Visits to music downloading websites saw a 50 per cent rise on Christmas Day as hundreds of thousands of people began loading songs on to the iPods they received as presents.

According to figures from Hitwise, the online intelligence company, visits to music download sites, such as Apple’s iTunes Music Store, saw a 50 per cent increase between December 24 and 25. Hitwise also found that visits to download sites were 15 per cent higher than last Christmas.

Even before the Christmas increase, the BPI, the UK record companies’ trade association, said download sales had topped 23m this year, five times the 4.7m sold in 2004.

Weekly downloads already exceed 650,000 and may pass the 1m mark for the first time this holiday season.

The figures reflect the growing popularity of MP3 music players such as the iPod, which were among the most popular Christmas gift items this year. A number of retailers, such as Amazon, have reported that MP3 players were their biggest-selling electronic items in the run-up to the holidays.

Some analysts expect Apple to have shipped 37m iPods worldwide by the year-end, with about 10m sold in the key Christmas quarter.

Apple’s iTunes Music Store increased its dominance of the download market, receiving twice as many visits as its next closest rival, Sony’s Connect internet site. This compares with Christmas Day last year, when iTunes was only 10 per cent ahead of its then closest competitor, Napster.

Despite trailing some way behind Apple, Sony’s Connect site, which was launched 20 months ago, has also seen phenomenal growth this year. Last Christmas, the site was barely on the radar screen, ranked 15th most popular among internet users. This year, it is the second most popular destination for music downloads.

Heather Hopkins, director of research at Hitwise UK, said the increased traffic to the Connect site may reflect the popularity of the Sony Ericsson Walkman mobile phone, which has an integrated MP3 player and which is working closely with the Connect site on content.

Demand for the Walkman phone has been enormous since its launch in July, helping push up Sony Ericsson’s third-quarter handset sales up 29 per cent year on year and taking the group up to fourth position in the global mobile handset market.

The music industry expects downloads and mobile phone ringtones to account for 6 per cent of all revenues this year.

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