We had a talk with Ben Minnotte on a recent episode of the VHS Rewind! podcast. Ben is a guy who collects (even hoards) ancient electronic and mechanical gear, most of it in the audio-visual spectrum. Ben runs a very successful internet program called The Oddity Archive. If you go to the site right now (or after you read this bit), you’ll see a respectable episode list highlighting adventures in foreign video formats, on-the-air sabotage and video piracy tactics, a tribute to the Emergency Broadcast System, an investigation into subliminal messages and backwards masking, or (in a recent episode), audio cassette-based board games like “Clue” and “Girl Talk Date Line”.
Nostalgia appears to be at an all-time high in popularity. There are hundreds of Facebook groups devoted to specific niches, namely VHS, Laserdisc (of course), Betamax, vinyl, cassettes and cartridges, 8-Tracks, 4-Tracks, Reel-to-Reel – it goes on and on. I continue to be impressed at the collections devoted followers of specific formats amass. Some people like to possess these items, store them in their closets or basements. One guy I know has turned his entire home into a video store of sorts. They go to flea markets and thrift stores, tag sales and storage rooms all for the chance to own something like the first Japanese laser pressing of “Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers” signed by Fred Olen Ray himself!
Ben comes in at the right time with The Oddity Archive. Every episode is an incredible education. For instance, I was always curious how 8-Track tapes worked. Lo and behold, he has an episode which gives us the history and the mechanics of this amazing contraption. To me, it seems it’s a lot more fun to watch Ben talk about an 8-Track tape than it is to actually own one. The Internet does not hit you over the head with ideas (like television or movies). Instead, it invites you to seek out what interests you and it is really up to the user to decide whether or not they are interested, so it seems obvious that nostalgia, that love for old technology would eventually find a home on the web.
Ben’s adventures are not without frustration. As bizarre as it sounds, he has been blocked and/or banned from posting information because of craven copyright laws, idiots seeking to make a buck because of a freely-available video or audio clip, or even a picture of a trademarked item. If these corporate entities and greedy collaboratives had any sense, they would realize people like Ben are reviving interest in such products as we see in his episodes!
A couple years back, I started assembling a collection of Warner Brothers VHS clamshell tapes. I could get a whole lot, up to 10 in a box shipped for pocket change. The climate has changed. Prices are going up for these comparatively rare tapes, as are all dead formats. The collectors are out in full-force, as are the sellers, and I’m beginning to sense those interested in obtaining these items are being taken advantage of because they are willing to pay any price to get that rare Criterion “Halloween” laserdisc or “Se7en” with additional documentaries and commentary tracks. Sellers will seek out particular groups on Facebook to sell their wares at ridiculous prices – let’s not forget laserdiscs, however wonderful, are a dead format.
Another subject we touched on in the interview was the inevitable death of physical media. I speculated that with the presence of streaming entertainment, Netflix and the like, it wouldn’t be long before we returned to the good old days of rental; ownership would be a thing of the past, and this is another reason for why we are seeing a boon in sales of discs and tapes. Why rent when you can buy? Streaming 4K will put Blu-Ray to bed for good. Remember the Videotape War (helpfully indexed by Ben in an episode of The Oddity Archive)? Studios and networks fought to keep video recorders out of homes. Remember Macrovision and Copy-Guard (another interesting Oddity segment)? They don’t want anybody owning anything.
Of course, the Internet and various resources will always stay one (or two) steps ahead. Like a Pandora’s Box of Delights, the Internet has opened up an incredible world of possibilities, and people like Ben Minnotte exist to remind us of our technological failings, as well as our successes by showing how much we’ve gained and lost in this brave new future.