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New frontiers

Musician, producer, and innovator Thomas Dolby appears at Sweetwater as part of GearFest 2012

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


Almost everything written about musician, producer, and technological innovator Thomas Dolby will start with the following line:

“You may remember Thomas Dolby from the early days of MTV, when his massive hit ‘She Blinded Me With Science’ was inescapable on radio and television, but there’s far more to Dolby’s career and his music than you might realize.”

So, consider that written. And in this case, it’s accurate — the mad scientist persona Dolby put on for the “She Blinded Me With Science” video might have some basis in reality, since learning new technology and finding interesting ways of putting it to use is what has driven his career, and lead him into some fascinating fields outside making music.

What, exactly? Well, anytime you hear a mobile phone beep, buzz, or play a ringtone, there’s a good chance you’re hearing something Thomas Dolby had a hand in… but more on that in a moment.

An accomplished and sought after session musician and producer before “She Blinded Me With Science” launched him into pop stardom, Dolby continued composing, recording, and performing music throughout the 80s. “My first work, at the end of the 70s, was really as a keyboard player, writing and arranging, playing keyboards for other acts,” Dolby says of his early days in music. “But that’s sort of how I got myself noticed in the industry, so I was able to get a record deal and make an album.”

“But what really gave me a springboard commercially was the advent of MTV,” Dolby continues. “I seem to be very well suited to that medium, because I always liked the idea of making short films I think a little bit like the silent movies made by my heroes like Chaplin and so on. I guess my videos caught people’s eye. My stuff was a little too weird to get on the radio initially but after it was successful on MTV, radio had to cave in.”

In the UK (Dolby’s homeland), his biggest hit wasn’t “She Blinded Me With Science” but “Hyperactive!” from his 1984 album The Flat Earth, a record that really showcased Dolby’s skills as a composer and producer with a diverse range of sounds and styles.

While Dolby was pursuing his own music career, he worked on and contributed to film soundtracks, and continued to look for interesting ways to use the new music technology that was coming out at the time.

But Dolby’s career took a very unexpected turn in the early 90s. Always fascinated by new technology, Dolby seemed to see the writing on the wall; in 1993, he moved to Silicon Valley and started Headspace, which developed the RMF format (Rich Music Format) specifically for use on the web (this was in the mid-90s). Later, the company changed its name to Beatnik, and created a polyphonic synthesizer used for playing ringtones on mobile phones. The Beatnik synth was licensed to Nokia, the world’s largest mobile phone manufacturer, in the late 90s.

In 2002, Dolby founded Retro Ringtones LLC, which developed the RetroFolio ringtone asset management software suite. He’s also created hundreds of ringtones, including some of the default settings for many mobile phone manufacturers.

After an absence of almost two decades, Dolby returned to recording and performing music a couple years ago with the release of A Map of the Floating City, part of a multiplayer on-line game of the same title that he created… yet another example of Dolby’s instincts as an innovator.

Dolby appears as a guest speaker in Sweetwater’s Performance Theater on Friday, June 22 at 9:30 AM as part of Sweetwater’s GearFest Event.

FWR had a chance to talk with Dolby about his career and what drives him to always look for the next big thing in music technology.

Fort Wayne Reader: Any idea what you’re going to be focusing on for your appearance at Sweetwater?

Thomas Dolby: Given that lots of the audience are going to be musicians and music technology people, or people in the music retail industry, I’m probably going give them my perspective on having spent 35 years in both the technology and music business — tell some stories about the different collaborations and tours and albums I’ve done over the years, and my experiences in Silicon Valley as a technological entrepreneur there, and intersperse it with a few songs I can play solo by sort of jamming with my gear.

I think I’m primarily a songwriter whose instrument is the studio. I’m not a particularly virtuoso keyboard player, but I love to experiment and push the boundaries of musical genres with my songs. My songs very often tell a story — they’re quite rich in characters and places, sort of a different mythology, really, so I like to dabble in different musical styles. So I find it really helpful to get my hands on some of the latest tools and push their limits. Very often, when there’s a new technology, but nobody has yet defined how to use it — it’s kind of cool, but what do you do with it? ‘— that’s exactly when I like to step in, at the risk of making a fool of myself, and find some ways to put it to good use.

FWR: You started your company Headspace in 1993, and worked on different music technology-related products that seemed just a little ahead of the curve…

Dolby: I needed a break from the music industry, which was starting to show the cracks in the wall, in my opinion. Big record companies were really too greedy; digital downloads were just around the corner, and the record companies kind of had their heads in the sand. So the music industry was not a good place to be, but Silicon Valley was really perfect.

