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iTunes Customers Downloading More Free Apps Than Music

Let's face it: iTunes no longer controls the digital music scene. Customers – whether they own an iOS, Android or Windows Phone 8 device – have plenty of outlets to choose from when purchasing and downloading their favorite singles and albums. Google Play and Amazon come to mind, offering up huge libraries spanning old to new releases that can easily be uploaded to an iPhone and iPad as any other competing non-iOS products.

That said, it's no surprise that iTunes users are downloading more free apps than they are downloading music. With most music going (relatively) DRM-free or easily streamed from the cloud, customers are branching out for better deals. What's interesting is that not only has the iTunes user population grown from 50 million in 2010 to 67 million in 2013, but its users are more apt to download a free app than they are a song.

MORE: Apple's iMusic Could Land Warner, Universal Deals Soon

"Listening to music files on iTunes is still the most popular application, but it has been on the decline for the past two years," The NPD Group reports. "While the percentage of iTunes users who downloaded individual digital songs has been holding steady at 29 percent since 2011, it has been surpassed by acquisition of free apps, which 35 percent of iTunes users reported downloading in 2013."

According to a chart provided by the NPD Group, in 2010 54 percent of U.S.-based iTunes users listened to music files, 31 percent actually purchased digital songs, and 9 percent purchased digital albums. During that same year, 24 percent of the users downloaded a free app, and 12 percent actually purchased an app.

In 2013, 41 percent of the U.S.-based iTunes users listen to music files, down from the previous two years. Only 29 percent purchased individual songs (also down) and 9 percent purchased digital albums. Meanwhile, 35 percent of Apple's iTunes customers downloaded a free app and 18 percent actually purchased an app, the latter of which is up from 2011 and 2010.

Thus, app sales have grown over the last three years, likely boosted by an acceleration of free app downloads which in turn could lead to premium app sales. Digital sales of albums have mostly remained constant over the last four years, but purchases of individual songs have dropped. Still, the numbers show that iTunes is still a strong platform for music discovery for both iOS and non-iOS customers.

"Even though apps are a growing part of the iTunes experience, one in four respondents reported using iTunes to sample music, so the discovery component that is so key to selling music is still strong," said Russ Crupnick, senior vice president of industry analysis at NPD. "It will be interesting to see the extent to which music re-establishes dominance, when iTunes Radio launches later this year."

Given the numbers above represent customers based on all platforms, the research firm goes into more detail regarding Apple's iOS platform. Around 94 percent of these device owners downloaded apps in 2012 with an average of 32 free apps, and 95 percent in 2013 with an average of 35 free apps. Paid app buyers declined slightly, from 72 percent to 69 percent.

"Games were the most popular free apps downloaded by iOS users this year (81 percent), followed by social networking (70 percent), utilities (55 percent), and music (54 percent)," the report states. "Games also led paid app downloads (72 percent), followed by music (18 percent), and health and fitness (13 percent)."

NPD's iTunes 2013 Consumer Usage & Market Dynamics Report is based on 3,470 completed surveys from iTunes users and 1,448 from non-iTunes users. It's available to download here.