The number of surfers downloading music from the Internet has doubled to 6 million a day in the last year - and it's not just kids leeching pop music over free sites like Napster.
Surveys by the Pew Internet and American Life Project show the number of American adults looking for music files online increased in all age brackets over the last year, with almost a quarter of those aged 30 to 49 with Internet access reporting they have downloaded music files. It's largely a male hobby, the surveys show.
Lee Rainie, the director's project, said increasing adult interest in the Internet's music offerings signals major changes in how Americans are getting their music.
"It's clear the record companies were late to understand how important this technology was," he said. "I think we're in for a big sorting out period" as the industry discovers how the Internet can be used to market music online and resolves court battles with popular Internet music-swapping sites.
The court battles over the future of Napster's free file-sharing technologies haven't dampened enthusiasm for downloading music. A federal judge has ordered Napster to install filtering devices to stop transfers of copyrighted recordings, but Rainie said surfers have turned to alternative free-networks like BearShare and LimeWire. These are based on a file-sharing system called Gnutella, which doesn't have a central Web site, and so cannot be shut down or filtered. Music companies have launched their own pay-music sites.
Downloading music remains wildly popular with young people, with 53 percent of kids 12 to 17 and 51 percent of those 18 to 29 saying they download music files.
Internet music sites are also growing in popularity among older people, with 23 percent of surfers in the 30-49 age bracket saying they downloaded music files, and 15 percent of those over 50 engaging in the practice. An earlier Pew survey, conducted last summer, estimated 19 percent of those in the 30-49 age bracket, and 9 percent of those over 50 were downloading music.
The Pew project sampled more than 1,000 adult Internet users last July and August and again in February. The surveys did not ask what music types people were downloading, but only a third were looking for new artists.
Overall, the survey estimated that 29 percent of adult Internet users were downloading music, compared to 22 percent last summer. Rainie said that translates to about 6 million people a day, equal to the number of people who go online to look for travel or health-related information.