Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Collapse of the Ownership Society

CDs should be more expensive!

But more on that later...

John August and Craig Mazin are Hollywood screenwriters. August, among other things, wrote the film and upcoming stage musical versions of Big Fish, and Mazin, among other things, wrote the seventh highest grossing film of 2011. Together, the two host an increasingly excellent podcast named Scriptnotes, which concerns itself with screenwriting and the business of being a screenwriter.

In a recent episode, August and Mazin presaged a dystopian future in which entertainment exists only in an ethereal online space and nobody owns anything. Apparently, we are marching inexorably towards this brave new world and any attempts to halt the approach would be futile.

In summary, in the future, people will rent everything. You won't buy DVDs, or even digital files. When you want a movie, you get out your phone, computer and/or television and find the film online through an app or website (ala Hulu or HBO Go) and pay a small charge, allowing you to stream the film across any devices you happen to own that can do so. You might start watching Back to the Future III on your laptop, then need to go buy some milk. So you pick up your iPhone and watch the second act on that while you walk back and forth to the grocery store, then finish it off on your iPad-thin 60-inch television when you return home.

That probably sounds ideal to a lot of people. Personally, I haven't rented a movie since Tony Blair left Parliament. I don't have the time to watch all the DVDs that I own, let alone wander down to Blockbuster and pay money for the right to watch one movie in extremely limited time period. I don't want my viewing habits dictated by the distribution method - except for that wonderful period at the start of a film's release life when you get to sit in a darkened room with a bunch of strangers and watch a pristine print on a massive screen.

I like owning things. I own The Philadelphia Story. I own all seven seasons of The West Wing. I own The Last Waltz. I paid a one-off charge at a store at some point, and in exchange, I own these things. I can watch them as often as I feel like, whenever I feel like, in perpetuity, and it costs me nothing further. I don't need to be connected to the internet to do so. And no one can take away my ability to watch it. If I come across someone who's never seen The West Wing (seriously?), then I can lend them my copy. While they have it, I can't watch it, which is only fair. If they get bitten by the Sorkin bug, they can trot off and buy their own copies, and enjoy the associated privileges I listed above.

To shift gears slightly, I'd like to put forth an idea: CDs should cost more.

I could make a similar argument with DVDs, but it's much more true for CDs, so I'll make it for them instead.

This transition away from ownership and towards a renting/streaming/cloud-based method of experiencing entertainment is a consequence of the devaluation of entertainment products that has been in full force since the beginning of online music piracy over a decade. Young people don't like paying for shit at the best of times, but these last couple of batches of young people don't feel like music is something that should be paid for. I should know, I'm 21.

At a rough estimate, half the people in my age bracket have illegally downloaded at least half of their music collections. I know one aspiring musician who has never paid for a single song, let alone an album. I have a feeling that were they to reach stardom and find themselves unable to maintain a living wage due to the impact of piracy on their record sales, they would fail to appreciate the irony. It simply never occurs to them to buy music instead of stealing it.

One of the results of this is that I pay less for CDs now than I did when I was fourteen. If CD prices had risen commensurate with inflation, they'd be sitting around $40, rather than $15-20. Is that an excessively high price?

If I go to Subway, I pay $6 for a sandwich that I'll finish in five minutes. A few hours later, I'll be hungry and need to eat something else. If I spent $15 - or even $40 - on a copy of, say, Who's Next by The Who, I will experience countless hours of unimaginable joy, comfort, pleasure and emotional release over the next sixty-something years. I'll never need to pay for the CD again (it's already been remastered, so no jokes about that) and I can put the songs on my iPod, phone and computer at no extra charge. That one payment I made to JB Hi-Fi when I was seventeen will still be paying off when I'm in my eighties. I'd call that a bargain. Yet, I still hear people bitching about CDs being overpriced.

Renting makes sense for things you are only going to use once at a very specific time, especially if it's staring obsolesce in the face. I'm not going to buy a large truck because I know I'll need to move house at some point in the future, I'll rent it on the day I actually need to get a wardrobe across town. That money doesn't result in any permanent ownership for me, but there's no reason for me to own a truck. I'm unlikely be sitting at home, too broke to go out for the night, and think 'Thank god I own that truck - there's a night's entertainment', the way I sometime do with my copy of L. A. Confidential.

Renting is dead money. It's like food, except food is a one-off experience by necessity. I'm not one of those people who fetishizes jewel cases, but I want to own things. And I can't afford to rent.

Relevant Links:
- While I was typing this out, John August wrote a great blog post on digital distribution platforms.
- If you live in Australia, JB Hi-Fi stocks an excellent selection of CDs and DVDs at wonderful prices.
- The best movie I saw last year was Midnight In Paris, which you can buy now on DVD or Blu-Ray. Allen's acceptance speech for Best Screenplay at the Golden Globes was the best of the night, although it featured fewer jokes about Michael Fassbender's penis than George Clooney's.


  1. This is an interesting, if purely theoretical, argument. What of Netflix or mubi.com, and similar "rental" services? For a fee, you get unlimited access to films- With membership rather than per-rental pricing, you would rather quickly start saving a lot of money -particularly for a cinephile like you - without sacrificing the benefits of "ownership". The need to loan films to people (and the heartbreak when they don't come back) disappears. Re-watch a film
    As often as you like - it doesn't cost you more to endlessly rewatch the wire.

  2. Under that scenario, I'm beholden to the rental service. If their servers go down, they decide to shut down my account, raise their subscription fees above what I want to pay, etc. I lose all my movies. And it chews up my internet usage if I'm streaming HD content a few times a week.

    If I own something, it's mine forever. My DVDs of The Wire (which I've finally cracked open) are sitting on my shelf, and I can pull it out whenever I want. Even if my internet goes down, or I'm hard up for cash and can't afford the net for that month, I can watch them.

    One argument for the streaming services, which is a purely hypothetical one at this stage, is that you could theoretically have access to new versions of films you own. When the 60th Anniversary 4K remaster of A Hard Day's Night comes out, I'll have no compunction in paying for it again, but a subscription service might allow you to simply start streaming the new copy instead of the existing DVD master.

    But even that is unlikely, as the major incentive for studios to shell out for costly remastering jobs is that schmucks like me will keep paying for better versions of films we already own.

  3. These are all valid arguments, but I think you could make the same argument about the potential breakdown of a streaming service with owned dvds as well, which are prone to scratches and damage, as well as dvd players that can become outdated very quickly as technology advances exponentially.

    Point being: both sides have good points. I think there will continue to be a big shift into streaming content and online viewing (just as both home video and cable tv changed the way we were able to watch movies and television) but not in ways that negate the current ways we own and watch content (just as cable and home video didn't negate theatrical movie experiences nor usurp the big network channels like ABC, CBS & NBC).

    Anyway, good article! thanks

  4. On the flipside, with something like spotify while you never actually own Who's Next, every time you listen to it the band gets a few cents. I'd be curious to know how many listens it would take for them to make as much as they do off me buying it at a record store.

    Despite the shift to streaming, I think collector's will always collect and that fancy hardcore fan only versions catering to the 1000 true fans will only grow in popularity. There's so much identity tied up in ownership!