A Brave New (Discless) World?

Days like today… well, maybe it’s not just days like today really, it’s just that days like today just make it seem worse. You ever get the feeling that the world is spinning on, off on its own mindless course, leaving you behind? Sometimes it’s what passes for modern politics or modern music or modern movies that sends me scurrying toward an old favourite on the shelf, whether it be a film or an album or a book, some avenue of escape from the ‘new’ in the comfort of the old.

It felt a little more pronounced today, when I read the news that Samsung is getting out of the Blu-ray hardware business, over in the US at any rate. Some people are describing it as another step towards the end of physical media, and it’s hard not to acknowledge some truth in that. Disc-based media, whether it be CD, DVD, Blu-ray or 4K UHD is being increasingly marginalised by the relentless popularity of streaming/downloading. No doubt Netflix is a huge part of that, as people get used to watching films and tv shows on demand- and they don’t seem at all concerned about it being of lesser quality. Well, of course they don’t, as some seem quite satisfied watching films etc on their mobile phones or tablets (which is curious, as tv panels just seem to be getting bigger and bigger). The value of a quality 4K disc or Blu-ray seems lost on those somehow still satisfied with DVD. Likewise there is a whole generation out there who don’t buy music, but listen to streams (legitimately or otherwise) instead. Music, films, media in general, seems to have become a transitory thing, sampled, dipped into, almost background noise. That notion is anathema to me, someone who cherishes/values such things and has curated a collection of my favourite films and music and books.

I remember when films receiving network premieres on tv were a special thing, when films themselves were special- now, they are almost like the pulp paperbacks sold cheap in the 1960s, 1970s, picked up, read, discarded. A $200 million blockbuster turns up in the bargain bin (a virtual bin in Amazon, a physical one in HMV or local supermarket) in the space of months. In the immediate moment, we all like a bargain, but in the long term, how much damage is it doing, and how much damage has it already done? I dearly miss the days when films could be something revered and special, their viewings rare. Nowadays they are available on demand and immediately discarded and forgotten.

I think it could also be argued that it impacts on cinema revenues, even though by and large attendances, we are told, are on the up with cinema chains raking in greater profits. When I was in Cineworld last week, I was (yet again) assaulted by invitations to join its ‘Cineworld unlimited’ subscription service in which you can watch as many films as you like for a monthly fee- basically, Netflix for those who don’t like to stay at home, I guess. I suppose if you go very often it saves you money, and Cineworld can always get extra cash out of you for the premium stuff like Imax and 3D etc. Here’s a curious fact that my wife assaulted me with from one of her old diaries- back in 1995 we watched 34 films at the cinema (something that blew my mind and will return to in a later post). Last year I think it was maybe 3, or 4 films at the cinema. This year I have only seen one, so far (last week’s Alita). I have gravitated to the alternative of discs or streams on my quality television, thankyou, and away from noisy patrons distracted by their mobile phones, but alas that alternative is becoming marginalised somewhat- the physical side anyway. And yet cinema attendances are up, so I guess I’m being left behind again.

CD production, meanwhile, is getting more limited all the time. Bottlenecks in CD manufacture became an increasing issue last year, causing some delays to soundtrack releases for some of the speciality labels like La La Land and Intrada, and such bottlenecks caused issues for the manufacture of some Blu-rays prior to Christmas (the 4K 2001: A Space Odyssey was a particular casualty in the US). I suppose such delays indicate there is still some demand worth noting, but it also indicates how manufacturing capacity is gradually reduced to match the lowering demand for the physical product, a self-fulfilling cycle. It ends only one way, and I guess I’m being left behind again.

I don’t trust the studios or the the content providers with digital. Most downloads and streams are simply licenses to view their product and can be withdrawn at the providers/copyright owners whim. I had a copy of Blade Runner on digital along with a physical copy that I bought a few years ago- my disc is fine, but that digital download is useless now, its gone, license expired I guess. Quality, too, is an issue, but it seems quality is as much a niche as anything else when people are happy enough with DVD or dodgy compression artifacts. We could be falling toward a PPV future and everyone seems happy enough, but if digital becomes the only access point, and the price of that PPV can be raised, does that move people towards illegal streams/piracy or just away from the product altogether?  How many people would pay £10 every time they want to rewatch Hitchcock’s Vertigo or Bridge on the River Kwai or Zulu?  Or maybe pay £5 just to watch one of them with a commentary track?

No, I think those extras that we film fans love will be consigned to history soon enough.

I used to think that the inevitable end of physical media was yet some years away, and hopefully it is, but recent things like hardware manufacturers dropping out of the game or Sony Music no longer licensing albums to third-party labels suggests the digital-only route could be nearer than I feared. Or maybe this is just one of those days when I think the world is dancing away on some other road than the one I’m on. You get old enough, you realise this isn’t the world you were born in.

Which can be a good thing, most of the time, God knows. But I like owning my films and albums, damn it. Before long I’ll be buying back-up players to hoard in the loft for safety’s sake: what kind of a world is that?