Ah, the impetuousness of youth.
CEO and music whiz-kid
isn't going to fake respect for his nemesis, the
Recording Industry Association of America
. When faced with a crowd full of lawsuit-fearing jittery investors at last week's
annual tech conference in San Francisco, Robertson defied business protocol with his best
"Thanks for naming the conference after me," joked Robertson (and no, he's not investment bank founder Sandy Robertson's charge).
The buying power of Robertson, who's just 32, shot up to nearly $1 billion after MP3.com's July 1999 initial stock offering. (MP3.com zoomed past its offering price of 28 to close at 61 on its first day.) MP3.com taps into the "killer" music application, allowing its members to listen to their favorite titles wherever and whenever they find themselves in front of a monitor and keyboard.
But not all is blueberry slushies and "Itchy and Scratchy" bliss in MP3.comland. The music industry quickly cornered MP3.com on the playground and tried to rub its face in the asphalt over intellectual property issues. MP3.com countersued in February. Since then, Robertson hasn't lost his pluck, but MP3.com's stock has.
"Our stock's been pounded! Have you guys been watching that?" he belted out, arms opened wide to the crowd. The suits nodded solemnly in agreement. Oh, they've been watching.
But the new kid on the block isn't giving up his lunch money without a fight. Robertson sprinted through MP3.com's stats: 500,000 unique daily listeners, $15.5 million in fourth quarter 1999 revenue (for a $10 million loss); 4 million "listens" (you know, man, people listening to music) in January 2000. He needed to move on to the important stuff, the April 14 date with legal destiny -- when a judge will take a look at the recording industry and MP3.com's beefs. You see, the music-industry mouthpiece RIAA never liked MP3.com's "screw the suits" attitude in general and now it specifically doesn't like a certain MP3.com database Robertson is using to fuel the
personal music-listening site.
The offending database houses 45,000 CDs worth of recorded music. Robertson argued its benefits: When an MP3.com user "loads" a CD he or she has bought, MP3.com's database gives it a shortcut. Instead of uploading the material into a digital format -- which could take 20 to 90 minutes -- My.MP3.com recognizes that the user owns
The Eagles Greatest Hits
, for instance, and switches on access to that album in MP3.com's database. It takes a mere 15 seconds to give you clearance to get running down the road trying to loosen your load with seven women on your mind.
MP3.com says that music belongs to its listeners because they can only access CDs they've already purchased. But the recording industry trade group has spent its life defending intellectual property and sees MP3.com as a simple schoolyard music pirate, illegally copying songs it hasn't licensed. Robertson isn't flinching. He boasted to the crowd that "we're not afraid of legal bills," with a frighteningly upbeat tone. He outlined the $400 million in cash MP3.com has on hand to combat what he calls the "record cartel."
The way he sees it, if he wins, $270 billion in recorded music is at users' beck and call. "Who wants to be a trillionaire?" Robertson asked with glee. If he loses, users have to go through the longer downloads. Either way, he insisted, there is no revenue impact because My.MP3.com isn't generating revenues now.
But Robertson's further explanation of the implications brought the recording industry's chagrin into focus: "If somebody's bought a CD, they have a right to listen to it on any device -- a cassette player, a CD or a computer."
Chances are the RIAA will eat its own shorts before giving in to that fate.
Maher Pins Panelists
Where was Robertson when we needed him?
host and Hollywood comic
flogged a panel of tech stand-ins to the entertainment of the Robertson Stephens lunch crowd. You can bet analyst Lauren Levitan,
CEO Rick Braddock,
CEO Stephen Dewitt and
CEO David Courtney would rather be investigated by the
Federal Trade Commission
than get thrown to Maher's lion wit again.
Maher opened by complaining about computer complexity and wallet-crippling PC upgrade costs. A silent five seconds ticked away. "This is when you talk!" Maher dryly ordered, to the audience's delight.
For the panelists, the lunch hour would get tougher.
"Seventy-three percent of white kids have a computer at home. Only 33% of black kids do. Does that bother anybody?" Maher asked, to a resounding thud from the panel. Pause. Pause. Crickets chirping. A water glass clinking. Pause. "Well?" erupted Maher who uttered a long sigh and then laughed, "Look who I'm asking! Pretend to be concerned!"
Hey, pal, explain Internet company valuations in 30 seconds or less.
Finally the panelists settled in and got the ball rolling, ever so slowly. Levitan made a clear case for the advantages of e-commerce for certain purchases and assured Maher his beloved mall isn't going to disappear. DeWitt explained that the Internet would change the world. Courtney tried to pitch in with an anecdote: "I hate shopping. I will not spend any time doing it," the TiVo executive said. "But my wife is the opposite."
"No!" gasped Maher. While the audience laughed, more than a few beads of sweat fell from panelist foreheads.
It's safe to say the
talent scouts went home empty handed.
Tish Williams' column takes at look at the people who make Silicon Valley tick. In keeping with TSC's editorial policy, she doesn't own or short individual stocks, although she does own stock options in TheStreet.com. She also doesn't invest in hedge funds or other private investment partnerships. She breathlessly awaits your feedback at