File-sharing sites help make popular music acts more popular, but there is little evidence that it helps unsigned and new bands find an audience.
The research, by industry body PRS for Music, showed the most pirated songs tended to be those at the top of the music charts.
It suggests file-sharing sites are becoming an alternative broadcast network comparable to radio stations as a way of hearing music.
The study, carried out by Will Page, chief economist at the PRS, and Eric Garland, head of media tracking company Big Champagne, looked at patterns of music usage among file-sharers.
It aimed to see if that pattern of use had any lessons for the way music is marketed and sold.
Many have claimed that the unprecedented amount of choice on the web would give rise to new models of music distribution.
This "Long Tail" argument claims that if you offer people more choice, and help them make that choice, they will take that choice, suggesting that music companies should focus attention away from a few big acts, towards bands with smaller, dedicated followings.
But the research reveals no evidence of the Long Tail operating, with usage on file-sharing sites closely mirroring those on legitimate music sites.
The reason for this, claim the authors, is that there is too much choice on file-sharing sites, meaning people do not have time to search through it all.
Instead their searches are constrained by what they see in the media, and what their friends are listening to. The authors added BigChampagne had never seen a big hit on the pirate networks that was not also a top seller in the licensed world.
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