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Study: P2P thieves buy more music

Music pirates may turn out to be the industry's best customers, as a Norwegian study shows. Should we simply acknowledge that piracy may precede purchase?

While the music industry desperately searches for ways to stem the tide of piracy that threatens to engulf it, new data from the BI Norwegian School of Management suggests that music pirates actually buy more music than others. A lot more.

As Ars Technica reports,

When it comes to P2P, it seems that those who wave the pirate flag are the most click-happy on services like the iTunes Store and Amazon MP3. BI said that those who said they download illegal music for "free" bought 10 times as much legal music as those who never download music illegally.

How can this be explained?

I've written before that piracy is a great way to help the music industry gauge the tastes of its prospective customers and that there are a host of new adoption-based business models lurking in this rampant piracy.

But these perhaps explain solutions to the piracy problem. They don't explain why music thieves may purchase more music than others do.

One way to explain it is simply to acknowledge that piracy may precede purchase. People may be downloading songs in anticipation of buying those worth their 99 cents. In this way, most of the downloaded songs will never be followed by a click-to-purchase.

For me, the frequency of downloading songs off peer-to-peer service LimeWire has trickled to a halt over the years as Apple's iTunes library has expanded. At 99 cents, I can afford to squander money on songs that I may delete a few days later. But I'd prefer to listen to a full song before I buy it, if that were an option.

Yes, I know I can use services like Pandora and (operated by CNET News publisher CBS Interactive), and, yes, I know that iTunes and offer brief preview clips, but this latter option is almost never a great way to evaluate music. It's too brief.

I doubt that many people deliberately want to steal music. They simply don't want to buy in inconvenient formats (who wants a physical CD?), or they don't want to pay for casual listening to music that they really don't like enough to buy. So the download becomes the equivalent of listening to music over the radio.

There are ways to monetize this casual interest, as I link to above. But the music industry is going to have to experiment to discover them. Ultimately, it's going to have to grapple with piracy as an opportunity, not a threat.

Follow me on Twitter @mjasay.