Wired for sound: Dolby is a guru of songwriting, technology, and culture alike. Photo by thanasim25, via Flickr.

CDM GurusWe’re pleased to announce a new series on CDM, in which we get the chance to talk — and learn from — some of the people who inspire us. CDM Gurus features artists who push the envelope of technology and expression.

Song writer. Synth builder. Amateur meteorologist? Thomas Dolby’s uncanny ability to reinvent technology and predict the direction of the music business makes this equally talented songwriter one to watch, as much in 2007 as 1996 and 1982.

Want a glimpse at how the business of being a creative musician is evolving? Ask Thomas Dolby. He’s the master of Music Industry 1.0, 2.0, 3.0 … you name it. He certainly danced with the pre-Internet industry hitmaking machine. The cheeky, warm-hearted “She Blinded Me With Science” exploded to mega-popularity — and could easily blind the uninitiated to a string of other terrific songs that somehow failed to make it on MTV’s hit parade. In the early days of the dot-com boom, Dolby’s surprise second act was shaping the cellphone as a market for music. His start-up Beatnik introduced technologies for polyphonic MIDI ringtones, and odds are, each time you hear a modern ringtone, you’re either hearing Beatnik tech or technology impacted by it.

Now, the test for Thomas Dolby is what can happen to a gifted songwriter and music technologist when he guides his own destiny, without the mechanisms of the industry behind his back. The new Dolby plan started about a year ago, with a tour co-headlining with dance music idol BT. “I could play these gigs and fill it with die-hard fans and I could sort of sneeze and they would be happy,” Dolby says. “I felt the need to expand.” The new tour and album reintroduce the best of Dolby’s songwriting to a new audience — and yes, audiences cheer for “Science” just as passionately as ever. (The difference: many weren’t born in 1982, and they shout along with the enthusiasm of a generation originally deprived of this kind of music.) But as the crowd is equally rapt from tune to tune, it’s clear something new is happening. “It definitely doesn’t feel like a sort of eighties nostalgia trip,” says Dolby. “If anything, the frame of reference is more late 70s underground electronic, which is where I started out.” And Dolby himself is still a one-man band, but he’s got the tools of the Web behind him: forums, blogs, YouTube, MySpace. Unlike many successful artists, who talk about the empowering effect of these tools for other, less-fortunate artists, Dolby is actually re-making his own career using the new technology.

But enough about 2007. What’s really remarkable is the promo bio from The Golden Age of Wireless In May 1982, it reads like a manifesto for where live performance with computers could go today:


When I met up with Thomas Dolby on Christmas Eve of last year, I was struck by how elegantly this vision of technologically-aided performance was coming to fruition. The promise glimpsed in 1982 — the digital one-man band — seemed to just now be having its real moment.

Now comes the interesting part. Next week, Thomas will release a new EP, backed by brass (and, if we’re really lucky, heralding a new renaissance of computers-with-live-brass combos). Thomas Dolby and the Jazz Mafia Horns Live is the latest of a string of releases converting the vibrant stage shows into commercial products, from albums to EPs to DVDs to blog entries and videos. It’s also intended to be the end of an era. Thomas writes on his blog:

I expect these to be the last ‘legacy’ releases before I transition into my new musical era. With them out of the way I’ll be focusing 100% on new material. I’m very excited about several songs I’m working on already, and I’ll be going to England this summer to start recording them. One day they may show up in the form of an all-new studio album. When will that be ready you ask? WHEN IT’S READY!

This is not your father’s Thomas Dolby. We got to chat about the technology of music performance, the technology of music business, and how to make sure all of that disappears and the songs re-emerge.

Poetry Dolby in motion. Photo by randomduck, via Flickr.

Hits, Reimagined: Making Live Computer Performance Work

Thomas Dolby isn’t just covering old tunes and capitalizing on 80s nostalgia. The new tour has evolved these songs into a new, modern guise seamlessly — so the performance manages to feel somehow futuristic, without taking away the satisfying qualities of the originals. Most importantly, the new tour harnesses modern computer tech to allow Thomas to perform much of the songs live. Here’s how he pulled it off:

I allowed myself to be flexible with the arrangements and to be influenced by sounds and flavors and technologies and styles that have happened in the interim. I didn’t deliberately go out of my way to rewrite them as 21st Century songs; the songs are pretty much still intact. But the arrangements of them — somewhat dictated by necessity of how much I can do with just two hands and my voice — I try to do as much as possible live versus sequencing everything. And several of the songs I start out with nothing. I’m just in the loop cycle mode, and I’ll just lay down a percussion part, drum, bass, a few keyboard parts, sort of get a groove going.

