Downloads and 'Guerilla Slavery'

By Jon Newton 1/20/05

A British research firm says some of the most popular corporate download services are, "actively engaging in a form of guerilla slavery; using proprietary formats, closed system media players and proprietary portable devices".

Shelley Taylor & Associates' Digital Downloading evaluates 38 digital download services from Europe and the US representing a cross-industry sample including: 15 download stores, seven media player/jukeboxes, 10 online radio stations and six p2p sites including eDonkey, LimeWire and Kazaa.

The Olympus m:robe MR-500i Digital Music/Video Player is available on Amazon

Sites were analyzed between October and December, 2004, and took in iTunes, Sony’s Connect (Europe and US), MusicMatch, Virgin (France), Napster, Real’s Music Store Rhapsody On-Demand service, Fnac (France), Walmart; Media Players, Windows Media Player, RealPlayer and Winamp; Radio, live365, BBC radio, Yahoo Launchcast; p2p : Kazaa, eMule and Limewire.

As a result of the guerilla slavery, "user’s initial enthusiasm is being deflated as they realize they have been conned – there are more limitations imposed on legitimate digital downloads, media players and portable devices than advertised," says the company's Shelley Taylor.

"If music services focused on creating and delivering features, functions and content that enabled users to more fully participate in the pleasure of music, then these services would sell themselves.”

The sample of services represents an industry which is in its earliest stage of development so “best” can always be much, much better, says the study, going on that the sample was drawn from "better than average sites".

French electronics retailer, FNAC, upstaged iTunes as the darling of digital downloads, (and all of the other download stores in the sample), coming in as the best download store, says Taylor.

"HMV who should know better, because they are one of the UK’s most popular music retailers, is the worst (of the best or those in our sample)" and, "The best, most flexible and full featured, media player/jukebox is iTunes; the worst is Sony’s Sonic Stage (and not only because it uses proprietary formats and requires users to purchase Sony devices)."

But, "Many of the music services (stores, players and devices) are, with varying degrees of success, trying to enslave digital downloaders.

"Why should a download store, like Sony’s Connect in the extreme case, expect customers to trust their product and service (digital music) if their goal is simply to sell portable devices? Or further, should users be required to have a hotmail account (yes, really!) in order to purchase music from the Music MSN store; be an AOL member to use MusicNet and a Yahoo account to use LauchCast? And should media players be bundled with stores that restrict formats and portability, or should all media players be detachable (and perhaps offered in a paid version) so the player (as with RealPlayer), a software product, is divisible from the music (another product) allowing users to buy music anywhere and play it anywhere.

"As we have all learned from the enormous success of P2P services, users are attracted to features and functions. The earliest media players (Winamp and RealPlayer) attracted users this way (although we know at first they didn’t all do a very good job of monetizing their services). This is not only a question of freedom, but also a question personal control. Sony has consistently tried to push their proprietary formats on consumers and this has never worked.

"Why should others follow in their misguided tracks? Music services need to learn that volunteers engage, slaves revolt."

The newest trend in digital downloading is digital uploading, says the report, continuing:

"This new trend is about customer driven initiatives… individuals are using the medium for communicating with others, not simply accepting the passive role of consumer.

“ 'Turn on, tune in and drop out!' The 60s mantra is literally being re-created and re-constituted but 'drop out' in this instance refers to dissatisfied customers who are doing it their own way."

Users may soon drop out of mainstream services such as iTunes, Real, Napster, "in search of their music Babylon," says Digital Downloading.

"Music is all about a personal expression and consumers want to express themselves. So services that push products, formats and devices – a one way stream, so to speak – will be replaced by services that allow users a two-way communication: uploading their playlists, broadcasting their mixes, sharing their libraries and talking about what’s up and what’s cool in the form of their blogs and reviews. All aspects of their personal music identity should be given free reign. And it is this personal expression that will create new ways of monetizing music."


Jon Newton is the editor of and is a regular contributer to MP3 Newswire. Jon's site is devoted to the politics of digital music and his insights as well as those of his co-writers can be read there. We urge you to explore it.

The U2 iPod is available on Amazon

Other MP3 stories:

The Digital Media Winners of 2004
The Digital Media Losers of 2004

Back to