Americans downloaded some 96.7 million music files from the BitTorrent file sharing network during the first half of the year, according to a report from Musicmetric, an online music analytics firm.
BitTorrent contains both legal and illegal files, but most of the music downloads identified in the study are not legally available on the network, Musicmetric said in a statement.
The United States topped all nations in unauthorized music downloads during the period, Musicmetric reported, followed by the United Kingdom (43.3 million), Italy (33.2 million), Canada (24 million) and Brazil (19.7 million).
There was both good news and bad news in the report for the music industry. The good news was that for the first time since 2004, record companies' digital music revenue growth in 2011 increased over the previous year, to eight percent, compared to five percent in 2010.
The bad news is that efforts to cripple one of the largest illegal download sites on the Web, Pirate Bay, hasn't had much effect on the illegal downloading scene. "For the first time, we have evidence that blocking Pirate Bay had little effect on BitTorrent downloading," Musicmetric CEO Gregory Mead said in a statement.
"It is also clear however, that availability of streaming services like Spotify does reduce this activity as people have greater access to music they want via legitimate means," he added.
In its report, which Musicmetric touted as the most in-depth study ever done on the global digital music landscape, the metricticians maintained that there is a demand for legal downloads that has been untapped on BitTorrent.
As an example of that, they cited the success of The Cardigan EP by Billy Van. That tune, which is licensed for distribution via BitTorrent, is the number one torrent in five of the top 20 download nations. "It has become hugely popular in place of other illegal content in a quarter of the top 20 countries for downloads," the report noted.
While finding ways to monetize file sharing will be challenging, Mead acknowledged, it will be worthwhile for rights holders to do so. "The potential for converting revenue lost through file trading is not entirely a fairy tale, however it will differ with different genres and life stages of [an] artist," he said.
Added BitTorrent Executive Director Matt Mason: "It's short-sighted to think that we can simply tell people to stop and they will."
"The challenge is building the right business models on top of the technology, which is something we're very committed to here," he said.
Over the last two years, rights holders have done more than just "tell people to stop." They've sued some 200,000 BitTorrent users for pirating the rights holders intellectual property.
Judging from the volume of BitTorrent traffic reported by Musicmetric, those lawsuits don't seem to have made much of a dent in file-sharing traffic. What's more, they may not be very economical either. In 2007, for example, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) spent $17.6 million on lawyers chasing infringers only to recover $391,000 for its efforts.