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Thomas Dolby on Music Education and the Evolution of the Music Industry

April 14, 2012

For many, 1980’s electropop icon Thomas Dolby is most widely known for hits like “She Blinded Me with Science” and “Hyperactive!”. Dolby has enjoyed a varied career that includes a return to music with his most recent album “A Map of the Floating City“, a decade-long role as the Music Director for and a lengthy detour into Silicon Valley where he founded Beatnik (the company that created the synthesizer shipped in over 3 billion cellphones, and the source of Nokia’s most popular ringtone).

Thomas Dolby was recently in San Francisco for a sold out stop on his Time Capsule Tour and spoke with editor James Morehead on how the music industry is evolving, the role of music education in schools and what he’s learned raising a ‘rainbow family’.

James Morehead: How did you get started in music – did you take formal lessons or were you self-taught?

Thomas Dolby: “I sang in a choir when I was 10 or 11, and learned to sight-read single lines, but other than that I don’t have a formal education. I picked up the guitar initially, playing folk tunes – Dylan – then I graduated to piano when I got interested in jazz, listening to people like Oscar Peterson, Dave Brubeck, Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, and so on. The first electronic instruments started to become accessible in the mid-70s and I got my hands on a kit built synthesizer and never looked back.”

Morehead: At what point did you realize music was your passion? More than a hobby?

Dolby: “I think I knew that from 15 or 16 really. But I was very fortunate because the way the music industry was in those days, it wasn’t enough to be talented, you had to get noticed by the record industry or else the public never got to hear you. There was only one game in town. There was only a small percentile of people who got through that obstacle course. I think things are much better these days because every 17 year-old believes the public is going to hear them and fall in love with them, and today that is possible whereas when I was young it wasn’t. I consider myself very lucky.”

Morehead: How did your parents react? Were they supportive?

Dolby: “They left me to it, really. I was the youngest of six kids, and I think my parents had given up on trying to steer their kids in any particular direction by that time. Both of my parents were academics, and many of my brothers and sisters had gone into academia as well, so my parents were satisfied with that. My parents were quite liberal and bohemian and never had aspirations for me to become a doctor or a lawyer or something like that.”

Morehead: What challenges did you face before you achieved success?

Dolby: “You had to get noticed by someone in a record company, and a lot of record companies wouldn’t even listen to tapes unless they came through somebody they knew. I was fortunate because my keyboard playing attracted attention. Before I ever had a record deal I played on Foreigner’s album ‘Foreigner 4’ which yielded some pretty massive hits,  and I had written a hit for Lene Lovich – ‘New Toy’ – so I pretty much had a calling card before I made the rounds of the record labels. So they were keen to hear what I had to say, and saw the appeal of my music which was very individual and unlike a lot of other stuff that was out there.

“I never really viewed myself as a pop artist, I never went out of my way to make radio-friendly hit records, so it was a bit of a surprise to me when I started doing well commercially. I think the songs that mean the most to me and make the deepest impression on my audience, are the more personal, intimate songs like ‘Screen Kiss’, ‘Budapest by Blimp’, ‘I Love You Goodbye’, ‘Oceanea’ or ‘Simone’. Those are the ones that really touch people. The challenge is those songs are less obviously accessible. I view the more extrovert stuff I do like “She Blinded Me with Science” or “The Toad Lickers” as conduits to get people past the industry norms and into the deeper cuts on my albums.”

Morehead: I think ‘Screen Kiss’ is one of the most beautiful songs, lyrically and musically, that you’ve ever written. What was the inspiration?

Dolby: “I had a very painful, brief love affair with somebody who was a bit of a femme fatale. I think I was aspiring to something that was a bit of a pipe dream. It’s a very romantic song that has a lot of pain in it. She was quite self-destructive. It was a reflection on that, really.”

Morehead: For a young musician looking at a blank score or sitting at a keyboard wanting to write their first song, how should he or she get started?

Dolby: “You can’t work inwards, you can’t listen to stuff that’s already out there and try to emulate it, you have to express yourself. If your music isn’t individual, it won’t stand out. I think that most people who have the gift find it hard to analyze or really articulate what it is that they feel. I hear things in 3D, I have a very good visual sense. My wife [actress Kathleen Beller] can look at a piece of fabric, and say ‘There are really interesting strands of blue in there’ and I’m looking at it just seeing brown fabric; but if I look really closely – through her eyes – I start to see what she’s seeing. I’m sort of the same way with music – I hear music in very vivid detail. And similarly with song composition, I can really hear how the song is crafted, and I’m really lucky to have that gift.”

Morehead: What role does the editorial process play in your work?

Dolby: “There’s nothing wasteful about what I do. There are very few B-sides, almost everything that I’ve ever recorded is out there on an album. If it’s good enough then it is going on an album, if it’s not good enough then I’m not going to bother finishing it. There isn’t a huge vault of unreleased material, unlike Prince or Paddy McAloon from Prefab Sprout. I’ve worked with Paddy and he has a biological need to write a song a week, he’s just done that for ever and ever. I’ve written a total of 50 songs ever which is quite a small quantity.”

Morehead: Has the advancement in technology that allows those without any technique with an instrument to create music a good thing? Or is it diluting the art of songwriting?

