SAN JOSE, Calif. – Thomas Dolby shared with several hundred engineers his journey in and out and back into the music industry. In a detour along the way he helped create--and destroy--a billion dollar business in polyphonic ringtones.
The lesson engineers should draw from it all? “Shit happens,” said the musician in a keynote at Design West here.
Technology has opened up amazing opportunities—and created more than a few problems—for the music industry, said Dolby, best known for his 1980’s hit “She Blinded Me With Science,” one of three songs he performed in his keynote.
“You used to have to spend millions just to get out in front of fans,” Dolby said. “When I started out at 17…[you] had to get a cassette tape to an A&R man, then get the radio stations to play it and all these other things had to fall in place,” he said.
Now the Web can create instant stars and targeted audiences. “The music industry will be like day trading with a music manager behind a screen” building a fan base with social networking tools that identify “qualified listeners with a laser focus,” he said in a Q&A with press here.
Dolby created a Web-based mystery game, The Floating City, as a companion for his latest album. It became a forum for 11,000 of his fans trying to unravel the clues.
“I was in the forums lurking around reading their conspiracy theories, and if I saw something I liked the Floating City Gazette would publish it and they became true,” he said.
Dolby is now on tour promoting the new album, his first in 20 years. He travels with a trailer “that looks like it was designed by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.” It acts as a portable studio recording 30 second video clips from fans as part of a time capsule for the Floating City.
The electronic music era had a rocky start in the early 1980’s when Dolby was starting his career. “Electronic instruments were quite bulky, they didn’t stay in tune and they were quite expensive,” he said, noting one of his first synthesizers was the size of a refrigerator and cost twice as much as his first London flat.
About the time the commercial Internet was being born, Dolby snagged a one-year grant from Paul Allen’s Interval Research group to explore some concepts at the nexus of music and technology. That led to the forming of Headspace, a company that created the Beatnik audio engine Dolby described as “a SoundBlaster card in software.”
In 1994, Dolby met Netscape founders Jim Clark and Marc Andreessen and was subsequently able to convince them to support audio in their browser. “But companies said if audio takes an extra second to load their front page that’s too long,” said Dolby.
The resistance pushed Dolby’s company Headspace to make its code as tight and efficient as possible, an effort that paid off after Sun Microsystems licensed the technology for use in Java. Nokia heard the news and contacted Headspace for help getting the code running on its phones.
The handset giant wanted to compete with Japanese phones that used an audio chip to deliver polyphonic ringtone. Headspace suddenly had a vibrant market.
“By 2005 most phone makers licensed Beatnik and ringtones were a billion-dollar business” that didn’t involve the big record companies, Dolby said.
That changed when Headspace developed the Rich Media Format for embedding song samples into the ring tones.
“We inadvertently brought the large recording companies into the game,” Dolby said. They would sit down with the carriers and do deals that cut out all the cottage ringtone publishers--within a few years the window for polyphonic ringtones ended because the wireless networks were good enough to handle the whole song,” he added.
So in 2008, Dolby retired from the tech business, moved back to England and resumed his music career. After his one day stop in Silicon Valley, Dolby is headed back to the East Coast to resume the U.S. tour that brings him back to the Bay Area for a San Francisco concert April 13.