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08 mai 2007

Thomas Dolby, Peter Gabriel build hit software

Musicmakers develop new ways to deliver tunes

Would you rather be famous for a pop song that helped define an era? Or would you prefer fame because you developed the software for listening to that song on a mobile phone?

If you're Thomas Dolby, you don't have to make that choice, even if Dolby is happier being a pop icon than the software entrepreneur whose little piece of code is loaded on more than 500 million mobile phones.

"Someone would have done that eventually," he said of his Beatnik Audio Engine. But only one person could have written "She Blinded Me With Science," a song people are likely to start humming after reading the title. (You're welcome.)

Dolby is not the only '80s pop star who has had a technical influence on our gadgets. As I write this, I am listening to a playlist on my iPod that Peter Gabriel helped me create.

Gabriel was lauded as a music-video innovator (check out "Sledgehammer" and "Shock the Monkey" at YouTube.com; they have aged well), but now is one of the creative and financial minds behind The Filter (TheFilter.com), a nifty application to create playlists based on the music you already have.

Gabriel tinkered with recommendation engines prior to the success of iTunes. Eventually, he began working with an old business partner who had a similar notion on how to manage the excessive amount of choice technology is providing.

"We want all these options filtered, focused and meaningful to us," Gabriel said in an e-mail interview. "We want to be surprised, excited and entertained by a variety of systems that help us through the maze of possibilities. For example, I don't want to sit down at a restaurant and be presented with a hundred-page menu when I am hungry."

Gabriel and Thomas Robertson, Dolby's real name, are true geeks.

The Beatnik program "is a mixing board for sound on a phone," Dolby said during a visit to Chicago last week. That means every chirp, ring and catchy pop song that emanates from most mobile phones is handled by Beatnik.

In a nutshell, Beatnik has become the phone's standard audio operating system, much like Windows has become the operating system for most personal computers.

While Gabriel's innovation is not so widespread, it serves an extremely useful purpose: winnowing the digital clutter.

Why would someone need The Filter? Well, if you have more than 3,000 songs in your collection, as I do, you sometimes forget what you have. With The Filter, you seed a new playlist with three songs from your iTunes music folder and then the software generates a group of similar songs lasting up to three hours. You can keep the playlist on your computer or move it onto your iPod. Every time you plug your iPod into your computer, the playlist will refresh with a new list of your songs.

"I find I often can't be bothered to go searching through stuff and really want to be able to be presented with interesting material that matches my mood and activity and has the right balance of familiar and unfamiliar," Gabriel said.

I've created two filters, one with catchy pop songs for when I need a little motivation and another with jazz influences, when I need to be more contemplative. The recommendations are interesting, such as the jazz mix that includes songs from Wilco, Tom Waits and John Coltrane. I quite like it, actually, and it is not a combination of songs I would have considered. It's familiar yet unexpected.

Gabriel (gray hair) and Dolby (no hair) are on the road again, reconnecting with fans and creating new music. Dolby couldn't be happier.

"Now that Beatnik is this enormous business, I'm not needed," he said. He still is on the board, listed as founder, but he has turned in his business suits for the funky techno-gear he wears on stage.

"I've spent too long away from music. It's a passion and much more gratifying for me," he said.

The time away has provided a unique perspective on how the music business has changed -- for the good, in Dolby's mind, despite concerns from record labels about declining sales and still-rampant piracy.

For one, he controls his own sales today.

f you want a copy of "The Sole Inhabitant," a live CD he recorded last May in Chicago, go to ThomasDolby.com. It's sold through a partnership with CD Baby, a music distributor for independent artists.

"Today, you're not dependent on someone else [like a record label] to be a kingmaker. I wanted to be an active participant before, but I was a passive observer," he said of the process that made him famous but left him without any control.

"Now I'm back on the road, and I made my own live album," he said. He pressed it and sells it himself, keeping most of the proceeds.

"I feel closer to my fans," Dolby said of tools like blogs and MySpace profile pages. "When I write a new song, I can hit a button and put it on the Internet. The fans can hear it right away."

One coming new song is called "My Karma Hit Your Dogma," and it was inspired by Kevin Federline's unauthorized use of a sample from "Science" and Dolby's battle to get the father of Britney Spears' children to stop playing the song.

"It was [bad]," Dolby said of K-Fed's song, "America's Most Wanted." "I wanted to stop it -- it had like a half-million downloads," but he didn't know how to get a hold of Federline.

"So I went to apply as a friend of K-Fed on his MySpace page," he said. When K-Fed accepted the friend request, Dolby posted a "cease-and-desist order" in the page's comments area.

"That didn't work," he sighed, even though a settlement was ultimately reached. "But it did inspire a new song."

One that may become a ring tone on a half-billion mobile phones.

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