Thomas Dolby on bringing pop sensibilities to Silicon Valley
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The man responsible for the earworm “She Blinded Me With Science” is responsible for another iconic earworm … the Nokia “Waltz” ringtone. Specifically, Thomas Dolby created the software that allowed ringtones to be played on Nokia phones around the world.
We talked with Dolby about his memoir, “The Speed of Sound: Breaking the Barriers Between Music and Technology” and about his life before, during, and after the rock and roll scene.
About becoming a pop star:
You know, I never really set out to be a pop star. My father and his father and his father before him were all Cambridge professors. My mother taught algebra. And I’d always been a fan of silent movies and I really saw a music video as an opportunity to, sort of, make a silent movie with a soundtrack. So, in fact, I made the video for “She Blinded Me With Science” without really having a song. And my record company looked at the story board and said, “This is great, but, you know, where’s the music to go with it.” And I said, “Oh, I’ll bring that in on Monday morning.” And I did. I wrote it over a weekend and brought it in on Monday and they let me shoot the video and it went straight to the top of the charts.
About bringing sound to the internet:
So, I had a group of very brilliant, very musical programmers and engineers in a small start-up company in San Mateo. And we would have gone up in smoke, the way so many dot com companies, were it not for the fact that we had one deal with some teeth: when Nokia needed a synthesizer to make ringtones in their handset. So, they licensed our Beatnik Audio Engine technology and embedded it in their phones in 1999. And since then, every Nokia shipped has had our little synthesizer in it and that’s what you’re hearing when you hear those annoying ringtones.
About leaving the pop star scene to start a tech company:
It was a very different scene … There was a period in the middle of the 90s where any idiot with half an idea jotted on the back of an envelope could get a venture capitalist to write him a check. And it was pointed out to me that in Detroit in the 1920s there was something like 1500 automobile companies, some of them making cars with tillers. And in the same way, this was this, sort of, obstacle course, this survival mechanism that kicked in. And so, although, as you say, not as glamorous, not as fast-paced as the rock and roll world, it had the potential from the start to make a huge difference in the lives of people on the planet and that was what thrilled me about it.
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