NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- The Web has taught Richard Gibson's ukulele to sing a sad song.
"I just wanted to share my love for music," said the southern Australia-based independent winemaking consultant, who also happens to be founder and namesake for one of the world's more popular ukulele music websites, Richard G's Ukulele Songbook.
"But with how sheet music works on the Web, I live in fear of copyright lawyers," he said.
Gibson has been exchanging emails and phone calls with me from the other side of the world for months, giving me a grim Digital Age rendition of hosting not a service that exchanges free music, but free sheet music. "I have always had a head for how songs are played," he told me. "So if I hear a song, in about an hour I can transcribe the chords and lyrics for that song for the uke."
"And over the years I have posted them online and they have received quite a following," he said.
All investors need do to see just what an unexpected hit Gibsons has on his hands is take a peek at, lets be honest, his rather modest uke music site, ScorpexUke.com. In spite of basically having nothing more than an archive of about 1,200 mostly classic Neil Young, Patti Smith or Rolling Stones tunes arranged for the ukulele, and some links to uke manufacturing kits, Gibson's site have been viewed more than 5 million(!) times since mid-2012. Many of those views are mine. I stumbled on Gibson's lyrical yet easy-to-play arrangements years ago as I was picking up the uke. His Long May You Run was a favorite of my dog Dexter's. That was the arrangement I played him waiting for the vet to show up when it was time to put my old friend down.
More mind-blowingly, at least according to online tracking service Alexa, average users spend an unheard-of-for-the-Web 16 minutes per session on these uke arrangements. And get ready for this: If the growth rates indicated on his Facebook page are accurate, Gibson is on track to hit 6 million views by the end of March and 10 million total views by year's end. "The ukulele makes it so easy to play the songs, you know that it has built a passionate global following," he explained. "And being part of this community has changed my life."
Except for one small detail: Gibson wanted to make it absolutely clear that he has never, ever made a dime off the site. "I do not feel comfortable being called the owner of ScorpexUke," he said. "We do run ads and some money does come in. But all that goes to hosting and keeping the database active.
"It would be a crime to try to make money from it."
That's because it probably is a crime to make money from it. "Uke music and resources sites are terrifically popular," he said. "But at least to my eye, most have to be illegal."
Here we go again: The same disorganized rights issues and race-to-the-bottom economics that have crippled the digital markets in recorded music from Napster to Pandora to Spotify are alive and well in sheet music publishing.
"Unless you have the copyright and licenses worked out -- and they are so complex that I am not even sure what they are for these types of performances -- you have to be infringing on somebody's rights somewhere," he said.
Highway to sheet music hell
Now, before investors dismiss the online sheet music publishing saga as just another niche, Digital Age victim to be stepped over, keep in mind several factors. First, musical instruments are a big business. And the printed music they use as fuel triggers complex rights that potentially can affect the larger digital market of music, videos and synced film.
Lora Bodmer, a rep for the National Association of Music Merchants in Carlsbad, Calif., explained to me that her organization estimates that out of a $6.8 billion total market in the U.S. for instruments (global sales are much larger), acoustic guitars, which include banjos and mandolins, did about $530 million of that in 2012. Ukes now are their own category at about $70 million in sales, and don't forget the strings: Total guitar string sales, acoustic and electric, ran about $190 million in the same period.
"The backbone of the fretted music market is still the acoustic guitar," she said. "And the uke is the fastest-growing sector of that market by far."
From here, investors can feel their way to the scope of the problem Gibson is singing about: Sum up the acoustic universe and something on the order of $800 million in cold hard cash is sold each year in guitars, strings and ukes. Beside being easily $200 million more than what a digital information company such as Twitter makes, and seeing that the instrument industry as a whole is on the scale of Facebook, the critical software these instrument sales rely on is now deeply in question in our collapsing digital age.
Gibson points out that several powerful online sheet music repositories have already been shut down. About the most famous is Wikifonia, created by what amounted to a state-backed consortium of European universities. It was shuttered Dec. 30 when "a license to secure the rights of copyrighted works could not be extended," said the operation's final post on Facebook.
It's a "sheet" business
Even more sobering is the professional business consultant in Gibson's head -- remember, we are talking about a successful wine merchant here; he is not afraid of risk -- knows that, even though nobody in his shop gets paid to code, engineer or create, there probably is not enough margin in sheet music to make a real business.
Despite playing in an $800 million market, the relationship between printed music and performed music in the social media age has simply not been considered by consumer and investors.
"The gap between those costs and what we can make is just too big," he explained. "I have loved every minute of doing this and the site has given me friends all around the world. I met my partner playing the uke.
"But I am 100% certain that this is about my love of music," he said. "It's impossible to make money from sheet music now."