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File-sharing Reinforces Popularity Of Top Music Acts

May 14, 2009

New research by an industry group known as PRS for Music finds that file-sharing sites help make popular music acts even more popular.  According to the study, the most popular pirated music tends to be songs at the top of the charts.

Conversely, there was little evidence that file-sharing sites helped new acts develop an audience.

The study’s authors say their research suggests that file-sharing sites are becoming an alternative broadcast network comparable to radio stations. 

PRS chief economist Will Page and media-tracking firm Big Champagne chief Eric Garland conducted the study, which examined music usage patterns among file-sharers. The research sought to determine if these usage patterns offered  any lessons for the way music is currently marketed and sold.

Many have claimed that the unprecedented supply of music available via the Internet would spur new music distribution models.

“If you offer people more choice, and help them make that choice, they will take that choice,” the authors of the report wrote, explaining the so-called Long Tail theory.

If true, that would mean that music makers should focus attention towards a larger number of acts with smaller, dedicated followings rather than towards a few popular acts.

However, the research revealed that usage on file-sharing sites duplicated that of legitimate music sites, and that there was no evidence of the Long Tail phenomenon.

“Much of the volume (sales or swaps) is concentrated amongst a small proportion of the available tracks,” wrote Garland and Page.
The reason for this is that there are too many options on file-sharing sites, they said.

Such breadth of available music means that people either don’t have the time or desire to sift through all the available options or to listen to all the songs they might like.

Instead, their searches are confined to what they see in the media, and what their friends are currently listening to.

“After taking into account some geographic differences, the top of the many music charts, from licensed and unlicensed venues, are markedly similar,” the authors wrote, adding that BigChampagne had never seen a hit on the pirated networks that was not also a top selling song in the licensed arena.

Page and Garland suggest that file-sharing sites are reinforcing divisions in the music industry, serving only to make the popular acts even more so.

However, the study did reveal that the free music available on file-sharing networks did occasionally cause people to listen to bands of which they were unaware.

But on sites that charge users to listen, the users only downloaded music they knew for sure they wanted.

“If the sellers sell it, it might never be bought; but if the swappers offer it, at least one person will likely take it,” the authors said.

The authors concluded that music companies should think of file-sharing sites as comparable to radio and TV as  broadcast networks.

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