Big Fish: Thomas Dolby, Pop Music Star-Turned-Hopkins Professor

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If the digital media world were a globe like our physical one, Thomas Dolby would have circled it already, and then some. Many know him for the popular music fame he achieved as a masterful synth player (“She Blinded Me with Science,” “Hyperactive”) and MTV standout in the 1980s, as well as his wide-ranging work as a producer and keyboardist for other artists.

In the 1990s, Dolby started his own company that developed a software synthesizer for mobile phones, which the firm eventually licensed to major global phone manufacturers like Nokia. From 2001 to 2012, he served as musical director for the TED conferences. During those two decades, he also wrote scores and soundtracks for feature films, television shows, video games and other media. 

In 2013, he premiered his first film, “The Invisible Lighthouse,” a short documentary about the decommissioning of a historic lighthouse near his childhood home in Suffolk, England. In addition to producing, scoring and editing the film, he provided his own live background music during screenings and toured the United Kingdom and Unites States. Johns Hopkins University connected with Dolby one year later, hiring him to be its first-ever Homewood Professor of the Arts.

Since coming to Baltimore, Dolby has taught undergraduate courses at Hopkins about creating sound and music for film and is now helping to craft the Peabody Institute’s Sound for New Media undergraduate program, which will be geared toward talented aspiring producers and composers. He’s also written a memoir, “The Speed of Sound,” about the journey from his early years as an artist in London to international pop stardom, becoming a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and, most recently, his endeavors in academia. The book was published by Macmillan’s Flatiron Books last fall. 

On Tuesday, May 2, Dolby will speak about his life’s work during a book talk for his memoir at Mason Hall on Hopkins’ Homewood campus. We sat down with Professor Dolby to talk about his transition from full-time creator to collegiate educator.

Most people know you from your days as a musician and producer, but a lot of your academic work focuses on melding film and music. When did that mix become a focus of your career?

Well, I suppose [when I started] making music videos, really. Some of my early videos, I sort of wrote the storyboard before I ever wrote the music, so I was very visually driven even back then. I think really what triggered it was, I always aspired to do film and writing and things other than just music. And I think the cue for that really was when my first album came out and it wasn’t getting a lot of radio play, but MTV was just taking off and was a powerful enough force in the early days that it could affect sales and radio play as much as radio itself. So it became an alternative to springboard a new act. That was a great opportunity for me to break through using the video.

Over the years, I did some TV, and then film scoring and then video games, and there were various instances when I was sort of using music in a secondary sense, rather than music for music’s sake. I’ve always really enjoyed that, you know, exploring what effect music has on another experience.

Your first self-produced film premiered in 2013 with you playing the music and narrating. Did that production and some of the positive feedback you received change your focus?  

Part of the reason it took me so long to do that was by 2013, video technology had become affordable and approachable enough that you could do it with almost no budget. That had been true in music for a good 15 years or so. You didn’t need a record company to fund you to go in the studio and make an album – you could sort of do it on your laptop in a back room – and it took awhile before video technology got in step with that.

In a world where you first have to find somebody to fund you and resource you in order to make something, you are stuck with a sort of business scenario going in. You’re going to be dependent on somebody else buying into the idea and funding you, and then you’re in debt when it comes out.

In a world where you’re self-funded, you don’t really need to rely on anybody else; you have more artistic freedom, in a way, because you’re not beholden to anybody to pay back their investment. I’ve always been more comfortable in a sort of DIY environment. In the early days, artistically, things are gonna change, so that was especially attractive to me because I love to dive in there and say, ‘OK, without pressure from a record company, a film studio, a TV channel, whoever it is, now we can cut some corners and do new things artistically that weren’t possible before.’

So that’s where a lack of resources sometimes helps with innovation.

Oh, absolutely. No question. I think it usually helps with innovation.

What steered you toward education?

Over the years, to have gone from one medium to another, based on what I’ve just told you, I sort of felt like rather than cast around for the next opportunity creatively, I’d like to sort of just double back and share some of my experience and, hopefully, wisdom, with a new generation coming through. Just as the barriers to entry have lowered in music and film, making it a lot easier for a wider range of people to express themselves in those media, the tough thing is that being an individual is a lot harder. Once something sort of crosses the chasm and goes mainstream, it’s easier to do something; it’s harder to do something original for good.

So, basically, when it becomes a trend.

Yeah, as an example, you could make an album using entirely GarageBand, but there’s a very high probability that somebody somewhere in the world will have chosen those same loops and presets that you chose. So while the barrier to entry is down, the threshold of originality is up.

What’s a typical day like for you as a professor?

My responsibilities have been sort of roughly half as a kind of evangelist for the film center and for the school, and half as a teacher. From an evangelism point of view, it’s really a case of being something of a spokesman for the new film center, and going forward, the new degree. That means talking to people like yourself, and trying to do business-development type deals with strategic partners, helping recruit new students, helping to sort of steer the curriculum and, in the case of the film center, helping design the teaching space. It was a hollow shell when I first came here and it’s now fully functional…so I’ve been involved in the design of that.

The same’s gonna be true going forward at Peabody. We’re starting from scratch for this degree, so I will help design the teaching space and the equipment that we have, and I’ll go out and do business development deals with potential partners.

So it’s not just promotional; you’re really involved in picking who and what you’ll be working with.

Yeah, and forming strong partnerships for the school. Because to an extent, a degree like this is funded internally by the school, and to an extent, the resources are sort of doubled up with outside partnerships. For example: in the new degree going forward, because we’ll be teaching music not just for film and TV, but also for games, for computers, for handheld devices, for virtual reality and augmented reality – even medical applications of music – I’ll be going to Silicon Valley a lot, talking to people at Apple, Microsoft, Samsung, Google, Facebook, Sony, all the companies that are involved in entertainment platforms. These are all people for whom the graphics and gameplay and so on is sort of primary, but sound and music are also very important.

