The download revolution has begun. Last year, legal song downloads increased tenfold to more than 200 million worldwide. Illegal downloads fell by only 30 million, to 870 million, but the tide seems to be turning. According to some projections, downloads will account for a quarter of record company sales by 2009.
The biggest-selling download in the UK last year was U2's "Vertigo", which is surely preferable to the top-selling single, the cheesy re-recording of "Do They Know It's Christmas?". Downloaders seem to have more taste than singles-buyers. How else do you explain the singles chart success of Peter Andre or D J Casper's "Cha Cha Slide" ("La Macarena" without the kitsch value or the sense of fun) when neither made the download top ten?
Downloaders, say the profilers, are generally older and more affluent than singles-buyers. Think a Q-reading 50-quid bloke against a Smash Hits-reading tweenager. I hate to think of myself as a "50-quid bloke", but would always take Natasha Bedingfield (sixth in the download chart with Keats-referencing "These Words") over the trashy Elton John mentee Anastasia (seventh in the singles chart with "Left Outside Alone"), or the still angry punk veterans Green Day (fourth in downloads with "American Idiot") over the compulsive swearer Eamon (number-two single with "Fuck It").
Yet the charts give only a brief diagnosis of the health of popular music. While the back catalogues of most major labels are available online, independents face new challenges in getting their artists' material known and available to buy. The big guns in legal downloading - iTunes, Napster and MyCokeMusic - are more interested in building what they hope will be lifelong relationships with their customers than they are in acquiring a breadth of music. But I hope the indies will not be excluded for too long - and even now, there are more than a million songs available for legal download, which isn't a bad start.
Dan Hancox will be advising what to download in a new regular column