The 2023 holiday season was another last hurrah. One of the last bastions, Best Buy has been a stalwart brick-and-mortar retailer of audio/video gear and movies. But its inventory of silvery discs will soon disappear. Last fall, Best Buy announced it will stop selling DVDs and Blu-ray Discs in-store and online in early 2024. As of this writing, a Movies & Music category still exists on best.buy.com and movie discs are still available for sale, at least in one New Jersey store we checked. But for how much longer?
Apparently, getting out of the disc business is a financially prudent thing to do. The once ubiquitous racks of discs are fast disappearing from the electronics departments of both big-box and small-box stores. Yes, some grocery stores have tubs ‘o movies, but that’s just sad. The reality is that the retail movie floor space is giving way to something presumably far more profitable, like iPhone cases or screen protectors, or something. Also very sad.
Much like a zombie apocalypse, sawed-off Remington in hand, we can fight bravely, but the final chapter seems like it’s only a matter of time. The onslaught directed at us, of course, is a veritable torrent of ones and zeroes, as unstoppable as a mother’s love and as inevitable as death and taxes. Bit by bit, word by word, physical media is being relentlessly replaced by streaming.
Once upon a time, if you lived in an urban area, you might have shopped at a Virgin Records store. Or, even better, maybe you wandered over to your local mom and pop record shop. Flipping through bins, music and movies, treasure-hunting, finding that special disc, the thrill of discovery. The uber-cool and knowledgeable cashier nods approvingly at your selection, you take possession, the sense of anticipation, impatience. Back home, that satisfyingly sagging shelf, titles alphabetically aligned. Unique, personal, a sense of identity and accomplishment — your disc collection. Drop the needle, load the tray, sit back. Everything is right with the world.
Many years ago, along with many others, I predicted the advent of the “Celestial Jukebox”, an online depository of movies and music, all available at the touch of a button. It all seemed so wonderful. Now, a few finger swipes, more smudges on the screen, tap, play. Lawrence of Arabia on 15 square inches and the free earbuds you got on your last flight. Hmm, everything is not right with the world.
Above: The movie section at a Best Buy in New Jersey in mid-October 2023. Below: As of mid-February 2024, the now considerably smaller movie section has been moved to the front of the store. A sales associate said she expects discs to be available for maybe another two to three months in that store.
Of course, there is no turning back. One after another, the zombie horde is overrunning the retailers. The loss of Best Buy is a major blow. But Walmart, that impregnable brick-and-mortar fortress of retail might, probably accounting for half of the entire remaining DVD/Blu-ray market, will continue to sell the silvery tokens, and Amazon is still fulfilling online. At least for now.
And the silver discs have their defenders. As filmmaker Christopher Nolan recently noted, “In the case of Oppenheimer, we put a lot of care and attention into the Blu-ray…a version you can buy and own at home and put on a shelf so no evil streaming service can come steal it from you.” The implication being, of course, that your favorite online movie might be there one day, then gone the next. With a disc, you can own the movie in perpetuity. All well and good, but ultimately Nolan’s defensive line will be breached. One day, Hollywood studios will decide that they will no longer release their blockbusters on disc.
Interestingly, vinyl music, ornery analog critter that it is, is metaphysically immune to streaming. If it streams, it’s digital. And that would negate the whole purpose of analog audio. CD, DVD, and Blu-ray, on the other hand, digital kissing cousins to streaming, are easily subsumed by the torrent. Aside from a broken plastic case, for the typical consumer, there is little to differentiate a disc from a stream except for the fact that the stream seems much, much better. As a wise man once said, bits are bits. To point out the uniqueness of analog, I would add, waveforms are not bits. Amid the binary carnage, Fortress Analog soldiers on.
Of course, while the typical consumer might not care, and indeed welcomes the convenience of streaming, ‘philes are rightfully distressed. Once again, the battle of convenience versus quality must be fought. And ‘philes know how that battle always ends. It ends in a chat room in some very sub, subforum of aficionados and diehards with a late-night discussion of exactly when we reached, then pulled back from, the high-water mark. Eventually, the discussion devolves into an argument over whether that Japanese store that still sells “the good stuff” is real, or only a myth. In that very cold place, we vainly try to warm ourselves over a neatly wired complication of 12AX7s, glowing ruddy red in the darkness.
I have fought bravely, even heroically. But it’s only a matter of time before they win. The day will come when I am barricaded in my home theater, squeezed in among the shelves of physical media from the bygone days. The streamers pounding mercilessly at my door, I take one last disc from its case, blow gently across its silvery surface, then sigh as the door gives way and they throw themselves upon me.
Ken C. Pohlmann is an electrical engineer specializing in audio topics as a consultant and writer. He is Professor Emeritus at the University of Miami.