“Non-musicians saw songs created before their eyes. It’s like seeing someone pull a rabbit out of a hat.”

There are several steps [to adding a new song]. The first is getting an arrangement that I like, which I do as a sequence. And the second step is sort of figuring out ergonomically how to play the maximum [number of parts] of that live. And it’s not always possible … so I have to figure out the right aspects of the song to make live versus parts that I have sequenced. There’s often the temptation to sort of over-produce things or keep adding things. But in a way I think the most effective [arrangements] I do have very few elements, and they’re all very big, and you can see exactly what’s coming from where. Each time I hit a button and play a sound, you know exactly what you’re hearing. That’s more effective than when there’s lots of stuff piled up and there’s this big production going on and there’s just one guy at the keyboard. That just doesn’t make sense.

By layering things and introducing things one at a time, especially given that I’ve got a head-mounted camera and I’m projecting behind me on a big screen what I’m doing, people can see, oh, well, he’s programming that drum part. And they see me do it, and they hear it and it loops through the song. And then [I] go over here to a bass and they see me plug that in. And if there’s four or five elements, each they can identify where it came from. They remember the moment when I first input it, and that’s what they’re hearing, but it’s turned into a song.

That’s very effective for people. The first time I ever did that, I thought it wouldn’t be interesting to regular people. I thought, well, this is like the NAMM [musical instrument trade] show or something … In fact, non-geeks, non-musicians were the ones most impressed by this, because they didn’t really know how this is done, and they saw it created before their eyes — often a song they’ve lived with for 25 years. It’s like seeing someone pull a rabbit out of a hat.

If you push the envelope, then you’re upping your risk factor, no question. So obviously, if something new comes out that is the latest and greatest, and it opens up a new creative possibility, of course I’m going to jump. But that’s giving me a lot of new ways to trip up. And you know, especially out on the road with different voltages, temperatures, moisture, the actual movement of the stuff when it’s loaded and unloaded — there’s just a lot of ways for it go wrong. On top of that, the software bugs … But I wouldn’t trade it for going back to something really dependable and reliable. I suppose the most dependable and reliable thing would be a rock band, backing the song. But that’s just not me.

“I suppose the most dependable and reliable thing would be a rock band, backing the song. But that’s just not me.”

Now Versus Then: A Web of Instant Feedback

The most exciting area to me is self-publishing. If you want to get yourself out there, there’s just a kit that makes it so easy … from start to finish, recording and getting stuff pressed and getting sold online and digital downloads. I think it means musicians are required to be a little more business logistics-oriented, unless you have a trusted management company that can take care of that for you. And I just think that piece of it is great, you know, to then put stuff out and keep it close to home in terms of knowing who your audience is, giving them the benefit of being the first and closest to the source and making sure they’re not all over the place when you’re coming through.

The feedback to the artist — my blog, my forum, knowing on a day-to-day basis, reading the temperature — it’s so much better to me than when I started out. Everything was so very insulated for the artist. It took months to basically get royalty statements and radio playlists. Yet in reality, on a day to day basis, there was stuff going on. You just didn’t know about it until after the fact. In reality, there was a window of ten days when your song was either going to get on the radio or not. And you probably weren’t privy to that at all.

Basically, if the answer is not, it’s back to the drawing board, back to the beginning of a 12- or 18- month cycle of write and record it and tour. And it could be, you know, one day all the ducks are in a row, and you hit pay dirt. And another day with just a good song, but things didn’t fall into place — through no fault of your own — and nobody heard the song. And it was very frustrating to me that it took months for that to really come out in the wash. Sometimes I probably never heard about it. I just like the fact now that I’m my own boss, that I have … only myself to blame if something doesn’t go right.

“The feedback to the artist — my blog, my forum, knowing on a day-to-day basis, reading the temperature — it’s so much better to me than when I started out.”

