STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The music industry has reason for optimism as we near the end of 2012. Digital music sales are expected to reach record highs this year. Legal streaming services like Spotify and Pandora continue to gain in popularity. But as NPR's Laura Sydell reports, unauthorized music file sharing is still going strong.
LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: 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. It's safe to say most of those downloads probably were not authorized, and most of them happened in cities and towns near universities, says study coauthor Marie-Alicia Chang.
MARIE-ALICIA CHANG: And when you looked at the top download charts, they were predominantly the big, kind of club hits. So it tends to be, I think, things people are creating sort of party playlists for.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE CARE")
SYDELL: "Take Care" by Drake was the most downloaded album in the U.S. in the first half of this year.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE CARE")
DRAKE: (Singing) I've asked about you and they told me things, but my mind didn't change. I still feel the same.
SYDELL: "Take Care" was downloaded more than a million times using BitTorrent. The Musicmetric researchers focused on that technology because it's most often used for unauthorized file sharing. 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. The research firm Musicmetric is a member of Bengloff's organization. He says providing alternatives is a no-brainer.
RICH BENGLOFF: Just making music available the way consumers want their music made available - 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.
SYDELL: 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. And he says the Musicmetric study didn't look at all of the other ways to get music for free.
JOSHUA FRIEDLANDER: They were only looking at torrent traffic, and there are actually a number of other illegal sites out there that provide illegal access. So I'm not sure that that was a complete view of the market.
SYDELL: Friedlander 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.
FRIEDLANDER: There was an immediate increase in digital music sales, and that's actually been sustained, you know, 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.
SYDELL: 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 there for free anytime they want.
Laura Sydell, NPR News.
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