The bargain bin as a “sort of cultural spelunking is pretty much dead”

The bargain bin was a place of contained chaos. It was often a white plastic crate filled with the physical effects of entertainment, DVDs and CDs piled at awkward angles, all plastic edges and incongruity. You’d dig through it and find nothings for cheap, occasionally stumbling on an item that actually had value to you: something that sounded vaguely familiar, tripped sensors in your brain. And you’d buy it and watch it, and it would probably be awful, but at least it was yours: your discovery, yours alone.

This sort of cultural spelunking is pretty much dead. Obviously, that crate was filled, probably according to a mixture of chance and literal rejection by customers, by some underpaid clerk at the store. But it didn’t feel curated the way the Internet often does. When you found those 40-packs of monster movies, they seemed like a discovery that you made, unabetted, without a guide.

Exploring the labyrinth of Spotify and the bazaars of Netflix — the digital equivalent of 76,897 street vendors shouting at you — is a different means of discovery. There’s still that visceral thrill when you alight on a new artist who hits you in a meaningful way. The difference is that since these recommendations stem from things you’ve already watched, you’re hemmed in by your habits. It’s like a plant growing inside a box, tangling up in itself, with the folks who put the box there saying that isn’t a box, it’s just the world. On a fundamental level, Netflix benefits from the deistic illusion its algorithms create in a way that viewers do not.

With the Internet, we are able to find meaningful art more efficiently than ever before. To deny the virtue of this for the consumer — the virtue (or the lack thereof) for the artist is a different, darker essay — would be precious and elitist. But 40 DVDs for $15 used to seem like a literal jackpot; in 2014, I pay $7.99 a month for an endless menagerie. Direct payment, always a thorny aspect of art, has now been divorced from most of popular entertainment, consigned to the rarities department and the physical-art world. Everything’s in the bargain bin now, and it’s given us insatiable appetites.

Kevin Lincoln, “The Death of the Bargain Bin”, The New York Times Magazine (16 March 2014), 51.