Friday, July 15, 2011

Rent, Buy or Steal?

What Would Bob Do? - Colin Hay (mp3)

Blockbuster closed again. This is the third store in our area to shut down in the last year or so, and this one was close to our house.

When the previous one closed down, I asked the manager at this one how long she thought they’d survive, and she said, “Oh, there’s no plans to downsize us. We’re doing fairly well all things considered. We’ll be here a while.”

Apparently “a while” equals about half a year.

The two streams of commerce and popular culture continue to collide in strange and unprecedented ways as we try and figure out this concept called CONTENT.

When I buy the latest Matt Nathanson album on mp3, what do I own? What did I pay for?
When I buy a Kindle book, what do I own?
When I buy Season 1 of Archer on Amazon, what did I pay for?

Why do we, collectively, seem more comfortable owning books, renting movies, and stealing music?

When they have increasingly all just become slightly different versions of pop culture content? Rent, Buy or Steal?

These aren't new questions, but it fascinates me that I still don't quite know how to answer them, and I consider myself well past the midway point on the TechnoBell Curve.

Almost everyone I know who likes but doesn't love music spends 80% of their music time on Pandora. They don't have to buy anything, and they get to listen to something akin to the radio, and they don't have to make but a few decisions to do it.

People of all religions and income levels, with all levels of music love, steal music. They even call it "stealing music" and seem minimally bothered by it, apparently because it's not as blatantly wrong as walking into John Cusack's music store and physically having to enact the Five-Finger Discount. "Data Transfer" just doesn't sound as criminal.

This happens with movies, too, of course, but the film industry seems to have done a better job of getting ahead of the curve by giving consumers who prefer being honorable (and I think most consumers are like this) options to watch movies via the Internet without excessive cost.

At least three of every four friends of mine is on Netflix... for now. The ability to watch digital streams of unlimited movies and TV shows through the computer totally tipped the scales. Music has these options: Rhapsody, Napster, and the new kid to the US party, Spotify. But people don't seem quite as willing to pay rent for music rights.

Maybe it's about digestion. The longer it takes you to get through the content experience, the more obligated we feel, culturally, to own it. Books take the longest, so we still feel like it's only right to buy them. Songs mostly run five minutes or less, the equivalent of a few pages in a novel, so we don't feel so badly about just stealing them or trading them with friends like baseball cards. Movies, falling somewhere in the middle and not frequently re-experienced by the average fan, get rented.

I only know I feel like I'm somehow falling behind. One of my favorite pasttimes was to walk into Blockbuster, rifle through their Previously Viewed aisles looking for their best "2 for $20" or "4 for $20" offerings, and biting off a few fingernails while wondering if the DVDs I had picked out were really worth my 20 bucks. Two-thirds of the time, I'd walk back out with nothing and feel like I'd earned some small, meaningless moral victory of fiscal responsibility.

But those times when I do buy, the movies go home with me, and they get added to my ebbing and flowing bookshelf row of Movies To Watch, and I lovingly stack them and plan for my next late night viewing experience.

I was so distraught over Blockbuster's closure that I drove straight to Best Buy and bought the first two seasons of The West Wing, a show I've never seen, for $14.99 each. That's, like, $0.75 an episode, and I'd totally pay $1 to cut the 20 minutes of advertising out of any TV show I watched and to be able to watch it whenever I felt like it. This is a universally true statement.

I took home 45 episodes. They're mine. I own them. I'm an owner. I like owning things despite the flaws in the approach. My collection of some 200 DVD movies and some 20 boxes of TV shows loses value every day even as I cherish my ability to obsess over something as meager and laughable as DVDs, something that will one day be mentioned in the same breath as VHS.

But I've never been comfortable with renting. No matter how practical, it just doesn't feel right to me. Something about knowing it's mine, and that I acquired it legally and properly, and that it will always be there until I choose to get rid of it, that all just feels better to me.


Billy Bob said...

I've tried to join the free trial of Spotify, haven't heard back yet, but as I understand it, essentially I'd be getting access (eventually for a price) to every song all the time?

It sounds cool in a way, but like you, I have odd mixed feelings about that, just like I do about Pandora choosing my music for me, especially since their ultimate goal is to get me to buy what they choose.

It's getting interesting.

Bob said...

As for what would Bob do?

Music: I buy
Movies: I rent
Space on a file-storage site: I steal from Billy

Daisy said...

Why is that most people are so happy to pay to rent a movie, but would be outraged if the local library charged the same fee to borrow a book?

II am more likely to purchase movies for my kids, but rent for myself as the likelihood that I will watch something over and over is much less.

There are few movies/shows I am content to watch a million times and West Wing is at the top of that list! It is without a doubt my single favorite television series to date.

rodle said...

Jeb Bartlett for President!!