As a so-called “Xennial,” I am old enough to remember a time before everything was readily available at all times.
I knew the fear of not seeing a game or film or TV show because there was no way to see it again. I recall reading about bits from Saturday Night Live in the newspaper and wishing I could somehow see them or reading about an amazing athletic achievement and hoping that I’d somehow see it before I died.
I remember the first time my parents brought a VCR into the living room, it felt like a revolution. I can record something and then watch it again whenever I want?!
I can still see myself next to my stereo, brand-new blank cassette in the deck, with my fingers hovering over the PLAY and RECORD buttons, waiting, just waiting, for that new hot song to come on the radio so I could record it and listen to it when I wanted (as long as the DJ didn’t talk over most of it).
I remember playing tapes until the writing wore off or the terrifying sound of a tape unwinding and having to use a Bic pen to respool it because it was my only copy and if it were lost, there was a distinct possibility of never owning that song again.
I know the feeling of nearly being decapitated by a stretched phone cord. I know the sound of a dial-up modem connection. I remember how it took seemingly forever to download a photo that the thought of actually watching a live on your computer was ludicrous.
As someone that remembers those dark ages, there is an incredible amount to love about the streaming era. Things that weren’t even fathomable a generation ago are now so routine that people complain when they aren’t readily available.
We can watch TV on our phones and watch our laptops on our TV. We can listen to a million songs in a month for half the cost of a single compact disc purchase twenty years ago. We can watch ten Star Wars films and twenty Marvel Movies over a holiday weekend.
Netflix, Spotify, Hulu, iTunes, On Demand, Pandora, HBO Go, Tidal, Amazon, and the rest are fantastic, but there is a certain something lacking in the streaming era.
While I certainly utilize Netflix, Kindle, iTunes, and FIOS, I prefer to physically own books and movies and keep music on my own iPod. I do this because if Netflix goes out of business or Spotify decides not to carry an artist I want to hear, I no longer have access to that content. As long as I have a laptop or a DVD player, I’ll be able to enjoy what I want when I want.
It’s more than simply having control over them, though. I think owning my media allows me to have a more ingrained relationship with it because I remember when it wasn’t all so available.
The number of people trying to create (pop) art has never been higher but, paradoxically, its value has never been lower. It’s used and forgotten, like toilet paper or napkins. If a resource is unlimited, what’s the point in savoring it? There’s an endless supply.
As Game of Thrones barreled towards its conclusion in the spring of 2019, it became a national conversation. I would enter a Monday morning meeting and inevitably two people would be discussing the show and would ask me if I watched it (I do not). It was a a conversation shared by the culture, one that used to happen often with television sitcoms and dramas, but more recently is almost exclusively reserved for award shows, politics, or major sporing events.
This occurred because Game of Thrones was consumed like TV in the B.S. (Before Streaming) world. A new episode came out once a week, at the same time on the same night, and could not be viewed beforehand. It was not consumed in the style of Netflix.
This wasn’t the first time GoT hearkened back to a previous era either. In 2015, the show’s sixth season ended on a cliffhanger, with Jon Snow left to die. Fans had to wait to find out what would happen next. They simply couldn’t skip ahead.
Season-ending cliffhangers used to be much more prevalent and did a masterful job of ensuring that the audience returned for the next season. Everyone wanted to know who shot J.R., what was going to happen with Ross’s wedding, who on President Bartlet’s staff was hit by assassins.
In real time, viewers had to wait months, sometimes years, to find out what happened.
Even if you were watching on DVD, you’d still have to get up and go buy the next season or, at the very least, get up and switch discs. There was still a separation that is no longer in place. On Netflix, the difference between seasons is the same as the difference between episodes four and five. It’s all been flattened.
Speaking of DVDs, another reason I prefer to own them is for all of the additional bonuses. The streaming era has made the DVD extra virtually obsolete, thus eliminating a wealth of content.
Thanks to DVDs, we had used to get hours worth of extra material — not only behind the scenes information or still photos, but important deleted scenes or more.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was pilloried upon its release, but when the Blu-Ray came with an ultimate director’s cut that included an additional thirty minutes, the reviews became much more positive because it was the film as originally planned.
