Interview: Thomas Dolby, digital music pioneer and Silicon Valley entrepreneur
Image credit: Nick Smith
Probably best known as a musician and pioneer of the 1980s synth-pop revolution, Thomas Dolby went on to become a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and innovator, eventually bringing the ringtone to our mobile phones. Here, he talks about the unpredictable world of the dotcom bubble.
At the beginning of Thomas Dolby’s book ‘The Speed of Sound’ there’s a strange scenario in which the synth-pop guru is in a telephone booth in the middle of the Nevada desert, with a pile of coins stacked up before him. Welcome to the early days of beaming music files over a telecoms wire. The recipient is the late King of Pop, Michael Jackson.
“I was on tour and I’d played a gig at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles. After the show Michael came backstage with an entourage outnumbering my band and crew, which was a bit embarrassing.” Jackson, it turned out, was interested in the fact that Dolby had integrated live sequencing into his performance using a Fairlight digital audio workstation. Dolby’s Fairlight had cost him around £80,000. To put that into context, the musician had just bought a flat in central London for £24,000.
“Michael had a Synclavier, which was the rival sampler at the time and wanted to know more about the technology,” Dolby recalls. Jackson was also interested in getting hold of some new songs for a post-’Thriller’ album he was putting together with his brothers, in order to generate wealth for his siblings. The problem was the Jackson brothers were turning up at the studio with demos that weren’t that great and Michael was wondering if Dolby had anything on stock like the synth-driven ‘Hyperactive!’ song that Dolby had originally composed with Jackson in mind.
Dolby responded in the affirmative, promising to send over a demo the following morning - only his demos didn’t exist on any playback medium, for the simple reason they were still in his head. On the tour bus en route to Salt Lake City, Dolby started to put demos together on machines such as the Roland TR-808 rhythm composer and the Roland TB-303 Bass Line synthesiser. Eventually, he ended up with a backing track on a computer file, but without lyrics.
“I needed to send the file to Michael at the studio where he was working. Yet at the time, my means of communication was a Tandy TRS-80 microcomputer, which came with acoustic cups. You’d take the phone receiver and plonk them in and dial up. So I got the studio on the phone and was pumping the phone full of coins and it just wasn’t working. Finally, Michael came on the phone and said: ‘Why don’t you do it the old-fashioned way and sing the song to me?’ So I’m standing there in a phone box wondering what I’d let myself in for, singing this song called ‘Interference’, that I didn’t have a lot of lyrics written for.” On finishing the song, Dolby says that he saw tumbleweed roll past, “and that was more or less it.”
Despite having an enviable career as a pop star working at the frontier of the new wave of digital pop (it’s hard to forget his video for ‘She Blinded me with Science’ that included Magnus Pyke), Dolby’s career was to pull him in a radically different, if technically related, direction. Many people will remember Dolby playing keyboards for David Bowie on the ‘global jukebox’ Live Aid, which with an estimated 1.9 billion viewers was one of the largest-scale satellite link-ups and television broadcasts of all time.
Perhaps what is not so well-known outside the technology community is that he had a comparable career as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and innovator. Dolby says the switch in direction is partially explained by the fact that while he is a natural musician and stage performer, he found the social and media exposure of superstardom left him feeling slightly awkward. Describing himself as “not extrovert”, he says with his unerring knack for hitting the nail on the head: “I’d have been a nobody if I wasn’t famous.”
The music business is just that: business. Yet the moment Dolby’s album sales dipped to the point where he was struggling to break even “coincided with a point where technology was starting to get very exciting in a new way for musicians”. Back in the 1980s, he was using personal computers to make music – “probably a Mac Plus, or something like that” – and when the internet came along, “I started to think ‘Wow, we’re all connected now. It’s only a matter of time before I can hit upload, people can download and job done’. When that point came, I realised the music industry would lose its stranglehold on what people could hear and how they heard it. Their control was limited to pressing plants, lathes and relationships with retail chains. As soon as you could take that away, and it all became about bits instead of atoms, there would be no reason to have an oligopoly of six or seven record companies anymore. I was right. I was out by about 15 years, but I had the right idea. I hadn’t really accounted for the record industry’s ability to dig its heels in and slow everything down.”
The net outcome of this realisation was that, as Dolby began to work with hardware and software companies, he started to detect a developing curiosity in his ability to use these technologies in ways that had never been intended. “I would dig into nooks and crannies of their software and come up with novel ways of doing things.” Before long, Dolby was invited to attend meetings, to test beta-software and prototype hardware. “If I was lucky, the next revision of the software would actually incorporate some features I’d suggested. I was hooked. This was absolutely thrilling and I really felt the world of software was in the ascendant, especially in the early days of the internet. I thought the combination of digital music and the internet was an unbeatable equation.”
