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22 mai 2008

Peter Gabriel: rejoin Genesis? Don't rule it out

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"At my age, you don't give a s--- about a lot of things, and you care less about pleasing people,"
says Peter Gabriel.

Somewhere between art and science: Peter Gabriel

"You just want to have an interesting life."

At his idyllic Real World studios in Somerset, the rock superstar is presiding over the launch of a new download music club with hi-fi company Bowers and Wilkins. "With the explosion of the digital world, which is really flourishing on the corpse of the music industry, the only thing that people haven't noticed is that we have taken a giant leap backwards in terms of sound quality," he says.

"From a musician's point of view, we spend a lot of time trying to get things to sound good, so it seems a pity that we have all accepted these super-compressed MP3s as the standard, which just kick the s--- out of what you've recorded. There has been a huge access to quantity at a sacrifice of quality."

Starting this week, the B&W music club will offer a specially recorded album a month as an uncompressed, "lossless" file, for a small annual subscription fee. The idea is that the club will act as a connoisseurs' music forum supportive of minor but musically gifted artists (the first release is from virtuoso Sugar Hill guitarist Little Axe).

Gabriel admits he got involved partly to keep his recording studio busy but also because he is fascinated by the rapidly developing future of the music business. "I am naturally curious, and I love technology. So I get excited about some of these new inventions and their potential."
A founding member of Seventies prog-rockers Genesis and an adventurous multi-million-selling solo singer-songwriter, Gabriel, 58, has carved out a space for himself between art and science. He may be known primarily as a rock frontman, but he has been an innovative player in the business itself.

He was a pioneer of digital distribution through his company OD2 (On Demand Distribution), which he sold for £40 million in 2004 (it is currently owned by Nokia). Last year he launched The Filter, a sophisticated internet recommendation engine of his own devising. "If you are drowning in a sea of information, you need a navigation system that will get you to where you want to be."

Gabriel has been a leading player in the recognition and development of world music (through the Womad festivals and his Real World label). He enthuses about "the idea that anyone born anywhere on the planet's surface who does good stuff can get a shot at being heard".
Filtering and taste-making technologies, he believes, will lead to a more level playing field, giving access to "stuff you might like without the marketing machine, where who has got the biggest dollars is the key to who has got your ear."

So, even as the music business goes into convulsions, with collapsing sales and shrinking profits, Gabriel declares himself optimistic. "Technology generally comes in waves, and the first wave builds the dreams and the dreamers. But it tends to crash. The second wave, which comes through slower and harder, sustains better."

He thinks a variety of new business models, free and paid for, will gradually be established, leading to "a hundred times more music getting made". He envisages "a creative renaissance economically enabled by the digital revolution".

He is encouraged by the possibilities of interactivity and direct business relationships between artists and fans. "Whenever anyone asks what do you say to a young artist today, I say. 'Build your database. Because that's your future.'?"

What of Gabriel's own musical future? "I am trying to organise good music time, too. It's difficult. No dream comes without a price tag. Its been a major distraction." Indeed, he has been so busy with non-musical activities (including his philanthropical involvement as a member and financial benefactor of The Elders, a group of global statesmen dedicated to good works) that he was forced to turn down a mooted Genesis reunion (the group toured last year without him).

"Because I am a perfectionist, once I start doing something I want to do it properly. If I had done Genesis, I couldn't have just turned up, sung for a couple of hours and pissed off. I would have been in there working on the show and the lights and everything else. It was a bigger chunk of time than I could commit to."

Some people would be surprised that such a forward-moving artist would even consider a reunion with a band he left in 1975, but Gabriel does not rule it out. "It's a bit like a child:however far you move on, you still love your children. On a good day."

In the end, I suspect the thing that consumes Gabriel is not whether music is a product, or a service, or how musicians and consumers are going to negotiate a changing landscape. It is where is he going to get his next fix.
"I think it's a drug, really," he says. "You use it to stimulate your emotional response and make you feel one way or another. And, on a good day, it is inspirational."

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