May 24, 2019
On Being Toward the Middle of the End
I switched jobs a few months back. Now, normally this would be an insignificant piece of information to all but my most immediate family. However, if the past is any indication of the future, a change like this bodes ill for someone or something. Let me explain. My new job is closer to home, which is a definite plus, in that I no longer have to commute an hour to work every day. Sadly, it has also meant not having that hour to read, and as a result, I have been stuck on the same chapter of Robert Kaplan’s fascinating book The Ends of the Earth’s for the past month. The change also brought with it new post-work activities. Previously, I had made it a habit of dropping by a secondhand bookstore called Molly’s, which also sold DVDs and CDs; Asia 1, one of the few remaining video stores in Taipei, and a handful of retailers specializing in DVDs and Blu-ray in a part of Taipei known for selling electronics and digital entertainment. Having a job closer to home meant far fewer jaunts to these and other similar places.
Over the past week, I’ve made two trips to my old stomping grounds, and both of them left me feeling like a buzzard picking apart the carcass of a wounded animal as it lie dying in front of me. On my first trip, I dropped by a few DVDs stores near the Zhongxiao Xinsheng MRT station. Things looked more than a little unusual at the second one I visited. There, empty DVDs cases littered the floor, and rows that had previously been packed with the latest seasons of popular television shows now had only a few stragglers remaining. The rest of the shelves were only halfway stocked, and all around were notices announcing discounted prices of NT $29 ($1) and NT $100 (around $3). Upon closer inspection, it looked as if the place had not received any shipments of new releases for at least two weeks. I didn’t have to ask. I could tell it was not a question of if, but when, and that turned out to be the following day.
A week later, I made my way back to the area around Guting MRT station in Taipei City. This is an area that in the heyday of DVDs was an ideal location for rental shops. Situated near residential areas, several schools for young children, and two universities, at one time it was home to a Blockbuster Video, two Asia 1s, and a number of mom and pop video rental stores. Only one of these was still standing, an Asia 1, now named Tsutaya.
At least, that’s what I thought as I made my way there on the MRT. However, upon entering the establishment, I was greeted by numerous signs proclaiming 2 for 1 sales, and I was immediately struck by how much was for sale. Just a few weeks earlier, the section for used rental Blu-rays was so small that it likely consisted of under 20 titles, and most of those had been 3D versions of popular films for which there had never seemed to be much interest. Now secondhand Blu-rays had taken over an entire section of the store that had previously been devoted to Award winners, a section that no longer seemed to exist. In fact, the only DVDs that were not for sale were recent releases, such as The Mule and The Favorite, indicating that the store was not likely to disappear completely until at least the end of the month.
My cumulative take from these two unfortunate situations: fourteen discounted DVDs. As I said, I was vulture-like.
Both of these incident occurred in the backdrop of an April 2019 report that showed that sales of physical media had fallen by 50% since 2014. And there was an additional foreboding sign – DVDs still accounted for almost 58% of sales. The industry’s most recent supposed knight in shining armor, 4K Blu-ray, had failed to energize consumers, accounting for just 5.3% of sales. There was some good news, though, though not for collectors like me. Spending on digital video services had grown 16 per cent over a twelve month period on the strength of companies such as Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu. Streaming and cable appear to be the big winners, DVD and Blu-ray the clear losers.
And so, alas, the closings are likely to continue.
I often joke that I am bad for the home video industry. Upon my first return to the United States, Tower Records folded. My second was greeted by Everything Must Go signs at Blockbuster Video. On my most recent, trip I found Rasputin a shell of its former self. Relocated to the end of Haight Street, it was now selling mostly secondhand DVDs and Blu-rays at prices so low it could only indicate that the market was oversaturated. Even thrift stores now had shelves of DVDs, and there didn’t seem to be much of a market for them at those places, either. In many specialty stores, previously expensive out of print DVDs were now relatively reasonably priced, and chains that had once stocked a wide variety of films seems to be content with carrying just recent releases and about fifty of the most popular titles – though it is hard to say just how big the market for Titanic and The Usual Suspects is anymore.
All things end; in truth, they are meant to. Every generation sees the world through a prism shaped by modern technology and current events. A generation that could stream and download movies was never going to prop up an industry whose business model was partly based on selling physical copies of the very things that could now be watched or downloaded digitally. The end of the video store and the decline of physical media are, therefore, to be expected. They have passed their peak, and it is all downhill from here. Let the procession begin. The king is dead. Long live whatever comes next.