From March 95 issue

That'll do nicely...

Secure on-line credit card checking has been arranged with the NatWest clearing house, and Ricky reckons Cerberus could well be the first on-line site to cater for debit cards, such as Switch. But using the Internet as a distribution method has its problems, and setting up the payment system was one of them.

"We looked at Mosaic and Netscape as front-ends," remembers Ricky, "but the problem with Netscape is that credit card clearance hasn't been released yet, and we were told in November it was coming out. It's a classic software story. We haven't released any versions of our software until it was cleared by the industry. I don't personally believe in demo systems. I think you put the system out and it works. If it doesn't work, you take it off the market. We've looked at doing our own version of the browsers and we've talked to the browser manufacturers, but can we rely on what American software houses are promising?"

Cerberus wants to be treated just like any other music store. As such it's already talking to Gallup about being a registered chart outlet, and Ricky says it gives accurate figures to royalty bodies such as the Mechanical Copyright Protection Society (MCPS) and the Performing Rights Society (PRS). The agreement with the PRS also licenses Cerberus to broadcast music over the Net, which could give Radio 1 a shock.

"We're the first digital distribution company in the world to reach any sort of agreement, which means what we're doing is legal. This opens the door to all the record companies, which is another reason we delayed our launch. We had the software ready to go last year, but it wasn't encrypted and the MCPS wanted some form of protection, because otherwise the artists wouldn't earn a living. Although I'm really into the whole idea of the Net, there's a number of issues I don't agree with. I don't agree with the idea that everything on the Net goes up for free. Some of that work is artists' work, and if artists don't earn money for their work they stop making music or films or whatever."

"Although I'm really into the whole idea of the Net, there's a number of issues I don't agree with. I don't agree with the idea that everything on the Net goes up for free. Some of that work is artists' work, and if artists don't earn money for their work they stop making music or films or whatever."

There's a lot of other music stuff happening on the Internet, with numerous music industry types trying to work out the "right" way of doing things. What does Ricky think of the other experiments that are happening?

"There's not one major record label that's putting songs up there as complete songs. They've been waiting for someone to come up with a format rather than a marketing tool that there's no control over. Back catalogues are an investment, and putting up unprotected files is irresponsible.

"The independent record industry is very worried about it - they see it as a long-term threat, and it's hard enough for them to earn money now. It depends whether you've got this short-term attitude of `it's just a marketing platform' or you want real digital delivery. It's not going to be just audio - it's bank services and video as well. The last thing on Earth I want the Internet to be is a marketing platform."

Will we see a range of different resellers using the Cerberus system, in the way we have a range of record shops at the moment, or will it all be handled centrally?

"There are two different ways. If you're an unsigned artist you can go up for free and we'll take a cut from sales. Independent record labels can hire a shelf and do their business - the money goes direct to them. We've got some artists who want to hire shelves - they've screwed by major record contracts and want to control their own sales. They get the cash directly into their own bank accounts. Look at the architecture of the music industry. It's been controlled through the distribution and the retail outlets - if you haven't got the distribution you won't chart, and all this will change."

For the time being, then, you won't notice much difference in the high street, but it'll change when the technology catches up with the theory.

"We've got real-time downloads now on ISDN, and we'll be at real-time on standard phonelines probably within 18 months. When we get to that real-time scenario you just pay for what you listen to. That should change the structure of the whole industry," enthuses Ricky.

"Long-term, digital distribution, whatever the medium is, is going to go through the stages we're going through. With regards to major companies, I think it's going to take a while for it to have a major impact. The BPI (British Phonographic Industry) says that when digital distribution becomes a reality there will be a massive swing to it. It's convenient, quick and its gonna end up a damn sight cheaper than conventional CD."

But don't people like going into a record shop and buying a CD? They want a tangible object in a nice box with inserts and lyric sleeves. How does Ricky think we're going to make the jump from shopping for tangible things to shopping for pure information? "We had the same argument in the record industry when the CD came out. People want a 12 inch single, they said; they want to stick their album covers on the wall, no-one's gonna want to stick a CD cover on the wall. We're offering a service where people can order posters and other products to stick on their walls. There's an argument that people want solid items - we'll put up files, pictures, information that you can print off. I think there'll be a whole new idea of what an item is."

Some people say they like shopping, but to Ricky it's more of a pain than an important social situation. "I get totally bored walking round record shops and having to queue. Either that or I find it almost impossible to leave where I live, get the Tube down to London, and find the record that I want to hear. We're in a very instant society, so I don't think it's going to be a problem. It's very liberating. It liberates time to go and do sports or leisure activities or whatever, rather than go through a distribution network that doesn't really give you what you want."

Just the beginning...