Thomas Dolby is one of those rare electronic musicians whose work is enjoyed as much by techies as by folks who possess next-to-no curiosity about how music is made.
Both types of music aficionados should show up in force at this years Gearfest, a Sweetwater Sound event where Dolby is a headliner.
Gearfest, a free pro audio trade show with live musical accompaniment, happens today and Saturday.
Dolby performs at 9:30 a.m. today.
Dolbys heyday was the 80s, the synth-besotted decade when he scored major hits with She Blinded Me with Science and Hyperactive! and minor hits with Europa and the Pirate Twins and Airhead.
Some electronic music from the late 20th century sounds about as fresh today as sonatas for harpsichord, but Dolbys music seems to this reporter to have not aged a day.
In a phone interview, Dolby says it is not for him to judge if this assessment is true, but he says his contrarian impulses may have served him well.
I have certainly always been a bit of a contrarian musically and lyrically, he says. So I wouldnt typically take one of my songs and hold it up as a good example of a particular era of music.
Dolby says he knows it will disappoint some of his fans to read the following quote, but he has never really considered himself an electronic musician.
In reality, I am a songwriter, he says. With most of my songs, I could sit down and play them on piano and theyd still work. That is not always true of people who make and tour with that kind of music.
Dolbys hits have a timeless funkiness that is not always a hallmark of electronic music and his self-deprecating persona in music videos belied the usual solemnity of the genre.
His rejection of the electronic musician label notwithstanding, Dolby has had a huge impact on technology.
His companies Headspace and then Beatnik essentially assisted in the birth and proliferation of cellular ringtones.
Dolby says Beatnik forced him to take a longer break from music than hed anticipated or desired.
Now he is back with a mission to reach young people who may not yet have encountered his hits.
Dolbys ascendancy came before digital downloads and the long, slow, inevitable demise of the giant record labels, but he says he prefers this era to the one when he experienced his flashiest musical successes.
When I started out, every 17- or 18-year-old believed that anyone who heard their music would fall in love with them, he says. Then reality set in. Youd get signed and hope the record label was truly committed to your music. All of that happened before the public could ever hear you. It was an obstacle course.
The labels would say, We weed out the crap, Dolby says. But the truth is many more talented people were rejected than were championed.
Now it is a much fairer thing, Dolby says. An 18-year-old wakes up in the morning with a much better shot at becoming a superstar than he ever has. Its much more of a meritocracy.
Dolby says a musician these days just has to accept a changed relationship between artist and fan that requires him to be more open about his life and creative process.
Entertainment used to be about creating a shiny object that people enjoy once, he says. The 21st century seems to be more about letting people behind the scenes. People are still interested in the shiny end result, but theyre more interested in how you got there.
If youre willing to let your guard down and let fans in on the process – they like to know what struggles you go through – if an artist is willing to do that, it pays dividends, Dolby says.
In the pre-digital days, Dolby says, the record labels would never have considered something as un-spun (and potentially sloppy) as direct interaction between artists and fans.
They would have said, Well just fix it and make it shiny, he says.
The tempo of the music industry used to be dictated by how much music you could put on a piece of plastic, how much it cost to make that plastic, and how long it took to ship that plastic to shopping malls, Dolby says.
I love the fact that all of that has loosened up now, he says.
Dolby says his career goals really arent any different today than they were 35 years ago.
I dont expect to be mainstream at this point, he says. I never really expected to be mainstream. It was a pleasant surprise when it went that way.
When I was growing up, I was a fan of people like Joni Mitchell and Captain Beefheart, Dolby says. It didnt matter how high they rose on the charts and how much they sold. Wed just hang on every word.