When everything is digital, why do we crave media that we can hold in our hands

Classic Video owner Tom Ivison stands at his store in Kingston, Ontario on Wednesday.  Ivison believes Classic Video has stayed in business because of inventory its customers can't find on streaming services.  (Natalie Stechyson/CBC - photo credit)

Classic Video owner Tom Ivison stands at his store in Kingston, Ontario on Wednesday. Ivison believes Classic Video has stayed in business because of inventory its customers can’t find on streaming services. (Natalie Stechyson/CBC – photo credit)

Struan Sutherland is a self-proclaimed “movie guy”.

As a teenager, he began collecting films on VHS. Now, as an adult, he collects DVDs – and estimates he owns around 500 of them. He would own quite a few more, he says, besides selling or giving away some films he no longer likes.

“I’ve always liked the idea of ​​owning the films I like; the ones I want to watch over and over again,” said Sutherland, 40, from his Halifax home.

“Things come and go with streaming, so it’s nicer to only own the films that you relate to the most.”

This sentiment is increasingly shared by consumers and collectors across Canada. After years of digitization, people are rediscovering the value of physical assets. DVDs, records and film cameras are experiencing a renaissance. Even cassettes are making a comeback.

Last year, for the second straight year, vinyl albums outsold CD albums in the US, Billboard reported in January (and manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the growth). Regarding photography, Kodak said in 2022 that it “can’t keep up” with the demand for film.

Struan Sutherland

Struan Sutherland

And while DVD sales have been declining for a decade, Richard Lachman, an associate professor at the RTA School of Media at Toronto Metropolitan University, notes that they are now declining “more slowly.”

There are a number of factors that could be contributing to the resurgence of physical media, from frustration with streaming services to longing for a physical (as opposed to virtual) item, Lachman said.

“More and more people are spending far more time consuming media at home. And they build rooms or collect in some way. And DVDs are physical objects. They look good in a room,” Lachman said.

“The physicality is part of the joy you get from fandom.”

“I am the algorithm”

Tucked away between a brewpub and a hotel garage in an old limestone building in Kingston, Ontario, is a DVD rental store that has managed to survive when so many others across the country have failed.

Chain stores Blockbuster and Rogers Video, for example, closed in the mid-2010s as customers migrated to streaming and video-on-demand services. And in its 2022 report on Canada’s DVD, games and video rental market, industry research firm IBISWorld found that profits have fallen 11.8 percent since 2017.

“The industry is in a state of severe and prolonged decline,” the report said.

But Classic Video has over 50,000 DVDs and Blu-rays and a loyal customer base who have flocked to the store on the downtown waterfront for more than 35 years.

CLOCK | A treasure trove of DVDs:

While he admits it’s been a challenge, owner Tom Ivison believes Classic Video has stayed in business because of inventory its customers can’t find on streaming services. For example, he says the most popular sections (after re-releases, of course) are the British section and the horror section.

“There are many products here that are not available online. And there’s not a lot of other ways to access those programs, and that definitely attracts people,” Ivison said.

Natalie Stechyson/CBC

Natalie Stechyson/CBC

Standing at the store’s front desk, which he calls core to the business, Ivison says his store offers something else that streaming doesn’t: a human.

“In a weird way, here I am in the Algorithm store,” he said.

“Using a streaming service means more data collection in terms of what someone can watch. I need to know my customers and have a sense of what they want or don’t want to see. This is important.”

Natalie Stechyson/CBC

Natalie Stechyson/CBC

Lachman noted that we’re in a “much messier” streaming market right now than we were a few years ago. Between Netflix, Apple TV+, Crave, Hulu, and Disney+ (to name a few), there’s more choice, more cost, and more complexity.

“They might have two seasons on one streaming platform, two seasons on another streaming platform, and then they disappear in a year as the rights deals change,” Lachman said.

“So if you’re a fan of this series, buy it.”

Vinyl is struggling to keep up with demand

As for vinyl, record demand has been growing at double-digit rates for more than a decade, the Associated Press reported last year. As a result, dozens of record press factories have been built to try to meet demand in North America – and it’s still not enough.

Now that a younger generation is buying turntables, some record artists like Adele, Ariana Grande, Taylor Swift and Harry Styles have switched to vinyl. Some have even blamed Adele for causing the vinyl manufacturing delays when she released her album 30 on vinyl in 2021, although industry experts noted at the time that the problems plaguing the pressing industry were not new.

In Toronto, Jeff Barber, the owner of music store Sonic Boom, notes that the vinyl resurgence isn’t necessarily new, but the pandemic has taken it to another level.

“We started selling more and more turntables, speakers, and with that, a heck of a lot more records,” Barber said.

Since then, the store’s clientele has become much more diverse, he said, with many younger female customers buying records. Now it’s common for 15-year-olds to come by to buy everything from old reissues to new releases, Barber said.

Bryce Kushnier/Sonic Boom

Bryce Kushnier/Sonic Boom

To illustrate this eclectic mix, the store’s top sellers over the past year have included American rappers Tyler, the Creator and Kendrick Lamar, the classic 1977 Fleetwood Mac album rumours, and of course Taylor Swift.

He attributes nostalgia (for the older buyers) and perhaps a technological backlash (for the younger buyers) to vinyl’s popularity. And it’s not just vinyl, he said, CDs are popular again, and that’s not all.

“We can barely stock cassettes,” Barber said. “They’re selling like crazy.”

HEAR | At The Death of Vinyl record store in Montreal:

He notes that some of his younger clients just want physical memorabilia from the artists they like — something they can buy, hold, and collect. Vinyl records, CDs and cassettes correspond to this calculation.

And while music is fun to listen to, it’s not necessarily fun to stream, Barber added. But going home and putting on a record isn’t just fun, he said, it’s also a ritual.

“There’s something about the process that makes you more involved with the music.”


Perhaps ironically, a big driver of interest in another form of physical media comes from social media. #FilmCamera has 731.9 million views on TikTok and #35mm has 785 million views.

Many of the videos posted compare photos taken with an iPhone to photos taken on film, the latter showing more stylistic, nostalgic looking shots. A video with more than two million views simply compares two shots taken from the side of a boat.

Another six-second video with more than 441,600 views shows a young photographer taking a picture of a film with her film camera.

According to Lackman, it’s a combination of nostalgia and style that fuels the film’s popularity with a younger generation. On Instagram, where there are 12.4 million #FilmCamera posts; People post pictures of everything from ice cream parlors and atmospheric beaches to their pets and parties.

“Filming is more fun,” wrote one young Instagram user in a post promoting sunglasses.

Also, using film just gives a feeling of really into something; going the extra mile, Lachman said.

“Digital photography is so effortless, so simple, so immersive that being able to stop and take time for something becomes something joyful. It is a pleasure.”


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