With the 1990s came Dolby’s full integration into Silicon Valley, where he was to spend more than a decade riding a rollercoaster of highs and lows in an ethically dubious corporate environment that was to bring him almost to his knees financially and creatively. The man who had released a series of influential solo albums, as well as producing culturally significant acts such as Prefab Sprout and Joni Mitchell, was to find himself in an endless round of raising venture capital, dealing with shark-like executives and living through meetings with people who just wanted to shake hands with Bowie’s keyboard player or blag tickets to the next Rolling Stones gig at the Oakland Auditorium.
“When I first found there was interest and excitement in Silicon Valley for the stuff I was doing, most tech companies thought of music and sound as an annoyance. They weren’t interested in a full multimedia experience on your computer – they just wanted an interactive brochure, really.
“Yet the upside was that some middle management executive would say they wanted to partner with me to show off their product. For example, Intel was looking for ways to get people to use more processing power. As with now, Moore’s Law was in effect, and they needed to create a justification for upgrading to the next Intel processor. Spreadsheets didn’t need this extra power, so Intel needed 3D graphics, virtual reality, anything that required more processing.” Without multimedia content, says Dolby, computers simply didn’t need to evolve.
By 1993, Dolby was in charge of the start-up Headspace that was to develop the downloadable file format Rich Music File (RMF). In 1999, Headspace became Beatnik, specialising in mobile phone software synthesisers. Despite public awareness of Beatnik, fiscal energy of the venture capital raised on the coat tails of the digital revolution, and the excitement of employing some of the best creatives in the business, Beatnik suffered from lack of tangible product. “It was a lot of hot air really. We had millions of registrations on our website and millions of downloads of our software. We could show statistics like that, but we couldn’t show revenue. Despite irrational exuberance of the dotcom bubble era you still needed to show revenue.”
Beatnik addressed this need by entering into a compromise merger with an organisation at the other end of the spectrum. “On the surface, Mixman appeared to be working with interactive digital music. Yet what they were really making was an adolescent DJ toy that was sold in Walmart. However, they had an actual physical product. So A plus B equalled C-plus in terms of how the bankers saw it.”
Dolby says he’d been effectively shoe-horned into putting together a company with a plausible product, “before we could go ahead with an IPO [Initial Public Offering]. Fortunately, we were saved by the bell when the market crashed. Prior to that we’d raised an additional $35m from investors hopping onto the bandwagon hoping to flip the stock after the event. When we withdrew the IPO, we had enough money to put the company on a solid basis. We did that by getting out of the web world altogether that had no revenues for anyone and by moving into the mobile phone world.”
Dolby agrees that during this time he personally changed from being a ‘natural’ geek to being a not-so-natural CEO of a company that, once it had something to sell, wasn’t in the space where he wanted to play, forcing him to take strategic sideways steps. He brought in a professional CEO and a head of marketing, the latter of which changed everything Dolby loved about Beatnik into a streamlined corporate cliché he no longer recognised. With his hands coercively taken off the levers, he was now feeling like a former rock star that literally couldn’t mind his own business. Added to this, an earthquake knocked his house down.
Yet the mobile world was booming and, unlike the web, it was a place where people would exchange cash for content. When it came to ringtones, “people were willing to pay two or three dollars for a bleepy version of a hit song. The record industry couldn’t get their heads around this because they still thought of music ownership as buying a disc and putting it on a shelf.”
Then came the moment when Dolby realised that he’d created the killer app. “We’ve made the world’s smallest synthesiser by accident. The reason for this is the pushback we were getting from the Yahoos of this world [over] how long it took someone to download a front page. What we needed them to do was to download a software synth in the background and then content for it. Once you could do this it would be way more efficient than streaming audio at that point, because before broadband, bandwidth was really an issue. To get any traction with this we were forced to analyse every bit and byte of our code. This was at a time when software synthesisers were starting to come in for aspiring pro musicians. Yet they would max out the processing on the state-of-the-art computers, which meant other software synths were nowhere near efficient enough to go into a phone. Yet ours was, because it was small.”
Everything started to come right for Dolby when “Nokia felt pressure to have musical ringtones on their phones. There were Japanese phones coming out with a Yamaha MIDI chip in them.” Nokia was reluctant to buy a Yamaha chip for various operational reasons, “so their only solution was to find a synthesiser that was efficient enough to work on the puny processors in their phones. We had the only one in existence.” Thus, after a convoluted sequence of events that included a huge slice of luck, the Nokia ‘waltz’ was born. This came about because Dolby sent himself a Beatnik RMF file “for the hell of it, to see if it would open on my prototype Nokia phone. Which it did. They told us they were taking that code out, but they never got around to it. Nokia shipped millions with the Beatnik RMF file. The only way to make an RMF file is with the Beatnik editor.”
For Dolby, it felt as if his ship had come in, but it hadn’t because it was time to move on. “I was bored with Beatnik and I went off to form Retro Ringtones.” Which is where ‘The Speed of Sound’ ends, leaving us wondering what’s in store for volume two of Dolby’s adventures in the digital world and beyond.
‘The Speed of Sound’ by Thomas Dolby is published by Icon Books, £14.99