When the classic Anchorman was in production, it originally had a completely different plot and trajectory. There was so much of it that was filmed that it was cut together and made into its own “lost” film, Wake Up, Ron Burgundy. It’s not a good film — much like Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, it’s not even complete and there’s a reason this version was scrapped in favor of what would become the official release — but there are some very funny moments (like Chuck D portraying a character named Malcolm Y) and it’s nice to have more time with the characters. It’s something that was only possible with the two-disc DVD release.
Another classic DVD extra came via Memento. Christopher Nolan’s narrative-bending, color-flipping film was brilliant, but many wondered what it would look like if the scenes were put together linearly. Well, the film’s out-of-print two-disc DVD(which I was able to purchase used) offers a convoluted optionto play the film in chronological order, something you won’t get on Netflix.
And let’s not forget commentary tracks.
Long before there were podcasts in which people spoke into a microphone while watching a movie on mute, this was the first opportunity to get the thoughts of a director or actor during a certain scene or how a plot point came into being. There are thousands of regular commentaries, many of which are quite good, but it also became the sandbox to do other things.
There was Edgar Wright and Quentin Tarantino using the Hot Fuzz commentary to nerd out over their love of obscure films and Robert Downey Jr. doing the Tropic Thunder commentary in character as Kirk Lazarus playing Lincoln Osiris because, as he even proclaims in the film — “I don’t drop character ’til I’ve done the DVD commentary.” There was the Dodgeball commentary in which Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn pretend to get angry at each other and cancel the commentary only to replace it with There’s Something About Mary. Was it funny? Maybe not but it’s weird and experimental and just represents the ability to do something different with the medium.
There there was Ben Affleck during the Armageddon commentary and wondering the same thing so many of us wonder while watching the film (or any of Michael Bay’s movies):
These are moments that would never have existed if streaming were all we had available to us.
Even more than films, physical music represented a connection, particularly for teenagers, an age when music is the most important thing in your life and you feel like certain song lyrics are written just for you, that the artist gets you while your family and teachers and even friends don’t have a clue as to what’s going on inside you.
I spent seemingly hours standing in front of the rack of new releases at Sam Goody or The Wall and agonizing over which album to purchase. I only had $20 so I had to make the right decision. It was an investment — not financially, but in time and energy and attention, because I was going to be stuck with this music for the foreseeable future and it was going to get rotation, whether I liked it or not. That is actually how songs and albums grow on you — through repeated listening. If I had the entire world of music at my disposal, it’s possible that songs I didn’t love at first but grew to adore would never have been given that chance.
When music cost money and choosing which albums to buy had long-term consequences because you’d be stuck with this album for a lifetime and couldn’t simply chuck it in favor of the next one, it forced us to engage much more deeply with the music and the artists and everything in between.
“In the ’80s, there was a period of my life, when I was, like, say an eighth grader, I had five cassettes. And that’s all I could afford. And I was sort of in an isolated area so I would play these five cassettes over and over and over again. I would read the liner notes. I would almost inject meaning into them that didn’t exist and I would have this super-deep relationship with these records. Now, to a young person who’s in eighth grade now, that must seem insane. Because they have thousands and thousands of songs, which they probably listen two once or twice or, if they love the song, eight times and move on.”
He goes on to say that this created a deep, personal relationship between he and the albums that went outside the listening experience, that he thought about the bands and the songs even when he wasn’t playing the music and asked himself what it all meant. How did the iconography inform the music which then was consumed by fans and directed back to the artists?
Today, that is largely gone.
I remember the unbridled excitement I would feel when I finally obtained a new album I had been waiting for. My hands would literally shake as I tried to tear off the packaging without damaging any part of the case before inspecting every inch, from the case to the disc, to the booklet.
Especially the booklet.
