Only 14 percent of Internet users surveyed from Nov. 18 to Dec. 14 said they sometimes download songs to their computers, according to the report released Sunday by the Pew Internet & American Life Project and comScore Media Metrix, a Web tracking firm.
The downloading figure was 29 percent in a May survey on the subject, and also in February 2001.
The survey did not distinguish between use of free, "peer-to-peer" music-sharing sites such as Kazaa, and licensed, commercial downloading sites such as the new Napster, MusicMatch, Rhapsody, and iTunes.
However, researchers believe the plunge largely affected peer-to-peer downloading, and attributed that to the Recording Industry Association of America's strategy of suing nearly 400 individual song-swappers for copyright violations since September. Moreover, most of the licensed commercial sites didn't exist when previous surveys were conducted and this study said they have attracted high numbers of users.
Most of the RIAA's cases have been settled; though the record labels can legally demand $150,000 per song, people familiar with the cases have said most settlements have been for $2,500 to $7,500.
Usage of Kazaa fell 15 percent from November 2002 to November 2003, according to comScore. Other peer-to-peer music-sharing sites also experienced usage declines. The drop at BearShare was 9 percent, while WinMX lost 25 percent of its audience and Grokster plunged 59 percent.
RIAA chief executive Mitch Bainwol was heartened by the Pew study but said the lawsuits against individual users would continue in 2004.
"We would not look at any single measure and make a statement of victory," he said. "But what we do know is this: The lawsuits have had a profound impact on awareness and fewer people are downloading (illegally), and that's good news."
The music business suffered through another down year in 2003, with overall units sold dropping 0.8 percent, according to Nielsen SoundScan. CD sales fell 2 percent. But the fourth quarter saw an overall gain of 10.5 percent from the same period a year earlier.
The Pew survey found that music downloading remains far more common among Internet users between 18 and 29 years of age. Some 28 percent of people in that age group get songs online, compared with 13 percent of people in their 30s and 40s and 6 percent of Web surfers over 50.
Thirteen percent of white Internet users do it, compared with 25 percent of blacks and 20 percent of Hispanics.
The phone survey involved 1,358 people and had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.