As we near the end of another year, the music industry has a few reasons to be optimistic. Digital music sales are expected to reach record highs this year, and legal streaming services continue to gain in popularity. But unauthorized music file sharing is still going strong.
This fall a firm called Musicmetric published what's being called one of the most comprehensive studies of unauthorized music downloads. In the first half of 2012 Americans downloaded nearly 760 million songs using the software known as BitTorrent, which is the technology most often used for unauthorized file sharing. And most of those downloads happened in cities and towns near universities, says study co-author Marie-Alicia Chang.
"When you looked at the top download charts they were predominantly their big, kind of club hits," she says. Chang thinks people are making party play lists with the tracks.
The study also found what might be seen as a little hope for the ailing music industry. Over the six-month period, there was a slight drop in unauthorized downloads in the U.S., Great Britain, Canada, Sweden, Norway and a few other countries where there are alternatives — free legal streaming services like Spotify and Pandora. Rich Bengloff is the president of the American Association of Independent Music; Musicmetric is a member of Bengloff's organization. He says providing alternatives is a no-brainer.
"Making music available the way consumers want their music made available," he says. "In other words, serving them as opposed to saying, 'Here's the way you can get it,' and pricing it at a level that is attractive enough to them that they don't want to pirate the music."
But there is some skepticism that the drop-off in unauthorized file sharing is related to the availability of legal services. Joshua Friedlander evaluates online music data for the Recording Industry Association of America. He says the Musicmetric study didn't look at all of the other ways to get music for free.
"They were only looking at torrent traffic, and there are actually a number of other illegal sites out there that provide illegal access," Friedlander says. "So I'm not sure that that was a complete view of the market."
He says the industry's tactic of closing down unauthorized sites has helped drive people to legal alternatives. He points to a study by another research firm, NPD Group, which looked at what happened after LimeWire was shut down two years ago.
"There was an immediate increase in digital music sales, and that's actually been sustained more than a year out. So whenever one of these sites closes, we're definitely moving some people on to the many legal services that are now available," says Friedlander.
And there may be one other reason that unauthorized downloading has declined: People don't need to download anymore when they can just click on YouTube and hear their favorite song for free anytime they want.