The Death Of Physical Media

I was watching a Youtube video the other day, where someone was doing various creative (and mostly destructive) things to CDs. The kid (under 30) who was doing these stunts made jokes about the fact that no one uses CDs (and presumably DVDs et al) any more.


From the viewpoint of this “kid”, I’m sure this is true. But it’s worth examining this in a little more depth.

My wife and I have cable, a Blu-Ray player, and shelves of DVDs, Blu-Rays and CDs. We recently subscribed to Netflix because most of the content on TV is weak, in our opinion. We’ve seen several Netflix financed films. Some were good, and I’ve attempted to find them on Amazon so I could purchase them for later viewing. Guess what? No luck. Why? Because they were Netflix films, never issued on DVD. If you ever wanted to see these films again, you’d have to maintain your Netflix subscription, and hope they never get dropped from the Netflix lineup. Because you’re not going to be able to download them or purchase them on plastic media (DVD, Blu-Ray).

For the current generation, with perhaps a limited attention span, I suppose this is satisfactory. You watch a movie once or twice, and you move on to other fair. You might think back about that great movie you watched a couple of times, but mostly you’re focussed on what’s new.

But what about a movie like Casablanca? This is widely recognized as one of the classic movies of all time. A classic love story in black and white, with stars who were huge at the time the film was made. How do you view this film now? It’s not on Netflix. It’s not free on Amazon Prime video. I’m betting it’s not on Hulu or any other streaming service. I might one day show up on HBO or Showtime or somesuch, but I doubt it. But guess what? You can buy a DVD of it on Amazon.

I have hundreds of movies on DVD and Blu-Ray which I love to watch and rewatch. The Matrix, Forbidden Planet, Die Hard, and hundreds more. Try finding these on some streaming service. And if they were on some streaming service, you’d get to watch them a few times if you liked, but eventually they would be removed from the rotation. And then the only way to view them would be on physical media.

I don’t spend a lot of time playing video games these days. And maybe that’s one of the things which separates me from the current generation. Maybe they play a lot of video games, watch movies occasionally, and that’s about it. I don’t know. I have heard a theory, though, that young people hide in video games from a society which has become more and more insane. I can’t argue with that, but I don’t know if the theory is true.

My point here is that there is a tremendous history in film which will never be viewed, enjoyed or appreciated by those you eschew physical media and only use streaming services. It’s as though our group memory of film is being erased.

Consider a film like Metropolis, made in 1927 by director Fritz Lang. Another classic from the earliest days of film (it’s a silent film). It’s well worth watching, but you likely won’t find it on a streaming service. And yet it is an integral part of the history of film.

But let’s just skip the historical importance of films. Let’s look at pure enjoyment. Obviously, opinions vary, and you may not like the same films I do. But what about The Philadelphia Story? The Maltese Falcon? Patton? W.C. Field’s It’s A Gift? All these are great fun to watch, and arguably better written, directed and acted than most films of today.

But all these are lost to those who only stream video. In fact, older films (say, pre-2000) might as well not exist. Which is a shame, since there have been hundreds or thousands of great films made since the beginning of film.


Like my DVDs and Blu-Rays, I have hundreds of CDs. Rock music from the 60s through the 90s, plus some seasonal, folk and soundtracks. When punk and hip-hop invaded music, I stopped listening to my regular radio stations and started listening to “classic rock” stations. This was in the mid-80s. A few great songs and acts popped up in the 90s, which I discovered from MTV, back when it actually had something to do with music.

Some of my CDs, I’ve captured on MP3s, so I can play them on my computer while I work and surf. And I’ve purchased a fair number of tracks off Amazon where I liked a song but didn’t have the album (CD) it came on.

And to be fair, the availability of music on MP3 is greater than that of film on streaming services. And I have to agree that listening to music on my computer is better than having to load and reload CDs into a CD player.

Another really great argument against physical music media is that on any given album (CD), there may be 3-5 songs you like. On rare occasions, you like every song on a disc. But that’s the exception. So if you buy a CD you’re likely to be paying for a lot of music you don’t like and will never listen to. Take it from me, because I have many many discs like that. So buying music one track at a time could save you a lot of money, and leave you with only the music you actually like.

But again, there’s the history aspect. If you’re streaming “modern” music, you’re missing out on a lot of music which kept everyone hopping during the 60s, 70s and 80s. In fact, the “Big Band” era is full of a lot of really great music as well. And in my opinion, nothing being put out in the last 20 years is worth as much as the music that came before. I saw a dissection and analysis of modern music from a producer/musician who’s old enough to remember the 60s. And his analysis of current music was stunning. As a producer, he could hear the way music was shaped on computer, as opposed to the studio recordings of yesteryear. And the results aren’t good for current music.

Now here’s the other part of this. If you’re only streaming music, then you are still likely missing decades of great music. And that’s the same sad argument I made above. It gets better if you are actually purchasing digital music. You store this on your computer and you can listen to it at your leisure. But have you ever lost everything on a hard drive or a smart phone? Imagine the hundreds or thousands of digital downloads you would lose if something like that happened. In this instance, Burning copies of your digital downloads is an incredibly wise move. And now you’re back to CDs. Except this time, they’re ones you burned yourself from MP3s.


Streaming content is a nice way to view/listen to it. But not having the physical media carries a huge liability. Imagine an art museum which put everything past 1980 down in the basement, and only displayed the newer works. That’s what streaming only is. Having the physical media for your films or music means you can do anything you like with it, and keep it (theoretically) forever. And you don’t have to worry if it drops off of Netflix or Amazon or Hulu or Spotify rotation.

I hope this trend of eschewing physical media abates at some point. Because there’s a lot of wonderful music and film which will otherwise simply fade into history, if it doesn’t.