On 19th April this year, people all over the world were queuing up outside independent record shops from the early hours of the morning to get their hands on a variety of Vinyl, CDs and cassette tapes in aid of Record Store Day. If you haven’t heard of Record Store Day before, this annual global event sees bands and artists release limited edition recordings on physical media with the promise that they are exclusive and will not be released anywhere else. The idea is that by releasing these rare tracks, it will encourage people to shop in these little independent stores and help to boost their sales which have suffered at the hands of digital media.
The Decline of Music Stores
Big online stores like Amazon coupled with the ease of which people can illegally download music has caused a decline in physical media in recent years. Small independents have been hit particularly hard, and last year we saw huge chains such as HMV go bankrupt due to the popularity of digital and online media. Amongst all this though, formats like Vinyl and cassette have seen huge percentage increases in sales. It’s quite strange to see that the most “archaic” of formats are enjoying a resurgence in the height of the digital era as the focus moves to streaming and instantaneous access. To put in perspective just how well vinyl is currently selling, sales doubled last year to 780,000 units and a spokesman for the British Phonographic Industry claims that vinyl recordings are seeing the greatest demand in almost 20 years. Curiously, vinyl sales went up by 33% in the US, while digital download sales went down for the first time ever (by 6%). Very strange indeed, although there may be an obvious explanation for this...
The Rise of Music Streaming
Music streaming services like Spotify are quickly becoming the norm. Digital downloads represent a form of physical media now (which seems odd to say). If you download an album it takes up space on your hard drive or your phone’s memory. Why wouldn’t you just stream your music from the cloud and free up your memory for other tasks? However, music streaming could reach a glass ceiling as artists become increasingly annoyed at how little revenue they receive from the services. Retailers suffer and consumers, even though they pay very little for unlimited music, don’t actually have anything to show for their cash. An appeal of vinyl records is the large artwork and tangible form of music you can hold in your hands. Music streaming is extremely convenient, but just how sustainable it is remains to be seen.
Video Streaming Services
On the subject of streaming, movie and TV streaming continues to go from strength to strength. Netflix, LoveFilm and Amazon Prime all offer alternatives to owning shelves and shelves of DVDs. There are still kinks to be ironed out with these services though. User Interfaces are notoriously confusing or unhelpful, the availability of certain titles is a point of contention for some and of course there is the Net Neutrality argument which we looked at recently.
Despite these complications (which should be resolved eventually), movie and TV streaming will change the way that we all absorb visual media. Kevin Spacey (star of Netflix original TV show House of Cards) gave a great presentation on why TV streaming services will alter our perceptions on what a TV series or film should be.
Spacey says “Clearly the success of the Netflix model, releasing [an entire series] at once proved one thing. The audience wants control”. Instead of waiting a week to see the next episode of our favourite show you can “binge” on episodes all at once and watch as much content as you like. This is not necessarily an argument between physical and digital media, but it shows that streaming services are a popular and convenient way to consume media. It will only become more mainstream. It’s hard to see how we would revert back to physical discs after this. There is no real benefit to owning a DVD or a Blu Ray as opposed to streaming other than the novelty of owning the physical copy. As a new generation adapts to streaming, DVDs and Blu Rays may very well become obsolete.
Gaming In The Cloud
The video game market is slowly turning to digital copies of games too. In the last generation of consoles we saw downloadable games, and in this generation games are able to be played before the game has finished downloading. We’re almost at stream gaming capabilities for consoles and you would expect that we will see this in the next generation, if not at least a departure from physical discs.
Can The Two Co-Exist?
There is room for both physical and digital media. There will always be a preference either way, and in many cases, certain situations will favour one or the other. You can’t listen to a vinyl record on the bus, but sat at home with the headphones on may call for the high quality sound of needle on wax. There is also the current fascination with vintage or retro that has seeped into the digital world. Instagram is a perfect example. People will spend hundreds of pounds on phones with the best camera available, only to upload them online with grainy filters and borders to make them look like Polaroids.
Speaking to some of the BHL team, we found out what they think about physical media and whether they prefer it to digital media...
I buy a lot of digital content, but each time I do I have that nagging feeling in the back of my head that I’m not actually ‘buying’ anything. It seems increasingly we are taking out a licence for software, films or music rather than buying it wholesale. Although this is fine now, what happens when Amazon or iTunes go out of business, or turn off their servers? What happens 10 years down the line when I go to download the movie I paid for and I’m met with a ‘Server Unavailable’ error?
To add to this is the problem of fragmentation. My DVD collection is my DVD collection – a whole. With digital purchases spread over Steam, Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, I not only have to worry about the future viability of a bunch of different services, but I have to access them in different ways with different apps. I appreciate the ease of the digital age but I’d hate to put all my eggs into one basket just to have the basket disappear. - Joe Tonks (@OzzyJ88)
Over the years I haven't been a big reader. I would normally start a book or even a newspaper article, get about half way through and either lose interest or, being dyslexic, find that the words on the page were jumping all over the place. I used to joke that I was reading Harry Potter in real time..
Digital print media is great for me as I can read short snippets of media from multiple sources on any device whenever and where ever I am. If I don't finish it I can save it for later and even return to it on another device. I read much more than I ever would have otherwise.
My most used Digital Media is the Flipboard App, as it is synchronised across all my devices and is essentially my personal newspaper. It compiles digital newspaper articles, website RSS feeds, blogs and tweets that I'm interested in. To help with words jumping around the page I can make the text nice and big too - Jo Ford (@fordieis)
I still buy CDs. I like having something physical to hold but the main draw is that I can rip the music to my computer for convenience while owning the CD as high quality backup. I also don't need to rely on whichever company I bought it from staying in business to keep a copy.
When it comes to games though I’ve been won over by the convenience (and cheapness) of Valve’s digital-only Steam platform which gives me immediate access to download and play anything I buy on any computer. You don’t get a lot of choice with PC games nowadays – even if you buy a boxed product it often requires access to a service like Steam to play it. - David Johnson(@DollarsQuest)
Image credit: The Verge