Dolby: “I think music appreciation and music participation are two different things. Music participation is a very healthy and holistically beneficial thing for everybody, whether you are 5 or 95. I welcome it. In the old days we used to hear that 1 in 3 households had a guitar in it or a piano, but I think the number that have a musical instrument today is close to 90% either because people have Guitar Hero or they have a downloadable music app on their iPhone, so there is a lot more amateur music-making going on, and I think that’s a great thing.”

Morehead: Tell me about your role with

Dolby: “I’ve been the music director for ten years. When we started the TED conference, it was viewed as an elitist thing for a handful of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, and we wanted to get it out to a wider audience. So we went to TV channels and the response was ‘regular people aren’t interested in analytical or ecological talks, so why would they be interested in an 18-minute presentation? It’s way too long to keep anyone’s attention span.’

“Eventually the Internet got to the point where we could put all the TED clips online and on YouTube and it turns out hundreds of millions of people are watching these clips. It was wrong to condescend to the general public, they do actually have an appetite for content like TED talks. All the time I hear someone in a bus queue, or a waiter in a cafe, saying ‘TED – I’m addicted to those videos’. I think there is a desire right now for people to see under the hood, to see behind the scenes, to trace their way back to the roots of something and understand it a bit better – there is a thirst for knowledge right now, which I think is a great thing.

Morehead: What role should music play in the classroom?

Dolby: “Music education has to be a big part of it. One of the reasons that I left the U.S. and moved back to the U.K. was specifically that. I got so upset with the cuts that were taking place in Californian schools, the schools my kids were in, and the last straw was when our school took away the music program. In fact the last year I was there, a group of parents and I had to raise money independently just to keep one teacher on, to teach music in the schools. That was just driving me nuts. I wish music was built into our concept of how education should be going forward.”

Morehead: What advice do you have for high school students that are passionate about music, even thinking of a career in music?

Dolby: “I think marketing yourself as a musician is absolutely crucial now. It is very hard to differentiate yourself now – the barrier for entry is down so anybody can make their own CD, can build a mailing list, and build a live following. Live music is in a relatively stable state, there’s more and more outlets for live music. The hard thing is differentiating yourself from the ten thousand other guys that want to occupy the same space.

“I think learning to market your band or your music is absolutely crucial. The good news is there are fantastic new tools available. Facebook, Twitter, and so on, and their monetization model is through advertising so they let you in on all the data they’ve been mining from their hundreds of millions of subscribers, and they give you tools that let you very accurately target specific demographics with ads that are very affordable. If you are good at it you can spend $200 on Facebook and get in front of thousands and thousands of potential new fans. But you’ve got to be able to use the tool and most of the old school music business guys that I work with just glaze over when they hear about this stuff. They don’t have a clue.

“So if you are a band starting out, you need to know how to market yourself. My suggestion would be as a backup plan learn marketing, learn business because those are skills that even if the music falls through will leave you qualified for some other kind of career. But in the meantime it would be a real asset for you and your band, or if you are a musician looking to join a band you can tell them you can also build a website or manage their social media, it will make you just that much more attractive.”

Morehead: You’ve spoken openly about being a ‘rainbow family’, that of your three children Harper is transgender and Talia is gay. What advice do you have for parents learning of their child’s sexual identity?

Dolby: “Our kids are lucky because they grew up in a very liberal environment, they’ve lived in San Francisco and England, I think it’s easy to forget that when you live in San Francisco, and it seems like a very tolerant environment, but you drive a couple of hundred miles east and things are radically different.

“I think that for young people these days they are a lot looser than our generation about their sexual identity, their inclinations, and that for many of them it’s as simple as changing their Facebook profile from ‘M’ to ‘F’ or from ‘straight’ to ‘gay’ or ‘single’ to ‘in a relationship’. Their friends tend to say great or ‘whatever’, and are a lot less judgmental about it.

“I think there is less of a morality attached to it then there was for our generation. In fact the generation before us had a lot more hang-ups about it. When I tell older people that I have a transgender child, those in their 70s tend to go ‘Oh, I feel so bad for you’ while people who are my age sort of raise their eyebrows and say ‘That’s cool’ and young adults just go ‘Whatever, what’s the big deal’. Attitudes are definitely changing. It’s the latest frontier. I think being transgender today is somewhat like being gay in the 1950’s, and in another couple of years from now it will be something different. Society changes.

“My kids are quite lucky because we support them being out there, on the frontier. It’s harder for parents of kids that live in a more conventional environment, and that feel their peers are going to judge them more harshly. In an odd way, and I know people dismiss reality TV, if you see a reality TV show about six transgender people living in a house for the summer you are rooting for them, you are hoping that when they walk out on the street they won’t get rocks hurled at them. You are hoping that they’ll find happiness. In an odd way I think these reality TV shows have actually opened people’s minds a little bit to different strokes. That’s a good thing.

Morehead: One final question, do you get tired of playing ‘She Blinded Me With Science’, are you at the point like The Cure who have said they’ll never play ‘Love Cats’ again because they are sick of it? Have you reached that point?

Dolby: “Maybe I should make a deal with The Cure where I play ‘Love Cats’ and they play ‘She Blinded Me With Science’ [laughs]. I’m actually fine with it, it’s a fun thing to do, and I’ll only play it after I’ve forced people to listen to my more obscure cuts, so I’m fine with it. If you are going to be saddled with one song that you have to play every night, it’s not a bad one to be saddled with.”

Enjoy Thomas Dolby’s return to song writing with Oceanea from “A Map of the Floating City”:

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