When everything is digital, why we long for media we can hold in our hands

After years of digitizing everything, people are rediscovering the value of physical assets: records you can hold in your hands, a shelf lined with DVDs and the satisfying 'click' of a film camera.

People are rediscovering the value of DVDs, records after years of digitizing everything

A man in a checkered shirt stands in a room full of DVDs.
Tom Ivison, the owner of Classic Video, stands in his shop in Kingston, Ont., on Wednesday. Ivison says he believes Classic Video has stayed in business because of the inventory that his customers can't find on streaming services. (Natalie Stechyson/CBC)

Struan Sutherland is a self-described "movie guy."

He started collecting movies on VHS as a teenager. Now, as an adult, he collects DVDs — and estimates that he owns about 500 of them. He'd own quite a few more, he says, except that he sells or gives away some movies he no longer likes.

"I've always liked the idea of owning the movies I like; the ones that I want to watch over and over again," said Sutherland, 40, from his home in Halifax.

"Things come and go from streaming, so it's nicer to just own the movies that you sort of identify most with."

It's a feeling increasingly shared by consumers and collectors across Canada. After years of digitizing everything, people are rediscovering the value of physical assets. DVDs, vinyl records and film cameras are all experiencing a renaissance. Even cassette tapes are making a comeback.

Last year, for the second year in a row, vinyl albums outsold CD albums in the in the U.S., Billboard reported in January (and the manufacturers are struggling to keep pace with the growth). In terms of photography, Kodak said in 2022 that it "can't keep up" with the demand for film.

A man stands in front of a shelf of DVDs
Struan Sutherland poses with his DVD collection in Halifax on Tuesday. He estimates he has about 500 DVDs in his personal collection. (Struan Sutherland)

And while DVD sales have been in decline for a decade, Richard Lachman, an associate professor in the RTA School of Media at Toronto Metropolitan University, notes that they're now declining "more slowly."

There are a number of factors that could be contributing to the resurgence of physical media, from disenchantment with streaming services to longing for a physical (as opposed to virtual) object, said Lachman.

"More people are spending a lot more time consuming media at home. And they're building rooms, or are collecting in some way. And DVDs are physical objects. They look nice in a room," Lachman said.

"The physicality of it is part of the joy you're getting from the fandom."

'I'm the algorithm'

In an old limestone building in Kingston, Ont., tucked between a brew pub and a hotel parking garage, is a DVD rental store that has managed to survive while so many others across the country haven't.

Chain stores Blockbuster and Rogers Video shuttered in the mid-2010s, for instance, as customers moved to streaming and video-on-demand services. And in its 2022 report on Canada's DVD, game and video rental market, industry research company IBISWorld noted that profits have decreased 11.8 per cent since 2017.

"The industry is in a state of severe and prolonged decline," the report said.

But Classic Video boasts more than 50,000 DVDs and Blu-rays, and a loyal customer base that has been strolling into the shop just off the downtown waterfront for more than 35 years.

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Tom Ivison, owner of Classic Video in Kingston, Ont., explains that even though business has been tough, customers continue to come in to find titles they can't get on streaming services.

While he admits it's been a challenge, owner Tom Ivison says he believes Classic Video has stayed in business because of the inventory that his customers can't find on streaming services. For instance, he says, the most popular sections (after new releases, of course), are the British section and the horror section. 

"There's a lot of product here not available online. And there aren't many other avenues to access that programming, and that definitely brings in people," Ivison said.

A limestone building with a sign that says Classic Video.
Classic Video is nestled between a brew pub and a hotel parking garage. The store boasts more than 50,000 DVDs and Blu-rays. (Natalie Stechyson/CBC)

Standing at the store's front desk, which he calls the nucleus of the shop, Ivison says there's something else his shop offers that streaming doesn't: a human being.

"In a weird way, I'm the algorithm here at the store," he said.

"Using a streaming service, it's more data collection in terms of what someone may watch. I have to know my customers and have a sense of what they may want to watch or not want to watch. That's important."

