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Rage Against the Machine number one at Christmas: Great news for music industry?

In a week when the BPI claimed that one in three Brits regularly downloads music illegally, 500,000 people paid for a 17-year-old rock anthem just to annoy Simon Cowell

F*** me, UK music fans did what Facebook told them to. More than 500,000 people bought Rage Against the Machine's Killing in the Name, sending it to number one in the singles chart this Christmas ahead of X Factor winner Joe McElderry's The Climb.

Rage's victory is a massive deal for the music industry here, and not just because it puts Simon Cowell's nose out of joint. Killing in the Name wasn't available as a CD single this week: all its sales were downloads. It's the first ever festive chart-topper to reach the top on digital sales alone, and also the largest one-week download figure in UK chart history.

So why is it important? While the chart battle raged late last week, music industry body the BPI was revealing findings from a survey claiming that one in three Brits are still downloading music illegally, either from P2P sites, newsgroups, MP3 search engines or dodgy overseas download stores.

Against that backdrop, half a million people making legal purchases of a song -- even if they were fuelled by rage against the reality TV machine -- can't be sniffed at. Not least because the Facebook campaign that sent Rage to number one encouraged people to compare prices at different download stores, rather than simply flock to iTunes.

That's excellent news for stores such as 7digital, whose CEO Ben Drury gave first indications yesterday afternoon that the US band were on course for top spot, based on heavy sales on Saturday on his company's site. The influx of buyers is an opportunity for sites like 7digital to persuade a decent chunk of them to come back in the future -- and the same goes for Amazon, Tesco, HMV, We7 and, yes, iTunes itself.

Rage's chart success is also more proof -- if it were needed -- of the power social media can have when a campaign catches fire. In that respect, Joe McElderry can be (unfairly) ranked alongside Daily Mail journalist Jan Moir, who ignited a vast Twitter protest with her extremely ill-judged article about Boyzone singer Stephen Gately on the day of his funeral.

How repeatable these things are is highly debatable, though. Witness the Facebook group to send the Sex Pistols' Anarchy in the UK to number one next week to keep Joe off the top spot again -- 1,410 users and counting (very slowly). While there are lessons to be learned by record labels from the Rage campaign too, they shouldn't expect to be able to co-opt its methods lock, stock and barrel into their own marketing.

Even so, it's an opportunity. We've seen that Brits care enough about embarrassing Simon Cowell to buy legal music. 2010 will show whether there's a knock-on effect for the third of people who are pirating songs too.

Did you buy the single? Do you think this is a milestone in music history or a lot of fuss about nothing? Let us know what you think in the comments below or on our smashing forums.

Photo credit: deep_schismic under Creative Commons, via Wikipedia.