Audio pirates love Rihanna – more than twice as much as they do Katy Perry. The two stars settled at opposite ends of a list of the 20 favourite musicians among people who like to own music without paying for it.
Musicmetric's annual ranking of the leaders in BitTorrent downloads in 2013 puts Rihanna at No. 2, with 5.4-million free helpings. Katy Perry squeaked in at No. 20, with 2.3-million downloads.
Other rankings seem equally anomalous, if not downright counterintuitive. Why did ballad queen Adele (No. 15), whose demographic would seem to be somewhat more skewed to buyers than freeloaders, beat hip hop maven Pharell Williams (No. 19)? And how come Beyoncé didn't make the list at all? Are some musicians mysteriously more attractive to serial downloaders, or do some kinds of fan-love flourish best without any financial commitment?
"You can have five different theories, none of which you can prove," says Daniel Savage, Musicmetric's executive vice-president for North America. "Are Katy Perry fans more loyal than Rihanna fans? Do they really just want to own the record, hold it in their hands and bring it to school? These are imponderables, but we have a fun time guessing."
Sometimes, he says, BitTorrent activity will spike simply because someone's in the news, for reasons good or bad. People who didn't get the latest album are reminded of it, and those who didn't know about it maybe get the message when they see the headlines.
"Heritage artists like Led Zeppelin will sometimes pop up [with significant download tallies], if that artist is rumoured to be playing a festival, or there's other news," says Savage. The shocking part of that statement, perhaps, is that the bad-boy rockers of yesteryear are now described in the business as "heritage artists."
Musicians of similar pedigree are often said to be protected from rampant piracy by the age and habits of their most devoted fans, and Musicmetric's data-tracking bears that out. Although Bruce Springsteen's latest disc leaked two weeks early, Savage says that BitTorrent downloads of the material didn't approach levels typical for a major leaked release.
"Beyonce's album came out so late in the year," says Savage, which means it didn't have time to make a big dent on BitTorrent. "And it was a video album, which I thought was really smart, so if you bought the album you got the videos too. She was providing a really nice holistic statement of music and video, and that probably incentivized people to buy it."
A high ranking on the BitTorrent top-20 is one measure of how much business a prominent musician may be losing through peer-to-peer activity, though there's no guarantee that all those people would have bought the music if "free" hadn't been an option.
But lots of piracy always means lots of interest, which is why Bruno Mars probably didn't shed any tears over placing No. 1 on this year's Musicmetric list. His album Unorthodox Jukebox was among the five best-selling albums for 2013, he's performing at the Super Bowl next month, and he made Forbes Magazine's list of 30 Under 30.