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Brits have bought 5.26 million music downloads this year

More than they did in all of 2004

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More than five and a quarter million songs have been downloaded from legal online music services in the UK so far this year, it emerged this week.

The announcement follows the launch this weekend of the first official singles chart that combines sales of both physical media and downloads.

At a stroke, the move almost doubled the number of singles on the official weekly tally, confirming that downloads have become as important as CDs. At least 383,000 downloads were sold last week, just under the 393,000 physical units. How many single-track downloads are being counted as singles isn't clear, but physical sales of a specific single record are likely to outweigh downloads of the same track for some time yet.

Between 1 January and 16 April, some 5,263,995 tracks were downloaded from UK music providers, more than the number sold in the whole of 2004. That said, for five months last year Apple's iTunes Music store wasn't operating in the UK. ITMS is believed to account for between 70 and 80 per cent of UK download sales, depending on who you ask.

Chart complaint

That's annoyed the UK's independent music sector, which despite fighting hard to win concessions from Apple, which launched ITMS last year with no content from independent labels, still feels under-represented by the company. Sector insiders say that's just because Apple can't add tracks any faster than it's doing so, such is volume of new and old material it's digitising in order to sell. But it nonetheless means indies aren't getting a fair crack at the chart whip as a result.

Indeed, last week, the Association of Independent Music (AIM) said it was asking the Office of Fair Trading to back its request to suspend the launch of the combined singles chart. AIM said the move to bring the download chart and the main singles chart together was premature, given the nascent nature of the UK download market.

The British Phonographic Institute played down AIM's fears this week, claiming that the combined chart "shows that independent UK labels have been quick to take advantage of the download opportunity" leading to a "strong performance in this debut chart".

But the fact remains, establishing such a broad series of digital partnerships with all the music providers out there is rather more complex than getting CDs into shops. A indie label might have a single distribution deal and be sure that any record store, large or small, that wants to stock its CDs can get hold of them to do so. That isn't the case in the digital arena. Signing with, say, MusicNet will get a label's tracks into HMV's upcoming download store, but not into iTunes or Napster. Major labels face the same problem, but are larger and better equipped to establish those business relationships from the outset.

In the week-ago pre-release combined chart, independent acts took under 13 per cent of physical and download single sales, compared to 21 per cent of physical sales alone. Of all the independent singles sold, only 16 per cent were purchased as downloads, compared to 33 per cent in the case of the majors. All things being equal, the combined chart should show a comparable major-to-indie sales ratio as the physical chart does, AIM believes. ®

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Apple iTunes sales tally passes 350 million
Apple Japan 'will' open Music Store - chief
Major labels sell off MusicNet
Indies plan assault on UK singles chart
New wave of lawsuits to hit 'illegal song-swappers'
HMV swaps digital music partners

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