It’s a huge change. It’s very liberating, really, for an artist. The next song that I write will be specifically for me and my audience, not for anybody else. It used to be that the first guy that’s going to hear it is going to be my manager, and then the A&R guy, and then the marketing department, and the radio programmers, and the program directors at the radio station, and the retail guy is going to have to buy in, and the journalist, and so on, and only then do the public get to hear my song and judge it for themselves. So you’re conscious of that. Every time I sat down at the piano, I’m conscious of this whole obstacle course that I have to get through before the public gets to hear it. And these days it’s just not like that. It’s just so much more instantaneous. That’s a very helpful thing, and it’s going to have a very good effect on my music.

“The next song that I write will be specifically for me and my audience, not for anybody else.”

I Love the 80s … Or Something Deeper?

There’s a sense with the public nowadays of tracing something back to its roots. So, for me, for somebody like BT, from a different generation to say this is a guy you need to listen to because he influenced me starting out, is a real stamp of approval. It’s leading people back to it. But they don’t want some sort of artifice of 80s nostalgia. They want to know that it’s still relevant today.

[In the 1980s], the rainbow of sounds that we had at our disposal, and the sounds that taste dictated that we were using back then, was very different from music of today. There’s been a movement in the last few years to either the very organic, stripped down guy and his guitar, or Norah [Jones] and her piano … or the kind of wall of sound, electric guitar band thing. When you listen to stuff in the 80s, it’s kind of wild. It’s this real smorgasbord of different sounds and styles and groups. It’s rather fascinating to people that it sounds sort of different.

But I do think also that there’s been a tendency to want to know the stories behind [these songs] … I think it’s partly the audience getting a little more sophisticated and getting a little older, that they have a desire to know what’s behind it. There’s definitely a move in that direction. All of this stuff is just completely in my favor. The timing is really great for this. Even if I’d waited five years less, I don’t know if it would’ve been as good.

At the beginning of the 90s, when the term electronica got coined, and there was electronica as a genre, and people like Madonna and U2 incorporating electronica… a few journalists have said to me now, I would’ve thought the middle 90s would have been a better time to do this … I’m not so sure, really. In the middle of the 90s, I could only have done that with a major label, and I was just fed up with them at that point. It didn’t feel like the right place for me.

“It’s clear there are still hits. The hit effect is just this explosion, this ripple effect. But the difference there is that it’s like the voice of the people, and not some executive being a kingmaker.”

It was a relief to be in the Valley, in the dot-com world. Yes, there were still some big institutional companies that you had to work around. But in many ways, the dot-com scene back then was very fast-moving, very open-minded. People were willing to get behind really wacky ideas. It just felt more conducive to the kind of experimentation and innovation that I wanted to do than the music business was.

But that was then. And now I think the music business is just wide open. All the barriers to entry have gone. It’s sort of back to a meritocracy again, which I think is great. And the good news is, there are still hits. All we worried about back then was, if all the barriers were gone, would there be megastars any more? Would there still be hits? But if you look at popular things on YouTube or MySpace, yeah, it’s clear there are still hits. The hit effect is just this explosion, this ripple effect. But the difference there is that it’s like the voice of the people, and not some executive being a kingmaker.

I was actually thinking for my next music video, I should just have the kids make the video and put it on YouTube.

Musical Revelations

Larger than life: live video mixing and webcam perspectives meld man and technology. Photo by jaxed.

I think if there was a single moment of a light bulb going on, it was probably when Eno and Bowie went to Berlin. Bowie, who I’d grown up with — my generation in the UK — along with Mark Bolan, T.Rex, and Roxy Music, and people like that. [Bowie] was a giant stadium rockstar. And he went to Berlin to come and play in the studio with Brian Eno, and pulled the Oberheims and so on. [He] just made an album with less than a dozen electronic masterworks, some of which were ambient … and some were pure pop songs — which got to the top of the charts, with all electronic sounds. That was just incredibly inspiring to me, the seminal moment for me that put me on a course. And then, of course, they had their influences, as well. Kraftwerk came to the fore and had such a purist approach to making pop music with synthesizers, including the drums, and it wasn’t all sequenced. It was pop songs with hooks and drums and so on. And that was very inspiring.

