Does Physical Media Have A Future?

January 19, 2019
Andy -Punter 2

Hands up if you have a much-neglected DVD collection. What about if you used to have a CD rack full of carefully selected items arranged in just the right way? For most, these days are gone – we listen to our music on Spotify (other services are available) and our TV/Film on one of many streaming platforms. Maybe you buy your books on an e-reader? For most normal, well-adjusted people this change has happened pretty organically and you may not have noticed it take place. What does this mean for the way we consume media and subsequently, our relationship to it?

Easy come easy go.

It used to be that when you bought a CD or DVD (or cassette or VHS depending on your age…) you were invested in it. The chances were you had your reasons for purchasing it and would at least give it your full attention. You would feel the weight of it in your hands as you took it from the shelf and popped it in to play. Depending on how well looked after it was maybe you even had to breathe on it and rub it with your sleeve to get it to play. You had a relationship with each item you owned. Now, with so many options at our fingertips at all times and a seemingly infinite list of things you could watch/listen to it is so easy to select a film/tv show/album, pay it the most cursory of glances before discarding it and moving on to the next without really being challenged to invest much in it. We have access to tremendous volumes of stuff which in turn discourages us from ever really feeling much of a connection to it in the same way we used to. To borrow a phrase from the very controversial Marie Kondo – does your streaming library really “spark joy” the same way your shelf of dusty paperbacks and DVD does?

The curse of choice.

Some of us (I’m not alone in this surely?!) used to curate our collections and consider how we presented them as our taste in films, books and music reflected some part of our personalities to the wider world. Now, our choices are curated by algorithms, computer programs designed to keep us watching and listening to variations of the same thing over and again. Whilst this can guarantee that our tastes are being met it can often keep us confined to being exposed to much new material. In a world where we can access more or less anything, it is hard to know where to start (fortunately, RSC has got your back here with our many, many reviews). It is not uncommon now for people to spend 30 minutes browsing through new content on Netflix only to choose to watch Mad Men for the 5th time (maybe that is just me?) without ever really getting to grips with all that much that’s new.

The good news…

Now, don’t think of me as a dinosaur railing against the inevitable march of progress. After all, I write for an entertainment website that covers all the latest releases on streaming sites. We get to watch a huge range of amazing (some less amazing) content and then share it with our readers. Getting access to new releases in an easy and timely fashion makes it easier to digest a lot of material and levels the playing field for those who can’t afford multiple trips to the cinema or home rentals per month; something that everyone who is passionate about films/tv should celebrate. I also find the democratization of media really exciting; as it gets easier to release more content via VOD we should, in theory, have access to more diverse voices bringing new projects to life. We just need to continue to find better ways of sourcing them and getting them in front of people.

Something else worth getting excited about are the creative risks that certain streaming platforms are willing to take. My top of 10 of 2018 featured three Netflix originals (Annihilation, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Roma). All of these films would have struggled to have made it to market under the current studio system but with Netflix’s subscription model they are considered financially viable by the streaming giant. It is interesting that these three are also incredibly “cinematic” films which provoked debate about seeing them on the biggest screen possible despite them being produced by a company that specializes in the small screen.

The future is now.

It looks as though the demise of HMV has now been confirmed; places where we can go and actually physically see and touch the things we want to buy are officially obsolete. All this suggests that streaming is the future, but not all streaming it seems. Arthouse streaming platform, Filmstruck, was shut down at the end of November. A valuable resource for cinephiles to see world and classic cinema, it appears that the platform is a luxury that new parent company Warner Brothers were not willing to invest in. Where does this leave lovers of hard-to-find gems? Personally, I have started to invest more in Blu-Rays again as a means to guarantee that my access to my favorites is not governed by the whims of online services who may decide to withdraw their support for particular content based on viewing figures. However, people like me that guard their collections with pride and who look for obscure gems are in the minority. We are too niche an audience to sustain an entire industry.

When initially thinking of this piece I spoke to a number of people who collect or have an important relationship with TV/Film/Books/Music and was amazed at the range of strategies for accessing and storing media deployed. Here are some thoughts from the RSC team:

Jonathon Wilson does not own a single piece of physical media – “I always come to consider it as clutter.”

Amber Kelly – “I have a strange need to physically own all Tarantino and Burton films, even the bad ones.”

Audrey Fox – “I used to have hundreds of DVDs but just didn’t have space so I transferred all of them onto a hard drive and that into a western digital so I have a full library I can browse through like a curated Netflix.”

Tyler Howat – “It’s mainly just something I seriously love but oddly, I try to make sure it’s got a Digital Copy included”

Darren Lucas – “I tend to stick to DVDs, blu-rays for visual movies mostly, I like being able to pick up a movie off the shelf to watch, have over 2000 now.”

M.N. Miller – “I collect DVDs and I used to collect TV seasons. I tend to not buy the TV seasons anymore because of the space they take up, digital copies are cheaper, and I can find most stuff I like on Netflix, Hulu, and frankly, Youtube has so much for free.”

So what?

We are at a transition point. It is clear that the mainstream purchase of physical media is in terminal decline (although books appear to be the last frontier of online purchases) and most of us have at least some form of relationship with streaming. More and more of the big film releases are likely to come via streaming services and we are going to continue to be swamped with loads of content. What remains to be seen is the impact of major industry players like Disney on the landscape as more and more services land in the marketplace. Expect to see services come and go as the market expands and contracts before finding its equilibrium.

Where does this leave those of us that refuse to let go of their physical media collections? Is there still room for us? I can see Blu-Rays and DVDs becoming much like vinyl in the future, a hipsterfied way of demonstrating your commitment to “real art”. They will be sold in niche independent stores where groups of undernourished geeks gather to argue over which is the definitive version of their favorite Kurosawa movies. It’s a future I am comfortable imagining.