The Revival of Physical Media

Maybe holding, touching, and playing with information and cultural artifacts is important for humans.

The resurgence of vinyl records has been well-documented — after streaming, vinyl is now the most popular format for music sales. But other forms of physical media are doing surprisingly well, too.

On the anecdotal front, for Christmas this year, the following items were exchanged with no sense of irony, but rather a sense of delight:

  • Two vinyl albums
  • An excellent deck of playing cards
  • Two puzzles
  • Five printed calendars (desk and wall)
  • Multiple print books
  • Four Blu-ray discs

Many of these gifts were exchanged at the request of our children, who are in their 20s.

The importance of physical media — or, as an alternative I like, tactile media — is too often denigrated by digital enthusiasts, a posture that has existed for decades, much to the detriment of art, memory, and the enjoyment of cultural contributions (music, film, books, journals, and more).

Observe journal and scholarly book readers in the digital age, and you will still find a lot of print. It might not be perfect-bound on premium papers, but that still exists, as well. Print gets sorted, piled, filed, and annotated by hand. Books are collected and treasured. Articles and books so treated become far more memorable as a result.

  • I’d love to do an analysis someday to check on correlations between print distribution, print consumption, and impact factors. I’ll bet that journals that still send print, or that have strong usage of print-outs by readers, do better.

If the medium is the message, the message digital media seems to be sending is that humanity and details don’t matter — not the humanity about who made it, not the details of aesthetics, not the humanity of refined typography, not the details of paper choice, and not human senses of touch or smell or proprioception.

Yet, consumers respond to all of these elements, and more. Fans like to know who made the work — the author(s), director, producer, publisher, and so forth. Knowing this and being brought deeper into a work via such details can make new fans, reinforce memory and experience, and create supportive intellectual connections over time.

People like the ephemera of media. They still decode the Roman numerals after the copyright notice on films. They watch the end credits (to a point — some of those with a lot of FX shots are just too long to bear), they pick up on the songs listed in the soundtrack, and they like to know things about the provenance of the information they consume, the art they experience.

Digital media diminish the consumer to two main sensory inputs — vision and hearing — collapsing the expression of art and information into two dimensions. That leaves multiple other senses unaddressed, senses that tactile media entertain and inform as well.

The smell of a book, the slippery rounded edges of plastic of a Blu-ray case, the amount of flop in the paper of a record sleeve, the interaction of putting things down, arranging them around you, reassembling them when you’re done, and then deciding how to store them — all these things convey an impression or reinforce the experience in some way.

This is a hot topic currently, with a video by filmmaker and critic Chris Stuckmann triggering me to finally write about it.

In the video, Stuckmann — who has two young children — relates a few observations about interacting with tactile media that I found compelling:

  • His kids light up handling packaging or books covered with pictures, messages, and colors that intrigue them. Controlling the items makes them feel like they can make art their own.
    • They do not have this kind of exciting and reassuring experience browsing the online tiles of streaming services.
  • The tactile packaging of media allows people to interact with it while it is being consumed — think of reading the lyrics on an album sleeve, or pondering the art of the cover of a book — which deepens the experience, and makes memories.
    • Print books also give you multiple design elements to reinforce their uniqueness — size, paper weight, heft, cover stock, colors, type, images — all of which wash away on e-readers.
  • Leaving physical media lying around reinforces its presence and makes you think about it more, bolstering its impact and effect. Streaming services don’t even keep their basic browsing tiles in place from day to day.
  • Browsing in the physical world brings you into contact with things in a way that lower barriers to sampling, purchase, or sharing.

There is a larger economic and, by extension, creative problem caused by the digital economy, which Matt Damon describes in an episode of Hot Ones with Sean Evans — that is, the release of physical media (DVDs and Blu-rays) after the initial theatrical release gave films a second wind, behaving almost as a new release financially, and making it feasible to make a $50 million movie that would recoup only $50 million at the box office but make another $50-70 million in DVD or Blu-ray sales. Studios were reassured, and therefore more willing to experiment. As a result, the economics made it possible to make many more unusual films that told unexpected stories. Streaming economics don’t work the same way, creating a uniformity borne of risk-aversion:

Streaming seems to be a dead end for cultural growth, diversity, and artifacts.

The lack of trust in the stability of streaming inventory is also a big issue. One reason I received two Blu-rays this holiday season was because the films in question — the two excellent Spider-man Spiderverse films — have unpredictable licensing histories, making them hard to find, hard to purchase with certainty, and difficult to watch on the spur of the moment. My son couldn’t take it anymore, so he bought them for me/us. Having them around makes me think about them more often, leads us to discuss them more often, and makes me love the films all the more.

For similar reasons, the Blu-ray and 4K versions of Oppenheimer have been selling out repeatedly, as consumers want to own the movie and not leave themselves open to the vicissitudes of digital licensing. They also want to hold the film, odd as that sounds — but you know the feeling. Embracing the spectacular gold-hued art of the package is about love, respect, admiration, and inner peace, all things we crave. Owning media is a way for many people to achieve these rare gifts in small but important ways.

The digital economy starches these opportunities away. A film I also thought was top-notch — Prey, the terrific prequel to the Predator franchise — too easily fades from memory, didn’t recoup its investment because of streaming economics, and might be destined for oblivion. I have a strong conviction that if it had been released theatrically, it would have made a ton of money — and then would have made another ton if released on Blu-ray and DVD. And there would be a cinematic future for that fictional tribe to beat the snot out of another alien hunter one or two more times.

But we have lost sight of what customers want because we are so committed to a sterile digital world — one without the litter of books, records, discs, and magazines.

Were we to focus on consumers, we’d have to abandon preconceptions about the digital economy. Are we prepared to do that? Are we able to believe that maybe the senses of touch, space, joy, and personal fulfillment are part of media consumption? And are we willing to drop the pretense that digital economics make as much money as selling physical goods?

These are provocative questions, to be sure, because they feel retrograde compared to the unquestioning race to digital u/dystopia — but people are asking them, and those who are investing in physical and tactile media seem to be making more money.


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