Thursday, July 29, 2010

Digital culture means less public culture

When I was a young adult in the late 1970s and early 1980s, my friends and I would hang out in video game arcades, record stores and video rental stores. Now those types of businesses are gone or disappearing.
Cultural businesses – those selling art and entertainment like music, books, movies and video games – are rapidly going digital and moving online and into people’s homes.
Those cultural pursuits are moving from physical stores to personal computers and mobile devices. As such, the experience of learning about new music, books and movies and sharing enthusiasm for those works is shifting from a community setting to a solitary one.
Sure, there are websites for sharing opinions about music and other art, but I’d argue something’s been lost as a culture by not having a physical gathering spot for those interests.

Music stores

I remember the enjoyment I got from flipping through racks of vinyl LP records, looking for new music. I could get recommendations from record store clerks based on music I already liked or learn about new music from what the stores played.
I liked the whole feel of those record stores with rock posters covering the walls. They often had boards listing upcoming album release dates and concert tour info. Some stores even sold concert tickets.
Later, LP records with their 12-inch sleeves and beautiful artwork gave way to compact discs. And then the Internet made music stores obsolete, first with illegal free file-sharing services like the original Napster, then with legal paid download services like Apple’s iTunes.
Large chains, like Virgin Music stores, and independents folded because of lost business.
Yes, the selection of music available online today and the ability to sample songs, research artists and find out about tour dates are impressive. But I think the music industry suffers from the lack of a physical presence in communities.
By itself, the loss of music stores is sad. But combined with the loss of other types of entertainment stores, it's devastating to our culture.

Video game stores

Video games got their start in arcades. I spent a lot of quarters on games like Asteroids, Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Q*bert and Dig Dug.
But as technology prices came down and processing power increased, public arcades gave way to private in-home gaming systems from Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft.
The arcades ultimately went away and stores selling video game hardware and software popped up.
Now with digital downloads, the need for specialty retail stores to sell gaming software and other products has diminished. GameStop, the retail video game giant, now looks vulnerable and is investing in its own online games.
GameStop has been the center of the gaming world for a lot of young people. They go to the store to check out new titles, trade in their old games, and talk to the salespeople about games. But as with music, that conversation also is moving online.

Movie rental stores

When video rental stores like Blockbuster cropped up in the 1980s, it was a boon for movie lovers. Instead of waiting for a movie to air on TV or for it to play at a revival theater, you could just rent it and watch it at home.
VHS cassettes gave way to DVDs, which allowed competitors with new business models such as Netflix (DVDs by mail) and Redbox (DVD vending machines) to enter the market. Those two companies helped drive traditional video rental stores like Hollywood Video out of business. Now Blockbuster is bleeding red ink and soon may join them.
The growing popularity of online video streaming from Netflix and others is likely the final nail in the coffin of video rental stores.
Once again, the loss of video rental stores will take an entertainment art form from a public destination to a strictly private setting.

Bookstores

Bookstores like Barnes & Noble and Borders became destinations when they started adding coffee shops and cafes for customers.
But with the growing popularity of e-book readers like Amazon.com’s Kindle and Apple’s iPad, you have to wonder how much time bookstores have left. It’s hard to compete against a limitless virtual inventory of e-books.
Plus, you don’t have to drive to the store to look for a book or hope it’s in stock. With 3G enabled Kindles and iPads, you can download a book to your portable device almost anywhere and start reading it in seconds.
Amazon recently announced that it’s selling more digital books than physical books now.

So once bookstores, music stores, video rental stores and video game stores are gone, where will people, especially young adults, go for culture?
I don’t know. Hopefully new entertainment and cultural businesses will rise up and fill the gap.

This is the latest in a series of articles called “The Failed Promise of Digital Content.”

Photo: Taosound record store in Taos, New Mexico.

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