Thomas Dolby was a darling of MTV's dawn. An eccentric-looking Brit with wild hair, Dolby played keyboards and vamped about as rock's Mad Scientist. His 1983 techno-pop hit, "She Blinded Me With Science," was a staple of the cable network's early rotation, a clever spoof of the absent-minded professor character of countless old movies.
But Dolby, though immersed in the early-'80s pop scene and all its attendant over-the-top campiness, somehow seemed slightly outside it all, a puckish prankster playing along but also managing to make a bit of sport of the whole thing. Often overlooked was his natural talent for merging music and electronics. While his contemporaries discovered the synthesizer and then tossed it away as soon as it became unfashionable, Dolby continued to embrace electronica, becoming known as a master of computer-aided music.
Many of his early-'80s contemporaries are back to driving taxis or paying for their detox with the occasional royalty check when their sole hit is converted into elevator music. But Dolby, now 39, has evolved into an apostle for Internet music and sound.
Dolby appeared here Wednesday at the National Association of Broadcasters radio show, an annual orgy of industry bigwigs and hopeful vendors hawking their blue-sky products to representatives of radio networks and stations from around the world. Many of them are just that--pie-in-the-sky bits of technology that sound great when described at the vendor's booth, but that eventually fail because of sagging capital, technical glitches or a hundred other reasons.
But Dolby brings a higher degree of credibility to his latest venture, a Silicon Valley company called Beatnik. The Internet, Dolby says, is "a silent movie." Beatnik, he says, is a new way to add sound and music--in a fast, interactive fashion--to this silent world.
Dolby was born Thomas Robertson in Cairo, the son of a world-renowned scholar of Greek and Etruscan pottery who is now a Cambridge don. Robertson grew up in England, and his school chums gave him the moniker "Dolby" because of his fascination with sound and music. ("Dolby" is a noise-reduction technology for audio tapes.) After lights-out in boarding school, Robertson would camp under his covers and tune in Radio Luxembourg and other shortwave broadcasts.
He quit school at 16--not because he was ambitionless, but because he knew exactly what he aspired to. His dad was none too happy because "I was working in a fruit and veggie stand," Dolby says. But that was short-term. He began building his own synthesizers at 18. By 25, "She Blinded Me With Science"--a gentle sendup of his Mad Prof dad--was the first hit from his first album. He kept his nickname, "Dolby," as his stage name. The folks breathed a sigh of relief--junior was going to turn out all right.
His follow-up album was also a hit, but subsequent efforts were met with critical hoots and poor sales. By 1992, his pop career was essentially over. Deftly, Dolby turned his attentions and talents--and his thriftily saved rock-and-roll income--to computer software, founding a company called Headspace. Earlier this year, Headspace became Beatnik ("a timelessly cool" name, Dolby posits). It has about 40 employees and is poised to receive a cash infusion from a Silicon Valley venture capitalist.
Beatnik is targeting its technology squarely at radio station Web sites.
Radio stations have been dragged kicking and screaming into the Internet age, seeing the Web initially as a natural competitor to be feared or ignored. Finally, radio is realizing that the Internet can be a valuable tool to expand the reach of the radio signal--stations can stream their programming through their Web sites to anyone anywhere in the world who has a phone line and a computer. Most importantly, the Internet can be a moneymaker for radio stations. Ads can be sold on station Web sites, and links to online retailers, such as CDNow and Amazon.com, can be added, so listeners can instantly buy the music they're hearing on the station's Web site. (Stations get a percentage of each sale they send to the retailer.)
But forward-thinking radio stations are now realizing that it's not enough just to have a Web site that posts photos of the deejays and plays music, and that's where Dolby comes in. Web audio, he says, has been mostly "one-way": either listeners hear a radio station's signal or download music with MP3 players, which takes time and uses up lots of computer memory.
Beatnik software allows Web surfers to interact with the Web site by planting a synthesizer and sound bank directly into the user's PC. During Wednesday's demonstration, Dolby showed off an application that lets users mix their own versions of popular songs. One page on Beatnik.com displays the lyrics to David Bowie's hit single "Fame." By using the computer mouse to click on various buttons on the Web page, users can add or take away drums, bass lines, guitar licks and bits of lyric and create their own mixed version of "Fame" piece by piece. It requires no musical education or ability to play an instrument; listeners merely add or take away sounds until they hear something they like. Dolby himself does not read music--the mixing process on Beatnik.com is essentially the same way he composes music, from his pop songs to his movie scores to the sound effects he designed for Steven Spielberg's L.A. restaurant.
If this where-are-they-now former rock star story turns out happier than most, it will be because Dolby was a rock star simply because, at that point in his life, pop music was the most lucrative venue for his talent. Now, the money venue is the Internet. When he was breaking into music, his contemporaries were "pinups" such as Adam Ant and Sting. "I decided I had to go another way," he says, and became the rock star nerd.
Nearly 20 years later, people still approach him on the street and shout "Science!", the signature line of his 1983 hit. But more often than not, his fans are the sort who are less interested in autographs than tech support. He draws a comparison with his wife, actress Kathleen Beller, who played Kirby Colby on "Dynasty" for two seasons.
"We'll be in a restaurant and suddenly my wife will feel a hand on her wrist and a woman will scream, 'Omigod, Kirby Colby! Girls, get over here!' " Dolby says, doing his best yenta. "But my fans are more likely to come up and say, 'I'm having a problem with my synthesizer, and was wondering if you could give me some advice . . .' "
CAPTION: Thomas Dolby's Beatnik software plants a synthesizer and sound bank in a user's PC. By clicking on various buttons on a Web page, users can add or take away drums, bass lines, guitar licks and lyrics to create their own version of a song.
CAPTION: Thomas Dolby, playing a different kind of keyboard: He aims to add sound to what he calls the "silent movie" of the Internet.