I developed basically fun new music apps, like the kind you can get on an iPhone or an iPad today, ways for non-musicians to play with music and get creative in a fun way without necessarily having a lot of musical skill.

The problem was, in those days, in the mid-90s, we were doing it on the web, where nobody ever pays for anything. So the company would probably have gone up in smoke like many dot coms at the end of the century were it not for the fact that we created this music synthesizer called Beatnik that was licensed by Nokia, the world’s largest mobile phone company, because they wanted to do polyphonic ringtones in their phones. It’s been embedded in every Nokia phone since 1999, and many of the other manufacturers as well.

FWR: How many ringtones would you say you’ve developed?

Dolby: I’d say a few hundred. But making the ringtones is really a sideline. The core business with Beatnik was the synthesizer technology that plays them. So every time you speak on the phone, or an alarm goes off, or a beep, or an MP3 file plays, or your ringtone plays, that’s probably the Beatnik synthesizer generating the sound. Some of the Beatnik licensees would ask us to create sets of ringtones that go with the phones, so we did a lot of the core default ringtones.

FWR: Many of your bios state that after you started your company, you didn’t do any music for almost 20 years. Is that correct? And if so, what made you start wanting to make music again?

Dolby: Well, Beatnik took a lot longer to come to fruition than I had originally intended. It was a sideline initially, but then one thing lead to another and it turned into a business. But it took some time getting there, and even after it got there, I was very heavily entrenched in the company. So I was quite relieved a few years ago to extract myself from that, because it was getting boring quite frankly. I was focused on engineering and sales and wasn’t very creative anymore. So I was eager to get back.

FWR: So tell me about A Map of the Floating City. I know it’s a game you developed. It’s also an album…

Dolby: Moved back to England with my family in 2007 and set about making a new album. I had been away for a long time, so I had a lot of energy and enthusiasm and ideas that I had been keeping on the backburner. But as I started making the album, it became apparent to me that people really aren’t buying albums these days, but they are spending a lot of time on social networks and playing video games and so on.

Rather like the early 80s, I made good use of video as a springboard for people to get into my music, I felt that the modern way to achieve the same thing was by creating a game. So I used my entire back catalog of music, as well as the new music I was working on, and I created a sort of alternative reality game around them that you can play for free in your browser using Google Map technology.

I created this whole sort of imaginary, futuristic world called the Floating City, and it’s attracted lots of new fans, a lot of them too young to remember my music the first time around. Little pockets of fans started forming all over the country and when I go on tour, I’ll hear a roar from one corner of the auditorium, and there’s a group of gamers who have got together socially around the game, and they show up wearing the garb. On a very small scale it’s a bit like it’s a Rocky Horror phenomenon (laughs).

FWR: I imagine creating a game does the same thing for you as when you started your company in the 90s.

Dolby: It’s fresh to me. I get stimulated by a new challenge. That gets my creative juices flowing, and it often involves learning a new skill or coming to terms with a new technology. I really enjoy doing that.

Take an example, I’ve been offered a PBS special for the fall, and in the old days, you know, you’d do a concert, you’d have a bunch of cameras, you edit it, you make a nice video. But doing one-way entertainment… that’s not the way the world turns these days. And yet PBS has got a fabulous audience and lots of affiliates, and it’s an honor to be asked to do it, but rather than doing a simple static performance that is then re-played over a period of months, I want to see how I can actually make the whole thing more interactive, involve the audience at the outset and have a sort of call to action that requires the audience to take part in the whole process in some way.

I’m just starting to think about it, and it’s a very exciting time for me because I know it’s going to involve being required to learn new skills. I don’t know what those are going to be yet. In might be in terms of actually staging the concert, it might be in terms of the social interaction, or the way the content is distributed afterwards… all sorts of possibilities there.

For years you have these PBS pledge drives where you can call an 800 number at the bottom on the screen, but maybe the modern equivalent is having a site or page you go to a call to action, an opportunity for the audience to get involved. Maybe they get to play a part in re-mixing the sound or editing the video. There are all sorts of different opportunities. I look forward to the next few months, which will require pushing my boundaries yet again.

Thomas Dolby appears at Sweetwater in the Performance Theater on Friday, June 22, from 9:30 AM as part of GearFest.

For a complete list of GearFest events, visit sweetwater.com

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