Let’s Get Physical

The joys of having stuff

Laptop computer with reflection CD DVD optical drive open cd-rom set.
Kseniya Ovchinnikova/Moment/Getty Images
Nicholas Russell

There’s a store out here in the Southwest called Zia Records. They have locations in Vegas, Tucson, and Phoenix. I played a “show” there once with my drum teacher in high school, though I really can’t begin to recall let alone describe what that show consisted of. Playing along to tracks on a drum kit in the back of the room while people tried to browse, if I had to guess. What I do remember, very clearly, is the feeling I had when I walked into that store for the first time: I thought it was the dumbest place in the world.

Racks and racks of CDs and vinyl, shelves stuffed with DVDs and used books, that humid smell of old paper and human breath. I missed the physical media indoctrination by a long shot. The closest you’d ever find me coming to fetishistic object worship was my iPod Classic, which I still stand by. Fast forward a decade: Vinyl sales are booming, available from the biggest artists in the world at your local Target. People are buying physical books again. CD sales are up for the first time in almost twenty years. Somehow, cassette tapes are still being made.

The gloss and promise of a digital utopia has clearly worn off a bit. Rather than bridge the gap between clunky, space-gobbling stuff and invisible, frictionless content, companies have dug in, bet big on streaming, shuffling titles and rights about like divorced parents trading children, while also trying to capitalize on the aesthetic nostalgia for earlier eras (’80s neon and synths, ’90s hip hop and grunge, etc), when things were more analog. Meanwhile, a lot of people have opted to go back to those clunky and slightly garish objects, not instead of streaming, but as another alternative, hedging their bets. After all, what happens when a movie you used to love watching as a kid on TV isn’t available on Netflix or Paramount Plus or Hulu or Tubi or HBOMax or Disney Plus? Same question, but with music and every other streamer?

The nerds would say that such a situation is highly unlikely, that if you can’t find it on a service for which you already have a subscription, you can torrent it, or scour the web for a free file somewhere. The cinephiles and audiophiles might point to, say, archival efforts by Martin Scorsese, whose Film Foundation put out a much-tweeted statistic that half of all American films before 1950 are lost, or Spotify’s recent outage, as evidence that physical media needs to be bought immediately as a safeguard against loss of access in the event of a Fight Club-level data wipeout. Both sides are annoying, or at least, have the potential to be, but I’ll throw in with the melodramatic olds over the camp that think NFTs are cool, who are also old.

I can tell you right now, I have very little romantic attachment to the platonic physical media thing. I think vinyl records are certainly beautiful objects, bewilderingly simple pieces of engineering that change your engagement with music, if only for the simple fact that they make changing songs fussy and time-consuming. Cassettes are some of the worst vehicles for music I’ve ever come across, so cheap and quick to degrade that they might as well just be miniature album posters. Books are perfect. CDs are okay; the first one I ever bought was Jesse McCartney’s debut album, which baffled me then and continues to baffle me now.

But any pleasure I derive from these things, any sentimentality, and subsequently, any sense of defensiveness and outrage I feel when people try to hail the pleasures of the objectless internet, comes from the fact that I feel a greater sense of curation, intentionality, attachment, reverence for the music and movies and literature I care about. I can point to something on a shelf and hand it to someone visiting my house and say “Yes, here is my used copy of Van Helsing, complete with a riotously funny DVD commentary from the supporting cast members, who all take turns making fun of Hugh Jackman. Take this. Watch it. Please, God, don’t lose it.”

Of course, that’s the tradeoff: shit breaks, it scratches, it cracks, it disappears, it takes up space you can’t afford, and you have to move it every time you find a new place you can barely afford. But the physical is an imposition and that’s what’s so valuable about it. You have to get up to flip the record. You have to organize the library. It might sound ridiculous, but surrounding myself with the clutter of wanton desire and impulsiveness that is my DVD collection, or my corner of graphic novels, which has long outgrown both shelves, or the case of CDs in my car’s glove box, reminds me of who I am, or who I’m not anymore. These are disposable things and I have no plans to pass them to my imaginary children or virtuously donate them to a museum. They simply exist and after a while, they start to weather and eventually, I’ll need to replace them. But more likely than not, when I go shopping at a Goodwill or thrift shop, I’ll find something else I didn’t know I wanted. Spontaneity of that kind is a hard experience to replicate.

The last time I was at Zia Records, I dropped something like $200 on CDs. All of it and none of it was precious and I know I’ll do it again when I have enough money. Now, there are annoyances that come with a Bluetooth-less life. Because I do hate when I leave my iPod at home and the aux cord starts acting up and I have to scroll through my library while I’m driving when I could just pop in The Police’s Synchronicity and have that be that. But limitations have their place and I think it’s fun to hand my friends a big leather disc folder and say “Pick one.”

Nicholas Russell is a writer from Las Vegas. His work has been featured in The Believer, Defector, Reverse Shot, Vulture, The Guardian, NPR Music, and The Point, among other publications.