From March 95 issue

The music industry's gone from vinyl to cassette to compact disc to DAT to mini-disc to... Who knows what? The Internet? Ricky Adar's Cerberus certainly thinks so. Ivan Pope went to meet him.

You've just heard a song you like on the radio, and you want to buy it. So you put your coat on and drive down town. Only you can't find a parking space, so you plonk your car on the double yellows and nip into HMV. Now you can't find the disc... You ask the bloke behind the counter. He tells you they've sold out. You quickly rush back to the car, find you've got a ticket, drive to Our Price, queue for ages, hand over your cash, go home, and then bung the disc in your hi-fi. It skips. It's scratched. And it's closing time. Just another ordinary day...

But, as the song inevitably goes, it doesn't have to be this way, thanks to London-based Cerberus Sound and Vision, whose near-as-dammit finished digital distribution system will soon enable you to buy music directly over the Internet. And not just obscure tracks from unsigned bands either, but every single and every album you'd expect to pick up in the high street.

Not surprisingly, the music industry, so long obsessed with shifting vinyl, cassettes and CDs, is worried. With the Cerberus Digital Jukebox, it seems, everyone is on to a winner - except them. Consumers get to choose music, easily and instantly, from the comfort of their homes, and the artists get paid directly, without all those middle-men taking a slice of the proceeds.

The man that's causing this radical shake-up is Ricky Adar, Cerberus' managing director. There was a time in the early days of development when he was a tad publicity shy - something to do with threats of violence against him and his company's property - but now he wants everyone to know what Cerberus is up to.

"What we've done is define a format. A format is a carrier for audio or for video or whatever, which reduces the possibility that you can clone the song," explains Ricky. "For example, if I send you a song, you can't give your neighbour a copy of that song unless you paid the writer or the artist or the record label of that song some money for the privilege of listening to that artist's work. We've taken audio files and compressed them, using our own compression routines, encrypted and protected them and then linked them to a bank payment system."

So it's a new medium for the delivery of music? "Exactly that. The song arrives from the server to you and when it arrives it's encrypted so that only your own piece of player software is capable of playing the song. If you give the song file to your neighbour, they can't play it unless they get your player software."

Cerberus has designed a range of players to fit in with every home - a Laura Ashley-style player, a Habitat-style player, and a Warp-style player for IBM's OS/2. The software's initially available for 486 and Pentium PCs, but versions for 386 PCs, Macs and PowerMacs are also planned. The player plays the song through a standard soundcard to an ordinary hi-fi unit. The Cerberus Internet server also enables users to dial up, check out the charts and download song snippets for free. There's even a bulletin board area for the different record labels, which contains band photographs, cassettes and CD sleeves, band profiles and contact information. You can, of course, order a physical CD through Cerberus, but ultimately you'll want to download complete singles and albums over the Net for yourself.

"We believe in the ethic of the Internet, that no-one controls it, and for us its the ideal medium because there are no middle people," says Ricky. "Our move to the Internet was really because it was the best medium to go to - rather than forming a deal with British Telecom or one of the cable companies. Compression techniques have developed so that we can do it on standard copper wire...

"We can deliver a three minute 40 second song, which is the UK idea of a single, in ten minutes. That's using our 15:1 compression technique. We're working on 20:1 compression, and it's all handled in the software," continues Ricky. "You choose the song you want to buy, click on it and then buy it. Prior to that you've paid ten pounds, which will be cleared over the Net."

That'll do nicely...