BitTorrent Downloads Booming - And Benefitting Musicians

A new report from UK analytics firm Musicmetric has pegged the U.S. as the world's leading downloader of music via BitTorrent. It's the stuff of Recording Industry Association of America nightmares: Despite industry efforts to shut down BitTorrent tracker sites, the frenzy of file sharing continues. And - surprise! - recording artists are embracing illegal downloads as just another way to do business.

Musicmetric's Digital Music Index also reveals that, while BitTorrent is used to download a huge amount of music in the U.S. - about 96.7 million files in the first half of 2012 - it's not all illegal.

The World's Mix Tape

First, let's run down the list of the BitTorrent downloading nations. Coming in at number two on the list is the UK with 43.3 million downloads. That's followed by Italy's 33.2 million downloads, Canada's 24.0 million, and Brazil's 19.7 million files pulled in from BitTorrent. The top five countries pulled down around 217 million files in the first half of 2012, over half of the nearly 405 million files tracked by Musicmetric for the top 20 downloading nations.

The song choices for each of these five nations varied significantly, too.

  • US: Drake, "The Motto," Single
  • UK: Ed Sheeran, "Plus," Album
  • Italy: Laura Pausini, "Inedito," Single
  • Canada: Kanye West, "Watch the Throne," Album
  • Brazil: Billy Van, "The Cardigan," EP

Billy Van's download success in Brazil is particularly notable… especially when you consider that "success" is meant without irony. Van's position on the BitTorrent chart is a big win. He released "The Cardigan" solely as a BitTorrent download in March. Globally, Van's dubstep album has been downloaded just over 1 million times in the first part of the year, which gives him major international exposure.

This is the Part Where the RIAA Freaks Out

If the RIAA wants to factor in Van's recordings as lost revenue, it will need to rethink its calculations. And what might those calculations show? Figuring an average price of US$1.29 for the singles and $7.99 for the albums for each of the 20 nations' most-downloaded files (not counting Van's album), that's roughly US $32.5 million of music that might otherwise have been purchased.

Of course, there's a lot of supposition in that kind of thinking, number one being that consumers would have bought those songs had the public been completely prevented from downloading them via BitTorrent or other means.

And there's increasing evidence that freely shared music isn't such a bad thing for artists.

How Piracy Drives Revenue

Ed Sheeran, the UK artist who currently holds the distinction of having the most BitTorrented song in that country, is sanguine about pirated songs.

"I sell a lot of tickets. I've sold 1.2 million albums and there's eight million downloads as well, illegally," Sheeran told BBC's Newsbeat earlier this week. "So nine million people have my record in England, which is quite a nice feeling. You get people who actually want to listen to your songs and come to an event like this in London, who wouldn't necessarily buy the album.

"You can live off your sales and you can allow people to illegally download it and come to your gigs. My gig tickets are £18 and my album is £8, so it's all relative," Sheeran added.

Sheeran is not alone. As recording revenue falls, artists have been making up for the loss by increasing concert performances. A 2010 report from the National Bureau of Economic Research demonstrated that "file-sharing reduces album sales but increases live performance revenues for small artists, perhaps through increased awareness. The impact on live performance revenues for large, well known artists is negligible."

This all fits within the theory that "piracy is the new radio," a statement made by musician Neil Young back in January.

"Piracy is the new radio. That's how music gets around… That's the radio. If you really want to hear it, let's make it available, let them hear it, let them hear the 95 percent of it," Young said.

Here are the top 20 downloading nations according to Musicmetric's Digital Music Index:

  1. United States 96,868,398
  2. United Kingdom 43,314,568
  3. Italy 33,226,258
  4. Canada 23,953,053
  5. Brazil 19,677,596
  6. Australia 19,104,047
  7. Spain 10,306,829
  8. India 8,965,271
  9. France 8,400,869
  10. Philippines 8,351,260
  11. Mexico 7,522,865
  12. Netherlands 6,671,428
  13. Portugal 5,597,198
  14. Poland 5,059,204
  15. Greece 4,919,567
  16. Hungary 4,470,948
  17. Chile 4,210,641
  18. Romania 4,152,252
  19. Sweden 4,074,594
  20. Belgium 3,880,900
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