Apple may sell almost half a billion songs through its iTunes Music Store this year, analysts believe.

The iTunes Music Store saw significant business in all its markets in the last two weeks of December 2004, as music fans and new iPod-owners turned to the service to buy music while music retail stores were closed.

Analysts at Piper Jaffray estimate Apple to have sold 68.5 million tracks in December, or 16.4 million more songs than the analysts had originally estimated, they now estimate Apple may sell 474 million tracks this year.

These estimates are confirmed by figures released today by the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) show that in the final week of 2004, downloads outsold singles "for the first time" in the UK.

UK weekly downloads grow 2,230 per cent in 2004

"The final week of 2004 saw the best week for download sales yet, with more than 312,000 tracks sold online, compared to 282,000 physical singles sales", the BPI revealed. 5.7 million legal downloads sold in 2004.

The download tally exceeded the previous high by over 20 per cent: it was also 22.3 times larger (2,230 per cent higher) than the 14,000 downloads registered in the first week of January 2004.

Recent Nielsen Soundscan data showed a "material uptick" in US digital downloads, according to analysts at Piper Jaffray. "Track volume sales for the week ending December 26, 2004, were 5.046 million, and sales for the week ending January 2, 2005, were 6.690 million." Previous weekly iTunes sales have swung between 3 and 4 million songs.

Consumers get online

BPI Chairman Peter Jamieson observed: “While many high street stores were closed for the bank holidays, online download sites are open 24/7. To that extent, you could say it was a blip, but it’s an important milestone in the growth of download sales and a sign of things to come.”

Jamieson said: “We have already announced that downloads will soon be included in the Official UK Singles Chart and had downloads been included in the singles figures for 2004, the market would have shown a 4 per cent increase.“

Localization matters

To add weight to arguments that successful digital music distribution services must focus on local talent, the BPI observed that, "thirteen of the top twenty-selling acts were signed in the UK".

Apple announced 200 million iTunes Music Store sales on December 16, 2004. Song sales at that point seemed to have hit 4.7 million tracks each week.

The service is currently available in fifteen countries. Apple launched its service in Ireland last night, and in Canada on December 2.

It's also available in Austria, Belgium, Germany, Finland, France, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, UK and US.

Certain market rumours suggest Japanese and Australian launches to be planned for 2005.