Flipping LPs, inserting 8-tracks, rewinding cassettes — when it comes to enjoying music, all these actions now seem as outdated as mono sound. Soon, even buying and listening to prerecorded CDs may well go the way of the dinosaur. Digital music files — you’re probably familiar with MP3, the most common kind — have exploded in popularity recently. And as music lovers turn to the Internet, new services such as Napster (www.napster.com) and Gnutella ( https://gnutella.wego.com ) are letting them swap songs with people all over the globe. But that’s not all. It’s now possible to make music on your Mac for less money than ever before.
We talked to Thomas Dolby — music pioneer, Beatnik.com founder, and Mac enthusiast — to see what the future holds.
Q. How will MP3 and companies such as Napster change the music business?
A. I think that companies like this are pushing the envelope, really redefining the whole music industry. They are moving at a much faster pace than the pillars of the music industry, and this has caused their legal problems. There’s a difference between pushing the envelope and stepping over the line.
I tend to side with the musicians who feel that Napster has crossed the line. I feel that it’s my music, my ideas, and I think [Napster and MP3 are] going to be reined in. However, I think they have illustrated some pretty fundamental changes in that the fan should be paying for the intellectual property or copyright embodied in the song, not a piece of plastic in a box.
As a musician, I’ve been saying for seven or eight years that the Internet eventually will revolutionize the way musicians live and the way the fans use music. The guys in the middle are going to need to redefine their roles — I see the record companies beginning to embrace the technology and actually fold it into the way they do business, although obviously they’re very guarded about their legacy. They don’t want to give up the stranglehold they’ve had on the record industry.
I think it’s the “talent” side where the playing field could really be leveled. The record companies on one side are in manufacturing, distribution and retail. The other side is talent, promotion and culture. The second category will always be valuable because I need help from those guys to get in touch with the right listeners. What’s more questionable whether they will need the fleet of trucks, the pressing plant, and so on. The fleet of trucks and the pressing plant is what gave these guys the lock they’ve had on the industry in the past.
Q. So without that piece of plastic, how will people get their music?
A. I’ve bought six copies of [Pink Floyd’s] Dark Side of the Moon over the years, but I don’t happen to have a copy of it sitting where I am right now. I kind of like the idea that once I’ve paid for it, I have the right to dial it up. What I’ve paid for is the right to listen to that music — once, or twice, or for life.
Q. Music-making technology has come a long way since you started playing a Wurlitzer keyboard in 1973. How has the equipment changed over the years?
A. I tend to view my career with equipment as pre-Mac, Mac and post-Mac. When I first started making music in the mid-1970s, I would build up my own stuff. To do what I wanted to do, I had to make technology be used in ways it hadn’t been used before. I was playing in a club one night and saw a box flashing red and green lights. I thought to myself, ‘The sequencing of those lights — I can’t make my synthesizer do that.’ So I got one, and with a bit of soldering, I was able to adapt it. The pre-Mac phase was definitely a hack.
Q. I bet you used some clunky stuff in the old days.
A. There was some recording equipment being made that was prohibitively expensive. In 1983 I got a recorder from Australia, a Fairlight. The one I got was the third ever sold in the UK. It cost 120,000 pounds. Now it’s holding up a plant outside my office. A PowerBook can now easily do the same thing.
Q. When did you first start using Macs for music?
A. In 1985 or ’86 I got a 512K Mac with a basic MIDI sequencer — basically a word processor for musicians. From ’85 on, it seemed there was always something better coming — a bigger screen or a faster drive or a better program. I started to realize, though, that twice the numbers doesn’t exactly equal good. By the mid-1990s there was a plethora of choices for professionals and aspiring amateurs that was almost overwhelming.
Today’s Mac is a better machine than ever with synthetic music. Though the early Macs I had were good with MIDI, they were slow with audio waveform. The typical Mac today can crunch audio waveform almost in real time. You can do something on a Mac today that’s no different from what you would do in a studio, which costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. You still need a studio — I wouldn’t try to record a string quartet or a horn section on my Mac.
You sometimes need a studio, a place with total isolation and no traffic noise, a place where the musicians can hang out while you twiddle with the knobs. But a lot of the time I used to spend in a studio I was just bent over a board twisting knobs. It’s great that I can now do that in my guest house.
I think many of the creative sources and technologies we’ve been talking about will become native to the Mac. What really impresses me about Steve Jobs and his team at Apple is that they don’t look down on the person who dreams of doing more with the computer. I mean, most people use their computers to do their taxes. But Apple knows they really want to be Herbie Hancock or, maybe, Thomas Dolby. They understand amateur’s desires.
Q. How will music change now that young musicians can set up studios for just a few thousand dollars?
A. I’m delighted that anyone can do it in a back room. When I started out, you had to play the game. You had to get a record deal and get into a big studio if you wanted to get on the radio. No matter how talented you were, if you couldn’t get the contract, you couldn’t get near success. That it’s changed is a very helpful thing.
Because of the Internet, you have access to a whole set of tools and technologies and the opportunity to get your music out without going through A&R departments and record-store owners. I had very little luck with the industry at first, but I was able to produce music that people liked, and it got their attention. It’s like an obstacle course that’s designed to thwart you — I now believe those obstacles are gone. Anyone with talent can get their music out.
Q. Technology has changed a lot since you last recorded. How will your experience be different the next time around?
A. The idea of making an album seems rather quaint at this point. It could be Web-based or a live performance or an installation. I believe I can connect with my fans and the music through the Web much better than by reading a royalty check or by following the Billboard charts.
I find it much more satisfying to get immediate feedback from my fans rather than sit on an island somewhere and read a review months later.