Saturday, March 24, 2007

Thomas Dolby Plays ....The Cafeteria

Thomas Dolby came to the cafeteria at work the other day.
That's right. Thomas Dolby, the British pop star from the 1980's. He's the one that had the smash hit, "She Blinded Me With Science" in 1982.

I went down to watch. It was not what I was expecting, actually. I was expecting a performance, and it was a presentation. A powerpoint style presentation while he talked about his history and how technology and the music industry has changed in the past 30 years and some of the ramifications of those changes. Then he did perform 2 tunes afterward.

He told a fascinating story about how his song became a hit and one extraordinary event that happened just afterward. Those were the very early days of MTV and he said he had an idea that doing a video might be a back door into getting into the music industry and getting a song on the radio. Good forward thinking at the time! His record label gave him a ridiculously small amount of money to do the video. One day shooting, and no producer or director. He said that was fine, he'd do it himself. He literally wrote the tune 3 days before the shoot to match the title he'd already come up with.
Then, a few weeks later while he was recording his next album in Brussels, he got a call saying that his video and single were big in the US, and he needed to get on a plane immediately. He has just contracted mono and felt like crap. He was sweating all the way there on the plane. When he arrived, they had a fleet of limos come and pick him up at the airport. People were coming up to him and saying things like, "Hi, I'm Larry - I discovered you". Then they wanted to take him directly to some big party, and he said he had to meet a friend instead, so they handed him a phone and said sure. He really just wanted to get away from them, so he made that excuse up - but he only had one phone number in LA. It was Michael Jackson's.
They had met while recording in adjacent studios in London, and Jackson said to come visit him if he ever was in LA. Thomas called him from the car and Jackson said to come over, and so the whole fleet of limos showed up at Jackson's mansion. Then the gates opened and they went up to the house, but he was embarrassed about bringing this whole group there, and so he got out and told the rest of the entourage to wait out there while he walked up to the mansion in the pouring rain.

He knocked on the door, was let in and brought to a huge majestic room and Michael Jackson sat there on a big throne and they talked about music and recording techniques, etc. Then he started seeing little eyes appearing through the stairway spindles on the second floor looking out at him. Then there was a huge flash and suddenly the "She Blinded Me With Science" video came blasting out and showing on a giant screen there, and all the little kids came out in their PJ's and slippers and started dancing, and playing with little remote control cars on the floor around them while they talked about music. He said they were just kids from Jackson's neighborhood whose parents let them come over to play in Jackson's mansion.

Bizarre. He said it didn't make him think Jackson was sick or deranged - just really eccentric.

So Dolby talked about that and other adventures, and the past, present , and future of the music industry. And how his company had grown and developed the ringtone playing software engine for cell phones, and how he had 120 employees working there, etc. and how they switched from PC's to cell phone/wireless technology, and the cultural shift that implied. He talked about going to visit Nokia in Helsinki, Finland to make the deal with them. At the time, they owned 40% of the world cell phone market, etc.

He was actually quite personable, friendly, witty, professional, gracious and reasonably humble - well, for a former star. Also, he spoke well. More like a corporate presenter accustomed to giving presentations, rather than a fish out of water musician talking to a group of people he didn't understand. He was very adept in both worlds, it seemed.

THEN he actually played and sang 2 tunes. The second one was She Blinded Me With Science. He had just three devices on the desk in front of him. An m-audio sampler player pad unit, a small synth about 12 inches square and 2 inches thick, and a Mac notebook computer. Then they had the Mac screen showing up on the big screen so we could all see what he was seeing. That was his whole rig. That and a microphone and it all just plugged into the tiny portable PA system.

He was using Pro Logic software on the Mac, which is not much like Pro Tools. It's not so much a recording software as it is a MIDI performance software that allows loops and multi-tracking. So he plays a drum beat, then starts it looping, then adds a snare loop layered on top. Then adds the bass notes, then they are looping too. Then he lays down several synth pieces. They all multitrack and just keep repeating. It's actually quite easy to do. There is a little less demanding musicianship doing it like this. It seems more technical than musical. He is just layering the tiniest of musical snippets and looping on multitrack. It does keep him busy when he also sings and then throws in the odd sampled voices and weird sounds. But it is definitely 80's pop electronica.

The music was interesting and had a good danceable beat, but it doesn't really connect to me, personally. It seems to be all about using the technology, and it's very sterile - more like playing an elaborate drum machine. Actually, it's pretty much exactly like playing my Roland MC-505. Which is essentially a DJ music machine. It has 720 sound patterns and each one has 16 tracks of stuff you can add in or take out plus you can add in your own snippets and sounds on the tiny keyboard on there. In fact, you can compose entire songs with all the tracks in any one of about 1400 different instrument sounds. It's interesting, and it's the stuff they play in dance clubs in most countries around the world, but to me it's not really true art.
It doesn't express emotional content. It seems empty of any meaning. But that is endemic to that genre. For me the whole electronica soundscape is about technology and sometimes skill, but little emotion, little art or meaning. But he was good at it and it was entertaining for a couple of songs, to be sure.

It was a cool 90 minute presentation. He took questions at the end. There were 4. One was from me, and that was the one he spent the most time answering.

