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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

Published: 2012/11/28
by David Steinberg

Ending Physical Media

It being the holidays, once again Phish released a DVD, this time of Star Lake 98. I’m always excited for new Phish videos and I intend to purchase it. In fact, I rushed to the iTunes store (where I have some credit) to see if I could download it to my media server. It wasn’t there.

Curious, I ran a quick test on the video section of the iTunes store. Phish: no matches under movies. The Grateful Dead had a documentary about their final tour but that was it. There wasn’t a complete shut out – a few very recent Widespread Panic concerts were available, the Disco Biscuits had Bisco Inferno 12, and Umphrey’s McGee had a live performance from 2009 – but the vast majority of concert releases are available in DVD form only.

While the concert selection is reduced in general – classics such as Simon and Garfunkel in Central Park and Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense are also not for sale – many older bands have iTunes movies. The Rolling Stones are the standard bearers with six releases but The Who, Michael Jackson, and Paul McCartney also are among the huge names that aren’t scared away.

There are some serious advantages for increasing availability. People are changing their viewing habits. Tablets are becoming more common and devices like Rokus and Apple TVs are gaining in popularity. When I purchase a DVD, the first thing I do is rip it into Apple Universal format with Handbrake. It then can be watched both over my network to my televisions and on a plane with my iPad. Streaming is a wave of the future and bands like Phish and the Grateful Dead who have revolutionized what it means to be a band and how one distributes music are being late to this show. Right now it might not make any individual band a fortune but one of the great things about digital distribution is that it’s much easier to take risks. If you create 10,000 DVDs and only sell 5000, you have to figure out what to do with the remaining product. If you put an item for sale on Amazon’s Instant Video, it’ll be available whenever someone wants it. You don’t have to worry correctly estimating demand.

Excess demand isn’t the only environmental aspect at play. Let’s say I buy a copy of the Grateful Dead Movie on DVD. A pile of plastic and paper is gathered, shrink wrapped with extra plastic, and then shipped hundreds – if not thousands – of miles to get to me. If I stream or download it, the only cost is the power to get the data across the Internet. Admittedly I’m biased living in the land of hydroelectricity, but that seems to be significantly less wasteful.

Mind you, I can see two objections to moving towards allowing your products to be available from downloadable stores [1]. The practical objection is that it does take some effort to encode the movie. Seeing how every major studio release is available these days on the big downloading sites, it’s hard to imagine that that is a huge stumbling block. The other problem is a philosophical one. As long as people think of movies as an object that you buy or rent, it’s harder to think about getting them illegally. It wasn’t until people thought of music as being something separate from the object that reproduced it that Napster and then Oink really took over. However, Netflix isn’t going anywhere.

Once you get a tablet, it’s hard to return to the previous way of existing. In the same way that no one could handle not having hundreds of hours with them at all times, being able to carry a large collection of movies and TV shows with you while you’re in a waiting room or a flight is addictive. In the next few years, the movement towards having movie collections with us will increase. Now is the time to jump onboard and let us purchase videos online. The paradigm shift is already happening so it’s best to encourage the model that monetizes downloads rather than have people look towards bit torrent. The goal is to get people to fall into the habit of purchasing media rather than looking for free sites; the only way that can ever happen is if it’s there early in the process.

[1] Before anyone brings up copy protection, Apple at least only sells files with DRM. My ripped file that I create from Handbrake would not have the same protection. Assuming that I just want a digital file, it’s better for the artist that I procure it from iTunes rather than buy the DVD and rip it. People are lazy enough that they’ll go for the easier solution instead of the DRM-free one.


David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capital Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at and he’s on the board of directors for The Mockingbird Foundation. He occasionally posts at the blog and has a daily update on the Phish Stats Facebook page

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