Winning Scores . . .

The Mercury, 20 November 1999, p.33

The Internet is music to Peter Billam's ears. He's one of Tasmania's new generation business men and women who are taking on the world from behind a computer screen. GARRY BAILEY reports.

In a modest red-brick house on the Glebe in Hobart is one example of Tasmania's future.

The equipment is simple: a shiny black upright piano, a bookcase with thin volumes of sheet music in plastic covers, and a computer.

It's home and office to Peter Billam, computer consultant and composer. The conjunction of the two skills in one person has turned a passion for music into a business. Just about the perfect Internet Business. The sort of business more Tasmanians are switching on to. The sort of business many Tasmanians believe will be at the core of the island's future - no shopfront, no property to rent, no warehouse, no transport problems, no council by-laws to comply with, no signs on the door, and a worldwide customer base.

As Peter Billam concedes, if he had to conduct he business via the traditional shopfront he would quickly go broke. But for this 51-year-old former Londoner, the world is his oyster. There may be a select few in Tasmania who beat a path to his door, or window, in cyberspace, but there are millions around the world who are just a mouse click away from becoming his customers.

Peter sells music - sheet music - his own compositions and arrangements of the works of others. His customers select on the Net, pay on the Net and receive their music on the Net. All they need is a printer at their end and the music can be on their music stands and being played soon after. They could be in Finland, Bulgaria, Japan or Mexico - geography becomes irrelevant. It is the love of music, not national boundaries, that binds Peter Billam and his customers. And it's e-mail that allows them to stay in touch.

"This is what e-commerce is really good at - the boutique things," he said. "You can access all these people with a very particular need and interest and, there you are, you have a business.

"Tasmania is so beautifully positioned to do this. The overheads are low, you can do business very cheaply in terms of the cost of living and paying employees. You actually can work in a place where it's cheap to do the work, in contrast to a place like Tokyo, or the world's other big cities, where the costs are horrendous."

He says there are still refinements needed in e-commerce; greater security for credit-card users and an end to the security-industry politicking that has prevented the widespread acceptance of electronic signatures. For his own operation, he says the security for credit card users is better than at any traditional retailer thanks to an encryption program. The frustrating downside, he says, is that while his system is extremely secure, his customers don't know that. They have his promise but "they are just words on a screen . . . they can't authenticate it."

Those problems aside, Peter believes the infrastructure to establish a Net business in Tasmania is good "although it is still expensive to get information across Bass Strait."

Peter first crossed the strait 17 years ago, seeking the perfect environment after giving up an almost perfect lifestyle in Switzerland. The one disconcerting aspect: that European hub had the Cold War hanging over it. "I was always just a few kilometres from a nuclear target," is his neat summation of his motive for moving to Australia at the end of 1982. Apart from a brief taste of Melbourne life as a computer consultant, he has stayed in Tasmania since.

While he has a degree in physics from Imperial College in London and his career background is in computing, his passion is composition. It's a love he has pursued since his days playing guitar in a rock band in London.

The passion has consumed his evenings and weekends while he has worked, first as a teacher of composition at the Tasmanian Conservatorium of Music, when he arrived here, then teaching music at the Tasman District High School of Nubeena, then as computer system manager for both the state government (in the Department of Premier and Cabinet and the State Library) and the CSIRO. The passion finally became his career more that two years ago, although computer consulting still helps pay the bills.


His business, was born in a Glebe cottage not far from his present place, with Peter composing full-time and constructing the Web site around which his business would operate. He saw potential in a niche in the music business - the production of music to go on music stands and to be played for pleasure.

In effect, he has used technology at the end of the century to reintroduce people to the pleasures of parlour music, gathered around the piano, that existed at the start of the century.

"The publishing industry for music has virtually closed down for classical music composers in the past 50 years," he said. "These composers simply don't get distributed so people can't try them out. People are not composing for the pleasure of the reader, they are composing to impress a large audience.

"Imagine the market. There are tens of thousands of students coming out of conservatories of music around the world every year. There are many thousands who buy instruments.

"And it's the sort of business the Internet is crying out for; it bypasses the warehouses, the container ships, the print runs, the copyright agreements. It goes straight from the writer of the music to the reader of the music. It has to be the right way to do it." Peter also believes there are other niches still to be filled using the same type of business. Poetry, for example.

He hopes to publish via the Net the compositions of others whose main aim is to sell sheet music. "At the moment my system is very elegant because I own my own copyright," he said. "I don't have to have copyright agreements with anybody." The same applies to the work of the famous composers he arranges and sells. "If I were to publish others then I would have to have copyright agreements with them, which is a little messier," he said. "The alternative is to export my skills in this area by setting up Web sites for others to transact these sorts of businesses.

"Again, the beauty of it all is that I can do it all from here in Tasmania, and that's the great attraction for me. The climate is right, it is quiet and peaceful. My experience in Switzerland and now in Tasmania, is that these small cities of 100,000 to 150,000 people are the best compromise. They have everything, but are not so big that there are all these overheads, like travel and transport and living costs.

"Tasmania is certainly the most liveable place I have ever been."

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