Monday, April 9, 2018

Netflix Killed the Video Store

When I tell people I'm a librarian, they often ask me, "Isn't Google a threat to libraries?" This is a stupid question, asked only by stupid people, but it skirts close to the observable truth that the Internet has made a number of other forms of media obsolete. At least from a market perspective.

I've been seeing this myself over the past week. My wife and I are finally extricating ourselves from the festering sore of New York City and one of my self-appointed tasks has been selling off all our old crap. Most of this has been bag after bag of books but no small shortage of CDs and DVDs. And as far as the latter two are concerned, nobody's buying.

There are certainly still music stores - and music for sale in big box retailers - but I've been hard pressed finding anyone willing to buy old used music. On CD. What few music shops persist in Manhattan and Brooklyn revolve around vinyl, that favorite medium of snobs with more money than brains.

Likewise, you can still find DVDs for sale around town but no store wants to buy them off you. Look through what they have in stock and you'll see why - things are marked down to the ground. A buyer's market, should anyone care to show up.

They don't. All y'all would rather #NetflixAndChill. Much as MP3s decimated the CD market, streaming services and other such digital distribution are so much more convenient than going out and buying your preferred movie or TV show. In the latter case, you can even cover every season of Friends without ever getting up to change the discs. A brave new world for couch potatoes.

And this has all happened before. Not two decades ago, DVDs did the same thing to VHS tapes. A decade before that, CDs did the same to audio cassettes - which did the same to 8-track tapes, which did the same to vinyl, no matter what those snooty hipsters might say.

Plenty of Boomers and Gen-Xers have lamented these changes as stripping their favorite pop music of all the tertiary goodies, like album art and inventive packaging and travelling four hours to find the one indie record store offering the latest Butt Trumpet LP. But that's just it - all that high-art malarkey always was tertiary to what is a very ephemeral art form. Jazz musician and expat Eric Dolphy said it best, "When you hear music, after it's over, it's gone in the air. You can never capture it again." People have been trying to capture music for a century regardless, but the vast storage space afforded by modern digital technology just reinforces Dolphy's point. With a hundred thousand songs mixing together in your hard rive, everything becomes an intermingled and meaningless soup of noise. The old-fashioned scolds are right to cling to their old record sleeves as it lends a sense of permanence to something fundamentally impermanent.

It's taken a little longer but the same is now happening to film and television. How permanent can a TV show be if you can watch the new season in a single day? How can you stay focused across such a mind-deadening stretch of time? How are all these woke and prestigious serials not just so much dull porridge of light and noise?

Music and film became dominant art forms in the 20th Century not because of inherent aesthetic value but rather due to the evolving media technology of a post-war boom in consumption. Now that we live in the belt-tightening austerity era all this storage media is so much clutter, the kipple of a middle-class suburban dream from which we've been forced awake. And no one wants to buy that bitter revelation.

But while these reams upon reams of optical discs collect dust in basements and thrift stores - and deteriorate rapidly - used book stores are still doing a brisk business. Borders is shuttered and Barnes and Noble is shit, but Mercer Street and Alabaster Bookshop have better philosophy, poetry, and pulp sci-fi offerings than Amazon. And they'll happily pay cash for your old books. Books trade more easily, and for cheaper, than the aforementioned mediums because what they store can be accessed as easily today as when the first Gutenberg Bible rolled off the press. You don't need a stereo or turntable or busted old Betamax, just the capability to read.

So is the Internet a threat to libraries? Probably not, since it still hasn't killed the indie book stores.