The Importance of Artifact

The reports of the existence of the “last” Blockbuster store in Bend, Oregon, is treated as though here is something that is completely quaint and old-timey: “Yes, son, way back when we used to go to a store and rent movies on discs. And sometimes we actually bought them!”

And on the subject of buying discs, while Best Buy, which had been the #1 music retailer, had announced that it was going to stop selling CDs, it has modified that. It will continue to but with a greatly minimized selection; there will probably be more selection of Keurig coffees.

In this era of downloading and streaming, the notion of buying physical artifacts like discs is becoming increasingly unthinkable.

While vinyl discs are making something of a comeback, you rarely hear any arguments about the fidelity of the sound as being a reason for this occurrence. Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that many of the purchasers of vinyl probably have some crappy Crosley record player upon which the latest novelty is played. Sure, there are audiophiles who have never given up the grooves, but they’re becoming like philatelists in the age of email, which has then given way to texting.

But a question that seems to go unasked is who benefits from this? And I would argue that it is the purveyors of the digitally based music (or video) products.

If you buy your music from iTunes (or maybe that verb needs to be in the past tense, as in “bought,” as even this is transitioning away to just streaming), for example, you don’t “own” it in the same way you would were you to have that music on a disc. You have usage rights. And in the absence of you, the rights to that music that you’ve paid for go away. Certainly it might not bother you because, well, there is no longer a “you,” but imagine how you could leave a legacy of your music collection to several people upon your demise were that collection to be based on atoms, not bits, and how they might enjoy it (or sell it).

This is not a ploy to make you go out and write a will but to put into context the fact that perhaps we have been sold on the nature of convenience (“All I need to do is put the cursor on ‘Buy’”; “I can carry 4,000 song in my pocket—try doing that with CDs!”): We have not been sold a bill of goods, because that phrase contains physical things (the bill and the goods).

Should you have moved on to simply streaming, what have you bought then? A period of listening. Nothing tangible. Just moments.

When you buy a disc (or a book), you have exchanged your money for a thing. You own that thing until you part with it.

When you buy a download, it could be argued that you have it in your possession, but you don’t actually own it.

Let’s say that you owned an original copy of Sticky Fingers with the Warholian zipper or sticking with this, a copy of The Velvet Underground & Nico, complete with banana.

Wouldn’t either of them be a more fulsome object of experience than lines of titles on a screen accompanied by an image you could cover up with half your hand?

Walter Benjamin wrote in a 1935 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”:
“Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence. This includes the changes which it may have suffered in physical condition over the years as well as the various changes in its ownership.”

And while he was dealing with the uniqueness of a piece of visual art in the context of copies that were printed, in some ways the physicality of an object like a disc can resonate in ways that ones and zeros never can (“I remember buying that disc at Vinyl Junkies on that trip I took to London in ’95. And then I gave it to my friend Sue, who kept it and then gave it back to me when she was moving back to France.”) Do you remember when you downloaded or streamed? Does it have the same “presence in time and space” that the object does?


And so an anecdote. A real-life addendum to the foregoing.

I ask two of my approximately 20-year-old nieces about music. About how they listen. They are sisters. They live together in a downtown apartment. They attend an urban university. One is business oriented. The other the arts.

The former answered, without hesitation, “Spotify.” That’s her one and only source of music. She can’t imagine that she’d need anything else. She can’t imagine anything would be more convenient. She can’t imagine—or even understand—why anyone would buy music, even were that music to be simply downloaded from iTunes. She can’t imagine that anyone would take the time to rip a disc.

She listens. In her car. On her way to classes. In her apartment. So it isn’t that she isn’t interested in music.

But why, she wonders, would anyone have any need to have anything more than what is available through her Spotify Premium account.

Her sister, on the other hand, does buy some music. But only because she has a rather eclectic taste such that it is difficult to find what she’s interested in without having to resort to a source on the internet. She also rips and burns discs. Still, compared to what she might have done, say, 10 years ago were she to be the age she is now, it is exceedingly miniscule.

The point is, that even though this is just an anecdote that is bolstered by all manner of research into buying habits, were one to need some sort of external validation, we’ve probably passed an inflection point.

The last Blockbuster won’t go out with a bang, but a whimper.

Note: The compact discs in the photos above are from my collection of stuff I have not gotten around to ripping yet. -Jake.

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