Posted on April 25, 2017
The Downfall of Physical Media: A Story of Nostalgia and Cloud-Based Contemplation
Every year a different form of physical media seems to fade into obsolescence. Records are replaced by CD’s, which would be replaced by MP3 downloads, replaced then by subscription based streaming. This evolutionary path paints a clear picture of the shift to a future where everyone can enjoy what they want without needing to own any physical media to access content. I have personally held a Google Play Music subscription for over a year now and have been loving everything it brings to the table and all it allows me to do regarding my music library. While this digital age is more convenient than ever with the cloud hanging overhead, it is good to take a step back and acknowledge both the positives and negatives of internet and subscription based services that replace physical media. It is also important to pay respects to physical media, even if just for nostalgia’s sake, as it still does offer functionality and even some advantages over web-based counterparts. Here is a quick breakdown on the plus and minus of subscription and internet platforms replacing physical media.
This post will start off with the negatives so the latter half can be a happy fun time. The first and most apparent downside to subscription-based media is that the customer doesn’t actually own any of the content they are consuming. With music, whether it be Spotify, Google Play, or any other service, the customer opens the floodgates to the vast library of media that whichever company pays to host. Being able to search for any song, listen freely to custom stations, and even download content is amazing every time, but once it comes time to cancel a subscription or a service simply shuts down, all of the content enjoyed is jerked from the grasp of the listener. Despite paying an undisclosed amount per month to enjoy the media, and that subscription payment totaling to some large amount of money, none of the content is personally owned by the customer and leaves as soon as the money stops flowing. While this fact is just plainly obvious and is part of the product, the success of these kinds of platforms shows that we may be moving towards a future in which customers don’t own any of the media they consume and merely pay to access it. Because of this, customers are at the mercy of the service they pay for. The same goes for movie and show streaming with services such as Netflix and Hulu. If the servers holding this content go down, there is no way to access it, and the customer is shut out from the content they pay for without much insurance. While this is a non-issue for most, as the model makes sense, it can still be bad for long-term consumers. If more physical media is forced into obsolescence by these types of services, customers will find themselves in a position where they have paid potentially thousands of dollars over the course of years for streaming with nothing to show for it after the service ends.
Moving to digital downloads it is much of the same. Currently, customers are pretty safe when it comes to music or video downloads, as a downloaded copy can be copied indefinitely and can even be put onto physical media by the consumer. However, this is not true for other forms of media such as video games. With a stark necessity to counter piracy and other forms of tomfoolery in the realm of digital downloads, many digital games have heavy DRM implemented. This will prevent users from being able to access the content without purchase but also adds a requirement to use some sort of third-party software to access the games purchased. Once a game is downloaded it is hard to stray from the software too, since separating the game from the software that validates ownership, such as moving it onto a disc, can in some cases render the game unplayable as it will be no better than a pirated version that is recognized as unverified. Personally, I have amassed a library of PC games close to 100 on steam alone. While that isn’t massive by any means it is still a large chunk of money put into this digital content. In order to play, though, the game must be downloaded through steam, and since it is tied to my account, steam must be installed and functional in order to run most games. What happens if Steam as a service goes out of business? It is unlikely, but if this situation was to arise it would seem that the thousands of dollars of content bound to Steam accounts would be rendered worthless as the service is required to run these purchased pieces of software. I like to tell myself that if this happened Valve would release some sort of tool that would allow users to legitimately remove Steam DRM and own their downloaded games as separate entities, but it is impossible to be sure as services such as Steam are only gaining popularity as physical releases of PC games, in particular, are becoming less and less common.
Another less intrusive, but definitely existent, issue is the loss of quality when relying on streaming media. For example, the music streamed through a service like Spotify is bottlenecked. Spotify doesn’t stream full quality audio as it would be fairly harsh on mobile data or even some wifi connections as well as introduce longer load times. This means that the audio heard through a streaming service can be of substantially lower quality compared to a CD release played at full quality through a good player and software. The same goes for movies. While it is now possible to stream 4k video and such, it is extremely taxing on internet connections and is out of reach for most consumers. This negative in particular, though, is part of the reason why physical media does have some life left and is even making a comeback in some regards.
