This article was originally published in May, 2012.
Best known for his 80’s new wave smash “She Blinded Me with Science”, visionary Thomas Dolby recently shared his insights into technology and humanity with Jeffrey Morris.
From the Road, on the Time Capsule Tour …
FutureDude: Would you describe yourself as being a futurist, or having a strong interest in futuristic things?
Thomas Dolby: I guess I’m sort of a ‘retro futurist’. I like looking back on people’s visions of the future. Sometimes they were prophetic, and sometimes they were wildly off track. We can have a laugh at them. I just love the sort of frontier that we’re perpetually on and don’t know what’s around the corner. We look to magicians, musicians, and visionaries for some kind of insight.
That makes total sense. So, do you consider yourself to have a steampunk view of the future? Is that something that appeals to you?
Well, I sort of think of a parallel universe and alternative reality in which technology has gone down a different path. But I think there’s definitely a sort of romance in Victorian technology. What we would now consider ‘low tech’.
One hundred years ago was a terribly exciting time in terms of exploration, medicine, science, astronomy, transportation, and infrastructure. There were just major breakthroughs happening left, right, and center.
That must have been have been a good time to be alive. The methods that people were using were starting to sort of polarize into the brilliant individuals, such as Nikola Tesla, or the more corporate approach of the Edison Corporation.
So, where are we nowadays? If we go back to the end of 1980’s and you thought about the year 2012 — what did you imagine today would be like?
I was always very good at predicting what was about to come, but never how fast or slow it was going to come. So timing is everything. It’s no good being in the right place at the wrong time.
For example, the only way to make a record and get music out was to sign a big record deal; get put in the recording studio; get your song on the radio; and that was how the public got to hear your music.
But I started out making music in my back room, and in those days you couldn’t record to the same quality as you could in a recording studio. The fact that I was always making fully fleshed-out electronic pop music in my back room was an inspiration. Really of the view of what was to come at some later date.
So if you fast-forward to 2012, what people have on their iPhone now is way more powerful than what I had in my back room then. So now — not only are you able record the music — but your potential audience is already connected to the phone network.
You can just hit a button and they can access it. That bypasses the recording studios, the labels, the radio stations. It just cuts out so much of that middle layer. Which is great! It makes a level playing field with no meritocracy.
You can sit in your pajamas and record a YouTube clip and wake up in the morning and you’re a global superstar. That has happened and all of that is terrific. The challenge is 20,000 icons are all competing for the same space. So I think there’s pros and cons to the advance of technology.
But at the end of the day it’s a very good thing for the fans and the musicians themselves that the infrastructure of the industry has gone away, and it’s a much more egalitarian music scene.
How would you say it’s impacted your career directly?
You can look at it like I’m very fortunate perhaps from residual name value based upon the fact that I was one of the lucky ones that did have a record deal and hits. Now I can trade that in and I can publish myself. I can connect with my audience via social networks and rein that all in. I think I’m very fortunate from that point of view.
I happened to see that you’re coming to town. It was on Facebook. What’s amazing is that I just listed you in my ‘likes’ as one of my favorite musicians. So they fed me that information, it’s very cool to be able to access that.
It really is working, this social media thing — being able to reach the audience that is interested in what you’re doing.
It is working! In the old days you had to fight with the record company to get an advertising budget, and then they’d say: “Right, we’ll get you the back page of Billboard”, and it would cost two hundred thousand dollars!
Ninety-nine percent of the people that see the ad are not going to be interested, but hopefully the other one percent will be. They might remember to pick up your record the next time they’re at Tower Records, and spend twenty bucks so that they can spend the next half hour trying to get it out of the cellophane wrap!
I really approve of the way that things are going; it’s really much better.
Can you tell me a little bit about your recent projects?
Yeah, well, I created a social network game called Floating City last summer. I liked the idea of players within the game discovering the music by exploring that it — so that the music was sort of like the prizes within the game.
About half of the players within the game confirmed that they’d be fans, but the other half were actually gamers and people just looking for something cool to do online. You know, they’d never heard my music before. Maybe they were too young to remember it in the 80’s, or it just hadn’t crossed their radar before.
So, collaboratively, they’d solve problems and find a way around the game by trading and collaborating with other players. One of the things that we did was to have parties — all within the culture within the game. This was something I didn’t really dream up, but that was created by the players themselves.
