It’s Time to Embrace Physical Media Again

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Photo: Cheevarut (Shutterstock)

It’s finally time to admit streaming apps and digital distribution have ruined most creative media industries, and maybe physical media was the right choice all along.

Okay, that’s a tad dramatic. But it’s not exactly wrong.

To be fair, streaming apps aren’t all bad. Streaming services and digital storefronts make it easy to access our favorite shows, bands, and video games on just about any device we own. And they give us legal ways to support legacy media without succumbing to greedy scalpers or shady piracy sites. But what started as a way to “cut the cord” and stick it to cable companies and record labels has only birthed a new corporate overlord—one that does not respect its customers, the media it distributes, or the people who make it.

The issue with streaming and digital media

One could argue annoyances like The Office leaving Netflix or that the first Mannequin film is unavailable digitally while Mannequin 2: On the Move is readily available are just part of the reality of the new digital landscape.

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But that impermanence is starting to seem a lot more like a bug than a feature. This past week, we learned Warner Bros. Discovery unceremoniously delisted TV shows from the HBO Max app for no reason other than it wanted to stop paying residuals to its creators—sorry if you ponied up your $14.99 per month expecting HBO Max Originals content to actually be available on HBO Max. Meanwhile, digital video games are regularly delisted from digital shelves, making them impossible to purchase or redownload, even as inevitable server shutdowns render multiplayer modes—or even entire games—unplayable even after you’ve purchased and downloaded the game.

It’s not just music, movies, and games—even ebooks and comics are in peril due to streaming and all-digital platforms. Just look at the backlash against Amazon’s recent Comixology overhaul, which made purchasing new comics almost impossible for certain users, and rendered some comics and manga unreadable thanks to unwanted layout changes.

All streaming apps, regardless of media, revoke your access to their free libraries if you unsubscribe, they experience a sudden service outage, or they permanently go offline—not to mention streaming business models notoriously screw over the artists and creators that distribute their work through these apps.

These issues and more make it increasingly difficult for customers to enjoy their purchases, and make media preservation virtually impossible.

You know what doesn’t have those issues? Physical media.

That’s not to say physical media is immune to problems. Streaming does genuinely make media more accessible and in seemingly “unlimited” supply (as long as it remains available), whereas physical media can only exist in limited quantities, creating circumstances ripe for exploitation by companies and resellers alike. Plus, physical media—like all physical substances—deteriorates, and can be lost, broken, or stolen. However, when it comes to ownership, customer agency, and media preservation, physical media is superior to digital and streaming in pretty much every way.

Streaming has issues, but isn’t physical media dead?

I’ll admit that buying a hard copy might not be right for every person or every purchase, but physical media is worthwhile to more people than just hobbyists, historians, or hawkers. And don’t let anyone fool you into thinking physical media is outdated or useless—most media still receives a full physical release. Major theatrical films get Blu-ray releases, and most full seasons of TV shows are still sold in those big, multi-disc boxes. They may just be harder to find.

Video games are trickier. Many new “physical” games still require online connections, even if they’re technically an offline single player game, but plenty of new games are fully playable on the disc (or on the cartridge, in the Nintendo Switch’s case). Buying older games, vintage consoles, and rarer releases can be exorbitantly expensive, but companies like Limited Run Games, Super Rare Games, and Strictly Limited Games print physical copies of indie titles that wouldn’t normally get boxed releases, and in some cases even reprint runs of older games. Physical video games also typically drop in price much quicker than their digital counterparts, sometimes seeing steep price cuts just a few days or weeks after release (except for Nintendo games, that is).

CDs remain an excellent way to collect and listen to music at high quality, and “outdated” formats like vinyl and cassette tapes are popular once again thanks to indie record labels and distributors and the collector market. While these retro throwbacks might’ve started as hipster cred currency, they’re quickly becoming more reliable ways to access music than streaming. Plus, buying physical music directly from artists or labels is a better way to support them financially than earning them a fraction of a fraction of a penny via streaming.

What about the cost?

Another concern with physical media is the cost: Wouldn’t purchasing every new piece of media cost more than your monthly streaming bills?

Sure, especially if you buy lots of new stuff to watch, play or listen to—but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Personally, I find I engage more with media I’ve purchased, rather than stuff I stream or rent. Streaming has a tendency to make artistic work fill like throwaway “content” to be milled by our brains into dopamine. That said, streaming or buying something digitally absolutely has its place, and is a worthwhile option when you don’t necessarily care about what it is you’re watching/playing/reading, and don’t mind if it suddenly disappears. But even if you don’t see a difference between owning something and streaming it, the fact remains that physical media is always more reliable than digital.

Digital content comes and goes, servers go offline, and users lose content if they migrate to different apps, but that shelf of movies in your living room isn’t going anywhere. And as long as you have the right equipment, you can enjoy it forever, whenever you want, without having to subscribe to a new service, download an app, or fuss over your wireless connection.

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