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The Case For Owning Physical Copies of Your Favorite Media

For all of their convenience, there’s a risk to relying on streaming services to access our cultural libraries.
Compact Discs
(George HodanCC0 1.0)

We now have an untold amount of movies and music at our fingertips thanks to streaming services like Netflix, HBO Max, Spotify, and Apple Music. As such, it might seem like there’s no longer any need to buy physical media like Blu-ray discs, CDs, and vinyl. But if you follow the streaming world — i.e., read my monthly streaming recommendations — it quickly becomes apparent that it’s a rather capricious environment. Movies come and go seemingly at random, and that beloved title you enjoyed one month might disappear the next, becoming unavailable for God knows how long.

Streaming media is undeniably convenient, but the more we rely on Netflix et al. to access our cultural libraries… well, that’s not always going to end well. Case in point: Last year, HBO Max began removing numerous titles from its catalog including acclaimed originals like Westworld, simply so it could cut costs and take advantage of tax write-offs. In other words, profit was more important than maintaining cultural permanence — which should surprise exactly no one.

Which brings me to Matt Birchler’s recent post advocating for actually owning copies of your favorite movies.

I do sympathize with the idea of owning the things you really love. Ideally, you’d own them in a DRM-free format that you can know you’ll always have no matter what, but the next best ways are via DVDs, BluRays, or digital copies from somewhere like the iTunes store. Personally, I worry about how easy it will be to watch a movie or TV show on discs many years down the line (how useful is a VHS collection today?), but at least it’s something you know that you can play it whenever you want, as long as you have the right hardware.

Birchler’s article — which I discovered via Canned Dragons — is itself a response to Torie Bosch, who chronicled an argument she had with her husband when they sought to downsize their movie collection before moving.

“What if streaming goes away?” he would say as I pleaded to donate some — not all! — of them.

“It’s never going to go away,” I’d say. “Maybe they won’t have as many options. But we can always rent a movie digitally if you really want to watch it.“

He refused. And every time HBO Max yanks another movie or TV show I love from the platform, a thought nags at me: Chris was right.

She continues:

I like to rewatch my favorite shows and movies, often as background noise while I do something else. And the idea that platforms are now removing even their original programming — which I had assumed was sacred — makes me worry about the future of other digital content, too. So I’m glad we hauled all of those DVDs and Blu-rays (even if I still think we could remove them from their cases and organize them some other way to save a bunch of space).

I still have numerous DVDs in storage, including dozens of kung fu movies that I bought from now-defunct vendors like HKFlix and AznFlix back in the early ’00s, and had forgotten all about until recently. (Which led to some fun discoveries and screenings earlier this month.) That said, most of the movies and music that I enjoy these days come digitally, either via streaming services or my own digital copies (e.g., my iTunes library). But given how arbitrary and capricious streaming services and studios can be, there’s a real sense that it’s increasingly unlikely that you’ll be able to enjoy your old favorites perpetually on Netflix et al.

(Confession: This has only been an issue for me with movies and music. Despite owning several Kindles over the years, I’ve never really taken to reading digital books. I still enjoy the tactility of an actual book too much, hence all of the sagging bookshelves in our home.)

Birchler ends his post lamenting that streaming services don’t sell physical copies of their own titles. There are, of course, business reasons for this: if subscribers can own their favorite titles on Blu-ray, then they have one less reason to stay subscribed. But to be fair, Netflix has released some of its original titles on DVD/Blu-ray, including seasons of BoJack Horseman, Cobra Kai, Orange is the New Black, Stranger Things, and Voltron: Legendary Defenders. To Birchler’s point, however, other streamers do seem more reluctant to release physical copies of their original titles.

One last thing: It’s easy to decry the big streamers like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and HBO Max. However, that overlooks the fact that there are dozens of other streamers, many of which offer titles that you’ll probably never find on Netflix et al., either because they’re too niche or not prestigious enough. For example, I discovered Tubi last year, and I still dive into its extensive catalog from time to time to find hidden gems like Nemesis, X: The Man with the X-ray Eyes, and Parallel Love: The Story of a Band Called Luxury. Obviously, that’s not the same as actually owning those titles, either as digital purchases or Blu-ray/DVD, but you might be surprised by what you can find if you do a little digging.

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