This whole scheduling parties in chat rooms was so that they could arrange to trade items within the game and to solve puzzles and things like that. In the chat rooms there was a way to have a sort of soundtrack playing for them.
So people would spin records, and my own character within the game — the Aviator — showed up one night and started spinning records. Some were from other people’s songs and others were actually rough mixes and things that I was working on for the album. One of them was that groove for “Spice Train”. And people were already into it; so I finished that song and made it sort of the anthem for the game.
It’s about the culture that grew up within the game.
Wow! That’s very cool! It’s got a great groove. A crazy question: you actually ended up working with Foreigner at one point, didn’t you?
Yeah that was actually a lot earlier on. I mean it was when I was barely making a living as a musician, and they got a hold of a cassette — a demo — and they really liked the keyboard playing. They had someone put keyboards on before, but they weren’t too delighted with them. So they thought they’d give me a try, and they flew me out to New York for literally a day. During that day they had me do the song “Urgent”.
They were very into what was put into that. So they asked me to stick around for the rest of the month and do an album. That included “Waiting for a Girl Like You” — which was their biggest hit ever I think.
It signaled a big change for them, and it stuck out on the radio with a sort of fifteen seconds of ‘memo’ music introducing it. For a hard rock band in the 80’s, that was quite adventurous.
Yeah, well, I tell you — those are my two favorite Foreigner songs: “Urgent” and “Waiting for a Girl Like You”!
I just remember having that album. And I remember I that I saw in the credits there: Tom Dolby. You know? That was so cool! That’s why it was such a great song! I don’t know if you run into a lot of people who connected that. But it’s really neat! It was a memorable thing!
You did a soundtrack for one of the computer animation compilations for The Mind’s Eye.
Can you a little bit about that? What that was like? Or how you got involved with that project?
Well, um, The Mind’s Eye series was a compilation of clips from the different top computer animations of the day. Some of them had been done for commercials, and some for educational purposes, and some were just experimental.
I think in comparison to the leaps and bounds that future animation has come on, it doesn’t necessarily age well. But it’s kind of quaint that that’s what we were saying about retro-futurism. I mean it was just absolutely state-of-the-art when it came out.
I felt that having you do the music for something like that made complete sense.
I loved worked in a new medium where it was as yet to be defined. Where people know it’s exciting, but they don’t know what to do with it.
So I loved jumping in there and saying: “Hey, try this! Look at that!” That goes the same for music videos — like then MTV had gotten very powerful, but nobody had really figured out how to sort of do something creative with the medium.
Then again you know — as you mentioned with games, computer animation, the web, mobile devices, and now with social networking and things like that — I’m very sort of magnetically drawn to something that’s state-of-the-art, but that’s not really clear yet how to use it. I love to jump in there and make a fool of myself.
So, what’s the future of music?
I think if the flow of music is there, and if there are micropayments of some way to charge, then I think the economy of music can be very healthy. What’s often not pointed out is that they talk about a loss of revenue in the music industry. But though they might have lost a third of the sales, they save on the costs because it’s so much to cheaper to record the music. So the small loss of profitability…
I think it’s loss of profitability for the ‘gatekeepers’. I think that’s what they’re really complaining about.
That’s definitely true! I think that there won’t be gatekeepers in the same way. You know, we could pass a hat around to help them out!
I’m looking forward to catching your show. Is there anything you’d like to talk about with the Time Capsule aspect? What are you doing there?
Well, people can come down and record a 30-second video message for the future. You can use that 30 seconds any way that you’d like! You might think: “Well, this is the final 30 seconds that I’ve got left on Earth. What am I going say, and to whom?”
Or you might think: “What should go into the time capsule? Is it my three favorite songs? Or is it my mom’s apple pie recipe? What should be preserved from today for the future?”
Or if you want to assume that we won’t be around a hundred years into the future, what message do you want to give to the first alien visitor that uncovers the time capsule? Where did we go wrong? I mean where did we go off of the rails?
So, it’s really up to individuals how they want to use that 30 seconds. All the clips will go up on YouTube on a channel called Time Capsule TV. So the most popular ones will become the Time Capsule itself.
Okay. Thomas, I really appreciate your time. Thank you so much!
Alright. I look forward to seeing you at the show!