The founder of the new e-commerce music site mp3.net.nz believes his timing for the venture could hardly have been better.
Chris Hocquard, an Auckland-based entertainment lawyer, says last week's announcement by the Australian company ehyou.com that it had bought the domain name mp3.co.nz for use with a site based on its mp3.com.au site has helped raise the profile of online music.
And, crucially, fast Internet is being marketed to local consumers as never before; with Ihug launching its Ultra brand yesterday, Telecom offering deals on JetStream, Chello and Telstra Saturn swinging into gear and Walker Wireless prepraing a product for the home market.
"For MP3 to work best you need a big, fat pipe," says Hocquard, who has been working on the venture since last October. "The better the pipe, the better the experience of the whole thing is. The great thing is that we seem to have timed this pretty well perfectly."
Hocquard fears he'll be waiting a while longer, however, for the ability to profitably accept micropayments in his site. Mp3.net.nz allows physical CDs to be ordered, but users can also buy music in MP3 form for direct download. Although individual tracks are typically priced at $2.50 each, the minimum credit card purchase is set at $10.
"The micropayments thing is a nightmare," says Hocquard. "In fact the whole e-commerce thing is a nightmare. I'd love it to change.
"We're doing a New Zealand thing here and it's very hard to say you're doing a New Zealand thing and then go and dump the money offshore somewhere. So we've persevered with the New Zealand banking system, even thought it is all owned by Australians. And we think that as the volume starts to increase hopefully we'll get beyond the micropayment issue."
Hocquard admits it's "a great little twist" twist that he, as a lawyer, is driving the local use of a format that has copyright lawyers quaking, but he rejects any suggestion that delivering music online makes it any more likely to be pirated.
" There's nothing to stop somebody flicking it on to the world, but there's nothing to stop them buying it on a CD and doing the same thing," he says. "What I think is different here is that they're not dealing with a multinational, they're dealing with a small organisation and it's very, very transparent where the money is going and where the artists are getting paid.
"I don't think you'd get a much cleaner case of theft than you can from our situation. If you want to do it, you're stealing direct from the artist. Nobody who wants New Zealand's artistic endeavours to get on the world stage will say, what the hell, I'll just steal it all."
Mp3.net.nz allows artists to sign up and load their music onto its site at no cost, and also to maintain their own information within the site. Visitors can sample music at low resolution and either pay to download it or order a CD.
Hocquard says artists control what tracks get played and how they are presented and maintain full ownership of their music.
Xtra is known to have expressed interest in the venture, and Hocquard says he also spoke to the Australian backers of mp3.co.nz some time ago, but says the two projects are run on quite different philosophies.
Hocquard says mp3.net.nz is "working through the partnership options, slowly but surely."
Although the $150,000 project, which is backed by six parties, including the manufacturer of an MP3 player device, has been undertaken with the aim of eventually becoming profitable, Hocquard readily admits to an altruistic element. He says only about a half dozen New Zealand artists get major label contracts every year.
"The whole point in that is that there's an absolute log jam in our industry," he says. "There are people out there making records but very few of them can actually get them out, so what I've done is said, okay this is a way of getting them out. It's a distribution thing."
Most of the first crop of acts on the site, including the popular Wellington drum 'n' bass duo Cuba and Gizmo, are more or less self-sufficient, and record and in some cases release their own music.
"That's the great New Zealand tradition," says Hocquard. "We're amazing people in terms of getting off our bums and doing something ourselves. The terrible thing with the way the industry has been is that there's been so much of this stuff just sitting there with no real outlet for it."