A room lined with shelves filled with DVDs. In the foreground is an orange chair. And a sign that says Classic Video.
Ivison says the basement of Classic Video is where they keep some of their most popular collections. (Natalie Stechyson/CBC)

Lachman noted that we're currently in a "much more chaotic" streaming marketplace than even just a few years ago. Between Netflix, Apple TV+, Crave, Hulu and Disney+ (just to name a few), there's more choice, more costs and more complexity.

"You might have two seasons on one streaming platform, two seasons on another streaming platform, and then they disappear in a year when the rights agreements change," Lachman said.

"So if you're a fan of that series, you buy it."

Vinyl can barely keep up with demand

As for vinyl, demand for records has been growing in double-digits for more than a decade, the Associated Press reported last year. As a result, dozens of record-pressing factories have been built to try to meet demand in North America — and it's still not enough.

Now, as a younger generation buys turntables, some recording artists like Adele, Ariana Grande, Taylor Swift and Harry Styles have been moving to vinyl. Some have even accused Adele of causing the vinyl manufacturing delays when she released her album 30 to vinyl in 2021, although industry experts noted at the time that the problems plaguing the pressing industry were not new.

In Toronto, Jeff Barber, the owner of music shop Sonic Boom, notes that while the resurgence of vinyl isn't necessarily new, the pandemic took it to another level. 

"We started selling more and more turntables, speakers, and in line with that, a heck of a lot more records," Barber said.

Since then, the store's clientele has become much more diverse, he said, with a lot of younger female customers buying records. Now, it's common to have 15-year olds coming in to buy everything from old re-issues to new releases, Barber said.

The inside of a record store. Some people browse titles. The sign says new releases.
Customers shop in Sonic Boom record store in Toronto on Wednesday. Owner Jeff Barber credits nostalgia (for the older buyers) and perhaps a technological backlash (for the younger buyers) for vinyl's popularity. (Bryce Kushnier/Sonic Boom)

To illustrate that eclectic mix, the store's top sellers last year included American rappers Tyler, the Creator and Kendrick Lamar, Fleetwood Mac's classic 1977 album Rumours, and of course, Taylor Swift.

He credits nostalgia (for the older buyers) and perhaps a technological backlash (for the younger buyers) for vinyl's popularity. And it's not just vinyl, he said, but CDs are popular again, too, and it doesn't stop there.

"We can barely keep cassettes in stock," Barber said. "They sell like crazy."

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He notes that some of his younger customers just want physical mementos of the artists they enjoy — something they can buy, hold in their hands, and collect. Records, CDs and cassette tapes fit that bill.

And while it's fun to listen to music, it's not necessarily fun to stream it, Barber added. But going home and putting a record on the turntable is not only fun, he said, it's also ritualistic.

"There's something about the process that engages you with the music more."


Perhaps ironically, a large driver of the interest in another form of physical media comes from social media. #FilmCamera has 731.9 million views on TikTok, and #35mm has 785 million views.

Many of the videos posted compare photos taken on an iPhone with photos taken on film, with the latter showing more stylistic, nostalgic-looking shots. One video with more than two million views simply compares two shots taken off the side of a boat.

Another six-second video with more than 441,600 views shows a young, female photographer taking a picture of film using her film camera.

Lackman says it's a combination of nostalgia and style that's driving film's popularity with a younger generation. On Instagram, where there are 12.4 million #FilmCamera posts; people post images of everything from ice cream stands and moody beaches to their pets and parties.

"Film is more fun," one young user wrote on Instagram in a post where she is promoting a pair of sunglasses.

Using film also just gives a sense of being really into something; of going the extra mile, Lachman said.

"Digital photography is so effortless, so easy, so surrounding you, that being able to pause and take time for something becomes something that gives pleasure. It gives joy."


Natalie Stechyson

Senior writer and editor

Natalie Stechyson is a senior writer and editor at CBC News. She's worked in newsrooms across the country in her 12+ years of journalism experience, including the Globe and Mail, Postmedia News, Calgary Herald and Brunswick News. Before joining CBC News, she was the Parents editor at HuffPost Canada, where she won a silver Canadian Online Publishing Award.

With files from The Associated Press