The Value of Physical Media in a Digital Age

Record store shelves filled with vinyl records

As early as ten years ago, one of my favourite aspects of buying media was its tangibility. Whether I had bought a new video game, movie, or CD, I loved running my fingers over the various packaging textures and poring over the included instruction manuals and liner notes.

But in this new digital era, I’m having a harder time rationalizing physical media purchases. In 2006, I paid roughly $20 for a single Weird Al Yankovic album (Straight Outta Lynwood). Today, for a few dollars less, I can stream Weird Al and millions of other artists via a monthly Apple Music subscription. No offence to Mr. Yankovic, but it’s hard to argue against that kind of value.

That said, physical media still has its merits. It must, because I recently purchased an Insane Clown Posse CD box set and have no other explanation for being Down with the Clown.

Streaming Media = Less Emotional Investment

Streaming is certainly convenient. But its ease of access and lack of ownership afford fewer opportunities to form personal connections with media.

When you buy physical media, there’s a story behind that purchase. And because there’s a logistical/financial investment, you’re also likely to dedicate more time and energy to thoroughly investigating that creator’s ideas. That might mean listening to every song, reading every chapter, etc.

In contrast, streaming and digital media allow you to scrub timelines, skip tracks, and bail early when dissatisfaction or boredom sets in. Sure, the try-don’t-buy nature of streaming can prevent you from purchasing physical media you ultimately won’t enjoy. But the flip side of the coin is that you might form fewer deep, resonant connections with media overall. I know I devote less attention and patience to streamed media compared to media I’ve purchased.

The Audiophile’s Argument

If you’re someone who cares about fidelity, physical media is also enticing from a quality standpoint.

Most streaming services (Netflix, Apple Music, Spotify, etc.) offer a windfall of entertainment choices. But the convenience of streaming often comes at the cost of quality. According to a comparison chart by Vox Media, most music streaming services top out at 320 kbps, which is good but still lower than CD quality.

In comparison, physical media (CDs, vinyl, Blu-rays) allow for higher-quality playback at higher bitrates. They can even be “ripped” and stored on local devices for convenient digital playback. Meanwhile, purchasing physical CDs is one of the only ways to (legally) get high-quality lossless digital audio files (FLAC, ALAC, etc.).

It should be noted that physical media offers the potential, but not promise, of quality. For instance, I have a WAVVES EP on vinyl that sounds like it was pressed based on low-quality MP3 recordings. That thing will forever be a big black hole of disappointment.

Collect-a-thon Catharsis

At some point, there’s no replacement for good ol’ fashion collectin’. We may live in a digital age, but human beings have a penchant for collecting things. And for many, that collector’s itch can’t be scratched by Spotify playlists or even local digital media collections.

Personally, I’m unsure whether or not collecting appeals to me. I own my fair share of physical video games, albums, and movies. But as a sort of minimalist, the idea of amassing a collection that spans many shelves and spills over into other rooms terrifies me. I suppose I subscribe to the Tyler Durden philosophy that, at that some point, the things you own end up owning you. To me, that means making some inevitable move to another town, city, country a pain in the ass, should that be necessary.

I can understand the allure of physical media, though. The artists involved usually get a higher kickback from each sale. You can share physical media with friends. And streaming is temporary, but physical media lives on forever — in theory, anyway.

Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash

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