Five Questions: Thomas Dolby

The artist, tech innovator, and inventor gets personal in his new memoir
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October, 1977: Teenage musician Thomas Dolby, living in a dirty, rat-infested London apartment, and aimless after getting fired from his job at the local produce market, happens on a broken synthesizer sticking out of a dumpster behind the EMS synth shop. He climbed into the dumpster, and the rest is history.

Dolby’s new memoir, The Speed of Sound: Breaking the Barriers Between Music and Technology (Flatiron Books), traces his meteoric path to New Wave pop star in the '80s with his smash hits “Blinded Me with Science” and “Hyperactive,” through his years in Silicon Valley at the forefront of digital music technology, to his return to his first love, songwriting.

Most recently, Dolby was named Homewood Professor of the Arts at Johns Hopkins, where, in addition to teaching sound for picture, he’s helping create a center that will serve as an incubator for technology in the arts.

You’ve worked at the intersection of the music business and the tech industry for a long time. How do you think the dialog between music creators and the tech sector— YouTube, streaming services, etc.—needs to improve, to preserve the livelihood of music makers?

Often when there’s a breakthrough technology, artists are asked to “pony up” and forego payment, giving the technology time to get established. For example, when cable TV started, actors were not paid royalties. When CDs first came in, musicians were underpaid or not paid at all by record companies.

This is reasonable up to a point; but once a technology has matured to the point where investment costs have gone away and there are large profits to be made, the industry and the artists should immediately commence a dialog about meaningful and fair compensation— otherwise it’s just theft, plain and simple.

I am indeed at the intersection, but here I have to put my artist hat on! Services like Spotify and YouTube, where music is currently given away wholesale in order to generate revenue for tech companies, are just plain ripping off the artists.

In the book, you talk about returning to music after a long time away, and facing a new industry landscape. How has that informed your most recent work?

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I set about writing songs for a new album, and halfway through, it hit me that nobody is buying albums any more—they’re too busy on social networks, playing games and uploading selfies. An album is a 20th-century concept— produced, manufactured, and distributed to millions in a one-way relationship; but today it has to be more inclusive. So The Floating City [2011’s A Map of the Floating City, Dolby’s first album since 1992] was a multiuser online game, an adventure, with elements of fan fiction, in which you earned the ability to download free music via collaboration and your own creativity.

I love how you say that ultimately, you have the soul of an artist and a tinkerer. How do you see that manifesting in your next act?

That’s really hard to say, but right now I am trying to teach a class of students how to think like I did back when there were no obvious paths or solutions! For this generation, solutions are typically a few keystrokes away, and I need them to think for themselves, even though by the time they leave the tools and tech will be very different.

In the final chapter, you mention that now you feel like you have something to pass on to young people, as far as having a creative mindset to tackle any problem. How is this manifesting, for example, in your work at Johns Hopkins?

Refer to my last answer!

So whatever happened to that old synth that you fished out of the trash on that fateful day in 1977?

Ha, ha! It was a Transcendent 2000. It was stolen from my cage at John Henry’s rehearsal room in North London, along with a Jupiter 4, a MicroMoog, a set of Simmons pads, and a Solina String Synth, around 1987.