But while all this was going on … I would work on [building] my first synthesizer during the day. Then, at night, I would go to punk clubs and see The Clash and The Pistols and Police and Elvis Costello, and later Joy Division and Siouxsie and the Banshees and XTC and Talking Heads and Television came over, and so this sort of New Wave energy was also very exciting. But I didn’t relate to the sort of guitar and drums sound the way I did to the electronic sound. So that was very much roots for me.

“I would work on my first synthesizer during the day. Then, at night, I would to punk clubs and see The Clash.”

One Blinding Hit

I could very easily have remained a very obscure, marginal artist, on an indie label or something, were it not for the fact that I had hits with other people, stuff that I had written, or session work I had done for Foreigner or Def Leppard or whatever. So the record label people knew that I had the ability to make them some money, basically.

When music videos happened, I had always fancied being a film director. So I said, well, give me a budget and I’ll make my own music video. So they said, okay, you can have a day and ten thousand quid. When they told me that, I wrote She Blinded Me with Science to be my first video. And then I went and did the video and recorded the song. But it was never really what I set out to do. It was kind of a tongue-in-cheek thing, and I was aware that if it ever caught on it might be hugely successful commercially, but it came out initially in the UK and nobody cared less.

I was actually in Brussels working on my second album when Science hit in the States. Every time I opened my letterbox, there’d be a fax saying “Great News! … added to this, this, and this station.” Clearly, something was exploding. Finally, it said, you’ve gotta get on the next plane and come over here and make hay while the sun shines. And that was sort of an interesting experience, but it never felt like, okay, now I’ve arrived, this is where I deserve to be, in the limelight, and the window of Tower Records floor to ceiling and on TV every five minutes — that was never what I set out to do, or never what I expected. I sort of thought well it’s an interesting experience, but it’s not going to last forever.

“I said, give me a budget and I’ll make my own music video. So they said, okay, you have a day and ten thousand quid. And I wrote She Blinded Me With Science.”

Electronica, Blips, and Songs

Dolby’s music now, as when it first came out, stands on the edge of electronic sounds — it’s electronic, but in a traditional pop/rock idiom. At the same time, Dolby’s adept use of electronics in the early 80s would make him a hero to the generation of electronica artists to follow. As he revisits his earlier work and adapts them to the sound world available today, I asked what he makes of the arc of electronic history.

“For me, it was always about the songs. I didn’t want machines to sound like machines.”

I think that electronica has always referred to a kind of music that lets machines be machines, and actually rather applauds the fact that machines have their own personalities. And when I think about Kraftwerk and Gary Newman and stuff that was around when I started out, I think that was the case. And people jumped on the robotic thing, and the alienation.

For me, it was always about the songs. I was a songwriter. I could have been doing it with piano and then adding guitars and drums and things, like another type of singer-songwriter, but instead I had this power of electronic sound at my disposal. But I didn’t want machines to sound like machines, you know? I wanted them to sound organic and human and orchestral and so I, if anything, sounded blippy, it was in my trash. And at the end of the 90s, it was like somebody had been going through my trash, taking all those blips and making entire songs out of them.

I can’t help but sound like a corny, old bastard, without saying it, but I think that a good song, a good hook never loses its value. And I hate to belittle a lot of the instrumental music, ambient music, and so on, stuff with great grooves and all these genres and sub-genres, and everything, but I can’t really see it stand the test of time. And it’s sort of astonishing to me that a little ditty I wrote twenty-five years ago is still getting played, but I mean, it’s because it’s a good song, and it tells a story, and it has a personality, and it has a voice to it.

“There’s no reason why the best music can’t still be ahead of me.”

And the production choices I made were arbitrary; they weren’t based on the sound of the day, or what was happening in the Clubs, or what radio wanted to hear, or whatever. They were just sort of abstract choices. So I think that’s a formula that will carry on working. I think a big difference is that if I do something that takes off, I’m not going to jump up there in the limelight and be prancing around. But I think that other than that there’s no reason why the best music can’t still be ahead of me.

CDM: Needless to say, when we’ll be there for the music ahead. Thanks to Thomas for all this insight; stay tuned for more details of his live performance, and links to more of his work.

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