Digital downloads seem set to decide what the UK's number one Christmas single will be this year.

Record label trade association the BPI expects that surging demand for digital music players and a huge hike in download sales will decide the winner.

The news emerges as The Pogues re-release the classic Christmas song, "Fairytale of New York" in all formats, and, as reported yesterday, make a special version of the song available exclusively through iTunes. The original version of the track clearly remains a popular choice; it's at number three in the iTunes chart this morning.

23 million legal downloads - and climbing

The BPI reveals that legitimate download sales have already exceeded 23 million tracks in the UK this year - 400 per cent more than last year. "Weekly digital sales now regularly exceed 650,000 and with an expected boom in CD sales, next week could be the biggest week for the British single for years," the BPI said.
The organisation also expects weekly download sales could strike one million a week this Christmas. Figures released by the BPI reveal that Damon Albarn's Gorillaz project has racked-up two of this year's top ten biggest-selling downloads, with "Dare" and "Feel Good Inc".

Strong MP3 players sales prompted a 30 per cent increase in download sales in the final weeks of 2004. 
Legitimate services must outclass the pirates

Downloads now account for about 70 per cent of weekly singles sales, in contrast to 25 per cent this time last year. Tastes are growing ever-more diverse, as slavish attention to genres is replaced by a passion for particular tunes - 108,000 different tracks were downloaded in the last week of November, double the number in 2004.

It's not all good news. An IpsosMORI survey released by AOL declares that 77 per cent of music downloaders have used an illegal peer-to-peer service at least once, while 51 per cent of music downloaders will only use illegal services, which remain more popular than legitimate services, the survey said.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs has persistently maintained that Apple's market-leading iTunes service isn't competing with other legitimate services, but with the pirates. iTunes aims to deliver higher-quality music files and a more consistent and secure experience than available through illegal sites.

Price is also critical, Apple's leader believes: "We are competing with piracy, so it needs to be a fair price - if the price goes up people will go back to piracy," he warned in September.

However, music label pressure to raise download prices, combined with the side-effects of its campaign of litigation against file-sharers continues to create a divide between artists and fans, because consumers confuse label litigation with the music industry itself.

BPI figures: 2005's best-selling downloads, Weeks 1-49
1: 'You're Beautiful', James Blunt;
2: 'Hung Up', Madonna;
3: 'Bad Day', Daniel Powter;
4: 'Push The Button', Sugababes;
5: 'Feel Good Inc', Gorillaz;
6: 'Don't Cha'. Pussycat Dolls featuring Busta Rhymes;
7: 'Gold Digger', Kanye West;
8: 'I Like The Way', Bodyrockers;
9: 'Speed of Sound', Coldplay;
10: 'Dare', Gorillaz.

BPI figures: The Christmas Number Ones; 1995-2004
1995: Michael Jackson, 'Earth Song';
1996: Spice Girls, '2 Become 1';
1997: Spice Girls, 'Too Much';
1998: Spice Girls, 'Goodbye';
1999: Westlife, 'I Have A Dream / Seasons In The Sun';
2000: Bob The Builder, 'Can We Fix It?';
2001: Robbie Williams & Nicole Kidman, 'Somethin' Stupid';
2002: Girls Aloud, 'Sound Of The Underground';
2003: Michael Andrews feat Gary Jules, 'Mad World';
2004: Band Aid 2, 'Do They Know It's Christmas?'.