The other day I found Tackhead's incredible Tackhead Tape Time album up on eMusic. I say get it now, because one of the disadvantages of download services is that you have no idea if, or when, any one product will remain there. (This happened to me with an Akos Rozmann album I was looking for: here today, deleted tomorrow.)
The day before that I found — and this made my mind really melt — Timothy Carey's maverick underground/indie project The World's Greatest Sinner on, of all places, iTunes. Amazon also has their own entry for it, but it hasn't gone live as of this writing. This was a movie I expected to be forever condemned to the tape-and-file-trading circuit, but we got lucky: Carey's estate and heirs have restored the film and are the ones responsible for recirculating it.
This sort of thing has long been the exception, not the rule. For decades, most such tape-trader material languished in a vault somewhere because nobody knew what to do with it. With the advent of the DVD era, much of it started to get dusted off and reissued; now, with downloads and streaming being the next big way to get one's fix, it becomes even less costly to get this stuff out to people legitimately. The downside, of course, is that you no longer have something physical.
A DVD or Blu-ray (or a CD) is an object, and there's more than just pride of ownership at work there — it's the convenience of knowing you don't have to rely on someone else's potentially friable infrastructure to enjoy something. Yes, you need electricity to play a DVD, but my power goes out a heck of a lot less than my internet connection — it's the rare day when I don't have at least one outage — and so I'm a little prejudiced. When my net's out, I can't do much of anything except read a book or watch a movie, and I really rather appreciate being able to do the latter without needing, well, an internet connection.
Sad truth is I suspect in time physical media will be seen as, at best, the luxury item — the way the LP made a comeback, for instance, might well be the fate that the CD and DVD/BD ultimately share. They will be boutique formats, reserved for pressings of a few thousand at once, for those who care to actually own something. And that wouldn't be a terrible thing, actually: it might well make them that much more worth having, in the way that a coffeetable-style artbook may cost you $40, but is made in such a way that it is worth every penny and then some. Yoshitaka Amano's Coffin: The Art of Vampire Hunter D was a gift from a friend, but I would have still paid full price to own it given the sheer staggering beauty of the thing. The same goes for Amano's forthcoming Deva Zan as well.
It's not that I'm wholly unsympathetic to the idea that we could afford to have a few less of those plastic beer mats floating around in our ecosystem. These things do cost us something, although we shouldn't be naïve enough to believe streaming has no environmental impact, either — it costs something to keep those servers on and running continuously. The impact for pressing a CD or DVD, on the other hand, is a one-time thing that can be more easily tabulated and sequestered. And since we still have a long ways to go before those data centers are all solar-powered and have zero carbon footprints ...
I've said before how I don't think e-books can ever completely kill print, because there are some things that simply cannot be done any other way except by putting ink on paper. I am less convinced the same thing can be said about audio or video, but in those cases it's not about the delivery mechanism or even the archival quality — it's about having something not vanish entirely when its contract expires, or something that is still protected by the doctrine of first sale. Those things matter more than we might think.