While that was quite the rant on why streamed and internet based media can be a bad thing, it is time to dive into the good stuff, and why I personally enjoy all of this web-based content despite how it could be a misguided investment in the long run.
First and foremost is convenience. As I had mentioned in the intro to this article, the features that a Google Play Music subscription, as well as similar services, offer are truly bliss to work with. The straightforwardness of searching for a song or show and receiving the content instantly makes life easy and makes interacting with content fun in a way. Every time I do end up with a few days and no music subscription, due to failed payment method or otherwise, it is painful being able to only access what I have owned previously and have currently downloaded on my devices or personal servers. That and playing stations with ads can be hellish. In this sense, subscriptions have a great value, even if it is only great in short term. While I could probably physically own a significant portion of my favorite music by now with the money I have been paying monthly, it is the instant gratification that sells the service. For whatever reason, it is easier to pay monthly to access all music for the time being than paying $10 once to own a certain album or movie forever.
Media being internet-based also allows the opportunity for updates and add-ons. This is especially relevant to the world of video games, as patches and new content to already released games can be a very positive thing overall. While the convenience of this potential does sometimes result in broken games being released as well as cash grab DLC, the ability to receive updates and support for a piece of software or game already purchased is extremely useful and important.
Physical Media: Nostalgia and Reliability
Moving away from the cloud media discussion, we will move into the topic of physical media and why it is good to have around. The first reasons that come to mind are nostalgia and reliability. Nostalgia is a powerful feeling. It results in the amazing satisfaction of physically changing out discs or plugging pieces of hardware in. It brings back memories of when life was easy and carefree. It makes the simple act of rewinding a tape a joyride. However, this physical media isn’t just a pass to jog down memory lane. This media from way back when is when built well, just as reliable and functional as it was back in the day. That DVD picked up for a few bucks out of a bargain bin a few years ago still plays just as well and will play for as long as it is physically intact. That iPod with thousands of classic tunes loaded onto it? Playable as long as the device works, and that content can still be moved around and enjoyed via other devices. The fact that physical media is physically owned by the consumer and works as long as it resides functionally in this plane of existence makes physical media worth it. Even if some people just hold onto it for sentimental value, physical media can and does still have a place in the home and tech setup as it will just work.
Physical Media: Resurgence and the Vintage Comeback
Owning physical media in this day and age isn’t just limited to old VCR’s and the stack of CD’s sitting in most peoples’ garages as new physical media is being produced and older media has been making a comeback. Getting the hipster vintage collection thing out of the way, yes it is real and happening as it has been for years, and for good reason. While in some ways it is simply a hip trend, it is also practical. The quality available from physical releases of content is currently unmatched by streaming digitally. I’ve started to focus somewhat on collecting CD’s as it is a way to physically see the music I own all in one place and ensures that the content sitting on a shelf in my room will remain playable no matter when my debit card runs dry from feeding Google Play or when any other services inevitably come to a close. The same goes for collecting records, DVD’s, or even taking pictures on polaroid. Keeping a physical collection of these pieces of content that we all hold dear is still important and ensures it will be accessible at the consumer’s own will rather than the will of the service provider.
Purchase and collection of vintage media, as well as more recent media, isn’t the only way physical media is making a comeback. In certain areas of entertainment, physical media is continuing to improve. Newer Blu-rays are capable of holding and playing content of a quality that is equivalent or surpasses the highest quality of streamable media without having to worry about a network bottleneck. CD’s play audio with just as good quality as ever and most artists do release physically on both CD and vinyl despite a large amount of the audience relying on subscriptions or even services like YouTube for their audio needs. In the console world, most games are still released physically as it is much more simple and gratifying to see the disc containing a game a consumer has dumped $60 on. While video games all around are purchased through digital more and more each year, the fact that current gen consoles do still rely on a built-in Blu-ray drive and are serviced with physical content gives hope for physical media sticking around, even on a small scale.
Overall physical media is still great. While the convenience of streaming content and not having to think about physically owning media is compelling, CD’s, DVD’s, and all the others, still have a place in society and do offer some benefits to consumers whether it be the security of owning content or simply keeping it for sentiment.