I studied liner notes more than I studied anything in school. It was where I really learned about producers and songwriters and it taught me the difference between interpolation and sampling and elements and portions. I learned where artists were signed by reading what labels they appear courtesy of. I loved the thick booklets full of photos and lyrics that you could barely fit back under the tabs in the case. On the flip side, it was very disappointing to open a jewel case to discover that there was no booklet at all, just a flimsy single square piece of paper with a blank back and a photo on the front that served as the cover.
The artwork — the front cover, back cover, inside cover, photo beneath the CD, and on the disc itself — also played a part in the impact of the music. The photos and drawings told a story that accompanied the songs and added another layer to the entire experience.
Sometimes the booklet also continued the battles and beef, like when Eazy-E responded to the repeated disses on The Chronic not only in song, but also on the inside cover of his EP It’s On [Dr. Dre] 187um Killa.
Finally, there is the creativity that came with the physical music itself, like the actual discs of CD’s having some beautiful artwork on them.
Like Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. Lovingly referred to as the “Purple Tape,” it has become iconic due to the cassette’s unique purple tinting. Raekwon said he“wanted his album to stand out against the typical pile of tapes that collected on the floors of people’s cars,” and making it purple would differentiate it.
It was a seemingly small move at the time that now has a place within hip-hop’s lore. What if that happened today? How could Raekwon possibly distinguish his album in 2019?
None of that uniqueness could happen with streaming or even on an mp3 player. Every song, album, and artist are presented the exact same way and it leaves something missing.
Perhaps these are the reasons why vinyl has experienced a resurgence and many classic albums not get re-released not only through streaming, but also in vintage cassette form.
Some things just don’t translate to the digital world.
For a time, it looked as if not films or music, but books would experience the biggest disruption from the technological advances of the new millennium.
Ebooks were touted as the future — like an iPod, you could carry every book in your pocket and save all that shelf space — and for a time they flourished. However, it seems as if the fad has run its course because sales of physical books are once again thriving.
There are many reasons for this. There’s a certain quality to holding a book — its weight, its smell, its color — that doesn’t translate electronically. Moreover, a book doesn’t run out of battery or give you a headache from screen glare.
There’s one more aspect to the real books: note taking.
I’m a major proponent of marginalia, which means I like to write in my books, particularly the nonfiction ones. I use sticky tabs, fold corners, highlight, underline, write in the margins, and argue with the author.
I’m far from alone. There are countless examples of famous writers filling up the white space of books written by others and while the details vary greatly, they all have one thing in common: they were not ebooks.
Yes, Kindle allows a reader to highlight or make notations, but it’s not the same as a dogeared copy full of annotations with tabs jutting out in every direction.
The Intangible Value of the Tangible
The thing we’ve lost most of all in the digital era is the experience.
There was a certain rush that came from borrowing that forbidden movie on a VHS tape or someone letting you flip through that beat-up paperback copy of IT with the spine broken or getting a dubbed copy of that tape that your parents wouldn’t let you buy.
Like prohibition and curfews, we often appreciate something more when it is withheld from us.
There was something momentous in having to make your way to the store to get that album you’ve been reading about and anticipating for months. When Wu-Tang Forever was released, it was more than just an album release. It was an event. Kids skipped school to get buy it as soon as the store opened. The anticipation of going to the store, grabbing your copy from the large display in the front of the store, perusing the front and back covers while waiting in line to pay for it, and rushing back to the car so you could rip it open and let it wash over you.
I have so many memories like that, of going to Tower Records on South Street and finding an import CD single or randomly walking by the CD rack at Circuit City and realizing an album I had been excited about had finally hit the shelves.
That feeling — that sense of anticipation and wonder and joy, the sense that, because you now held a copy of a book or a movie or an album, your entire life was about to change for the better — seems to be lost now. When everything is available and disposable, there’s no connection. Nothing matters.
Perhaps this entire piece has written with sepia-toned nostalgia mixed with a get-off-my-lawn vibe, but maybe, just maybe, this old man knows of what he speaks.
Christopher Pierznik’s nine books are available in paperback and Kindle. Check out more of his writing at Medium. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Medium, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Subscribe to his monthly newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.