algorithms hinder exploration. Physical media allows you to break out of this box, offering you a world without limitation.
Physical Media Has Genuine History
When you stream music on Spotify or Bandcamp, the digital media itself has no history. Yes, the music sounds pristine. Yes, the music plays perfectly as advertised. But there’s no legacy behind this digital media. There’s no story to be told.
One thing to appreciate about physical media is that, if you acquire the music “used” (such as a previously owned vinyl album from a record store), the album’s physical condition is part of its story.
The album is inherently unique. Its sound clarity (or lack thereof) is in direct correlation to its age, who the previous owner was, and how they treated the record. Its physical condition today is directly tied to how the record was played decades ago, and whether it was stored properly once the listening session ended.
Some used records sound immaculate. Others have had a harsh life, and their muddled sound reflects that. Some record jackets are sixty years old and look brand new. Others have the previous owner’s name written on the front, or comments about certain songs scribbled on the back. Some vinyl records can be an important piece of music history, as well. For example, The Beatles’ famous First State Butcher cover (from the album Yesterday and Today) is a vinyl record with true historical and monetary value.
The history of a piece of physical media can also have immense personal significance. Some vinyl records can be an important part of one’s family history. A special record, or perhaps an entire record collection, can become a family heirloom, passed down from one generation to the next, connecting them to each other through the years.
You may love your Spotify account, and you might possess some excellent albums purchased from iTunes, but there’s nothing unique about them.
Physical Media Brings People Together
The final but perhaps most important thing that makes physical media special is how it brings people together.
Making a new friend at a used record store. Discovering a new movie while wandering through Best Buy. Sparking a friendly debate over a book proudly displayed on one’s shelf.
This is the culture of physical media. This is the joy of physical media.
Whether it’s CD’s or vinyl records, physical books or Blu-ray discs, physical media forces us to slow down a bit. It makes us connect back with the real, physical world. With real strangers who have real sets of tastes and interests, with real people who own real businesses, and with our real friends and family.
And while we can’t take our possessions with us when we die, I think passing down a thumb drive of music, or a set of digital ownership rights, from one generation to the next pales in comparison to inheriting a collection of vinyl records your grandparents touched, played, and loved.
Michael L. Moore is a vinyl record enthusiast with a passion for R&B and soul music. He is the owner and editor of Devoted to Vinyl and recently shared his top picks for the best synthwave albums on vinyl.