I mentioned that in the old days of "Music Industry 1.0", besides the record labels taking all the money and taking the ownership rights for the music, and besides all the bad things they did to cheat artists, the one good thing they did was to invest in marketing the artist and built a public image for them. In other words - they advertised and marketed the artist to sell the records. I asked him about how marketing/advertising is done for new bands now that the old model of record labels who pushed an artist and built them up as a name brand, etc. is over. With the proliferation of cheap recording equipment around the world, now there are literally millions of new artists out there with songs they want to have heard. How does a new artist make it through that kind of obstacle course to become well-known now?

He basically said in a rambling 10 minute round-about answer that he was lucky that he already had a name that was famous and sold records that was built up for him in the old marketplace. And of course, he can now leverage that name to sell CDs on his own.
But he also said that the new music industry is done differently now. He calls this "Music Industry 2.0". Now we have MySpace, YouTube, CDBaby, iTunes, Amazon, etc. And he pointed out that it's still difficult to get on the front page of iTunes. He talked about creating a buzz with your friends and building lists of fans and managing that list yourself, and inviting them to concerts you play and advising them when you release new songs, etc. Also he said you basically have to invest the money in online advertising, but be careful where you invest, because advertising can blow your budget really quick.

No kidding.

Obviously there were a lot of things he said in 90 minutes that I couldn't squeeze into this brief synopsis.

It did make me think that I need to get some of my tunes on iTunes. Not all 112 - but maybe just 40 or 50 or so.....

Also, CD-Baby is something I'd seen before and thought I ought to get signed up for.

There is already a music video for one of my tunes on YouTube. Produced by Joe Caneen, a film producer from California. It's about the day in the life of a big rig trucker. There is no dialog. It's just scenes from morning till night all across America. From the professional trucker's perspective, and it has one of my tunes as the soundtrack. The tune is, "The Road Not Taken". He really did an expert job of matching the scenes to the music. There is a link to it on my music website in the sample videos page. It doesn't have especially fancy guitar work on it though - this was the very first thing I played and recorded after having put down the guitar completely for 10 years. I was pretty rusty. So if you watch that video, please don't think I'm playing my best or anything. It is the guitar equivalent of singing a song when you first wake up...from a 10 year coma!

As for MySpace, I've been thinking about that too. Guitar Player Magazine has a programme where guitarists send in their Myspace pages with their sample tunes, and the editor at GP listens, picks a few he likes, then puts them in the magazine each month.
But I have to pick one tune that has some flashy guitar - and it's hard to pick one. They are all so different. Whatever you pick, you get labelled as. If I pick a Latin style tune, suddenly, I'm a Latin player. If I sent them an 80's style tune, suddenly, I'm a classic rock long haired dude. If I send him a prog-rock tune, suddenly I'm that. If I send him a blues tune, then I'm called a blues guitarist. I have a bunch of Jazz tunes as well, and funk, and pop, and acoustic tunes, and......whatever he hears first becomes the brand that is stamped on my forehead. People are so quick to label you.

Maybe I need to send him 10 tunes of 10 totally different types and force them to listen to them all before they decide how they are going to label and limit me!

Wal-Mart? Now THAT's something I had not considered before. But I understand they are a huge music retailer now...

Maybe I'll just give them a call, right? Yeah. That's what I'll do. I'm sure they'll be happy to hear from me! In fact, they're probably upset that I haven't called already! They're wondering if they've upset me or offended me in some way, probably. I'd better call them right away and let them off the hook.
Of course, they'll probably want exclusive worldwide distribution rights with first-call options on future releases, so I'll have to consult my international legal team on that issue. But hey - if they can push enough units through the channel and capture the market segment, we can talk.... (LOL - I crack me up..)

Actually - we (VSP) do have some more live performances coming up. An MS fundraising event in Cleburne, TX on April 21st, and maybe another similar event at The Ft. Worth Stockyards a week later. That one is televised. Also, two University of Chicago Alumni events coming up, plus a corporate gig in San Antonio, plus a Music Festival in Lewisville in June. I'm trying to get the new drummer up to speed and solid before I really start to push the pedal down on getting us places to play.

Here's something funny - I've had some trouble getting and keeping a drummer. We joke that it's like Spinal Tap, where their drummers kept dying on them. Well, this drummer is the 4th so far. And he's been having troubles with moving and not having a phone and not showing up for a couple of weeks. If he doesn't show up Tuesday night, that will be 4 weeks without word. I think then it might be time to give up on him and bring on Drummer #5. I have another Drummer, Aaron, who is anxious to get a chance to play with us.

I can just see a band picture with the other 5 of us standing together with shovels beside four freshly dug and filled holes representing the four previous drummers.... Here lies Mike, Jason, Scott, and Matt.....
I can just see Aaron standing there with a really worried look on his face. Perfect!


At 3/26/2007 11:08 PM, Anonymous Doug said...

I indicated that I would post on your blog, so here it is, short and sweet. Although I am not a musician, I did enjoy his presentation and candid insights to some of the business exposure he had within the industry. As you allude, while he may still be doing what he did 20 years ago, he does appear to be quite content doing the circuit. Take care,


At 3/26/2007 11:24 PM, Blogger Val Serrie said...

Good to hear from you Doug. Drop by anytime!



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