RICKY ADAR is either mad or a prophet. Either way, he is plotting a music revolution to make record shops and CDs obsolete for ever.
His electronic "Digital Jukebox" will give music lovers instant access to a massive library of songs. But it is located in no cafe - it exists on the Internet, the world-wide computer network with growing millions of users.
Rather than trudge down to the local store, people who plug into the Digital Jukebox via a modem and a telephone line will load tracks on to their home computers, for a few pence a time. Graphics, biographies and eventually video will be part of the package.
Adar is a strong-willed pioneer who has already turned down the chance to sell his secrets to the big boys. The Jukebox - if it works - could make him head of one of the biggest music distribution companies in the world, rivalling even giant corporationssuch as Sony. Sony's development manager brands Adar an anarchist and, perhaps more appropriately, a "techno punk".
He is a wiry young man in his mid-twenties with a taste for roll-ups and baggy dance-culture fashion. Computer graphics adorn the walls of his tiny offices in Denmark Street, London, along with motivational slogans such as "Progress through chaos".
But the atmosphere is more like a cross between a hippie student common room and the command deck of the Starship Enterprise. "All our software engineers are artists," he says of the pale young men working at several screens. "They're doing it because they think it's right."
They and he are angry at the overpriced CDs, poor distribution, greedy shops and restrictive record deals he says strangle new musical talent.
"I think the present price of CDs is corrupt," he said. "When an independent record company receives five quid for something that's in the shops at £15.99, that ain't right. A lot of our people have been in bands who just found it impossible to get good material out."
At least a quarter of the 250,000 songs stored on the Jukebox will be by bands not yet signed up by record companies. Subscribers will pay by credit card every time they take a track from it, at around 20-30p a time. Independent record companies have already paid for space on Jukebox's electronic shelves, and when it is launched next month the library will be strongest on underground dance music such as jungle.
The rest, he says, "depends how much the industry wants to use us". He is negotiating deals with the companies that control copyright, and this week met representatives of British Phonographic Industry.
Record companies have already sought to exploit the Internet, with its estimated 20-35 million users. The Rolling Stones used it to broadcast music and pictures from a concert at Dallas in November, while the group Future Sound of London only ever perform via its phone lines.
The big companies could have set up a Digital Jukebox of their own, says Adar, but didn't see the writing on the wall. "They've seen the Internet as a promotional tool, or not known how to use it. At least two big players have done nothing about it because they make CDs, and CD players for £500 a time, and it's completely against their interest.
"They probably won't take this lying down I'm not scared of the sharks. Who can eat me? We've got private finance. Sharks are only sharks if they've got something to offer, but we're ahead of them - this isn't just leading edge technology, it's bleeding edge."
Aware that revolutionaries have a habit of getting shot, he prefers to call it evolution. "This is a natural development, as sure as going from beating on a drum to the telephone. It's going to happen, whether certain individuals like it or not."
The Jukebox will be available all over the world, including markets such as South-east Asia that have been hard for big companies to crack. "Delhi will be able to listen to London immediately, and vice versa. And the artists will get paid straight away instead of having to wait for royalties."
Parlophone will set up Internet sites for the bands Blur and Radio Head at the end of this month, offering fans pictures, biographies and even the chance to chat electronically with their heroes. But its marketing director, Mark Collen, is sceptical about the Jukebox.
"It takes a lot of money, probably £1,500, to get set up properly on the Internet," he said. "In this country we are three years ahead of getting our heads round it, let alone down-loading music.
"You would need a CD-Rom and a state-of-the-art hi-fi, and most people just aren't there yet. It will take a long time before they are."
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