A lot of my day is spent doing that, and that’s all aside from the teaching. Often I teach one or two classes a week. It’s a relatively small class of eight to 12 students.

How would you describe the transition to becoming a teacher?

It’s very interesting. I’m not used to needing to be the most extroverted person in the room, and I wouldn’t include being onstage because I think then you’re sort of in a fishbowl. I’m naturally a fairly retiring kind of person. I wouldn’t say a hermit, exactly, but I’m definitely not an extrovert. And running a class interactively is very different from performing or lecturing, where it’s more one-way traffic. Obviously, at the university level, the interactivity is really important.

I’d say that if you can generalize about Hopkins students, they’re super smart, quite reserved, very conscious of their grades, of their focus, so the job here sometimes for the instructor is to pull them out of themselves and get them to contribute interactively to the class, and that’s not a role that comes completely naturally to me. So that’s something I’ve had to learn. I’m from a long line of teachers and academics, so it should be in the blood.

Does it feel any bit out of place or alienating to be a career musician embedded in a film program?

Hopkins is not generally a school that stresses practice and applied skills as much as the scholarly academic side. This is something that’s changing, I think, here and across the country. I think schools are more concerned with employability, given the high cost of education. Students and their parents want them to hit the ground running when they leave with their degrees, so I think there’s more pressure to balance the academic faculty with applied experience in the workforce.

And you feel like that’s what you add to the program.

Well, I’m definitely on the far end of that spectrum on the experience side, because I’ve worked in so many different fields as a producer, as a writer, as a creative individual in those fields. And I’m certainly not very academic myself, you know? I left school at 16 – I left fairly well qualified at 16 because I was sort of ahead of myself – but certainly, this feels like a very long time since I was at school.

So I think I’m right out on the sort of fringes of what would be acceptable in a university, and sometimes I’m quite surprised by that, as are some of my colleagues. But hopefully, it will prove its worth over time.

That’s why I figured it worth asking. It could be a fish-out-of-water kind of feeling.

I wouldn’t say fish-out-of-water. There are some curiosities of the academic world that you have to come to terms with, obviously. Getting things done is sometimes not the same as it would be in a for-profit space, where you can snap your fingers and you can get what you need and, if you can’t, it’s a business opportunity for someone. The commercial world definitely drives productivity in a way that sometimes is easier to lose track of in the academic world.

What are some of the courses you teach now?

The core course is Sound on Film, which is really designed for filmmakers and recording engineers, as well as composers, to learn about the function of music in film and TV. This is a music conservatory – most people came here with music as a focus in and of itself; they won seats in orchestras, they won prominent positions in the classical or jazz world or in the case of the recording arts students, they hope to be sound engineers, music producers and so on.

In film and TV and games, music plays a secondary role. It’s really a sort of additional layer of the content. So first and foremost, it’s there to give the audience a sense of time and place, for example, and to create empathy or suspicion or subtext, to sort of cue the audience to sense something that’s not in the picture, like the “Jaws theme” and things like that. It’s very different from writing a symphony that’s going to be performed at Carnegie Hall in front of a captive audience. It’s a very different function and a different mentality for the composer.

Do you see the Music for New Media program that you’re helping to craft as a missing academic link for students?

It’s very important for a conservatory like Peabody to offer different career paths to the students. This is an area where sound and music are really booming. When I first got involved with games and virtual reality…toward the end of the ‘80s and the beginning of the ‘90s, virtual reality at least was still quite esoteric. You would have installations or, you know, experiments behind closed doors with lots of wires and clunky material.

Now it’s absolutely mainstream, and by next Christmas, there’ll be a huge consumer war on [between] the companies that I mentioned to see who can have the breakthrough products in that area. There’s a lot of households that don’t have a VR kit yet, but will within the next few years, so there’s a big race on.

The rulebook has not been written yet. When you have an experience that is linear, when you have Point A to Point B, you know how that’s gonna run and what music should be doing. But when you really don’t know what the user’s gonna do, can you still enhance it with music? And should you spatialize it? Should you use music and sound effects to enhance the 3-D experience for a user in virtual reality, or will it just tend to make them even more seasick than they were already? A lot of that needs to be determined.

If you are a technology company, it’s very hard to hire people who can help you determine that, but very few people have any experience in it. So there’s a real need for this to be taught at university level so those companies can cherry-pick their new interns and new hires, and so that properly qualified people will be available down the road.

With mobile phones, you were at the forefront of ringtones early on. Do you see more opportunities as a professor to teach students to make music and work with media made for smartphones now that they’ve evolved?

It’ll certainly be part of what I’m doing. It’s no accident that there are virtual systems that consist of putting your phone in a box and using that as your screen. A phone has packed into a very small space the majority of what you need – it’s got an accelerometer, it’s got graphics, it’s got sound, it’s got wireless connectivity – so I think it has a huge install base, I think it’s a very natural thing to develop for that platform.

When did you decide it was time for a memoir to reflect on your career?

I was asked a few years ago by a publisher to write a sort of music-tech-guru type business book, and it didn’t really appeal to me. I looked at what else was out there, and a lot of people, with the benefit of hindsight, had 20/20 vision and were able to sort of talk about the demise of the music industry, or the advent of MTV, or the dotcom boom or whatever.

I looked at some of my old notes and diaries, and what was interesting about them was that I was in the thick of it and I didn’t see the big picture. And I thought, well that actually makes for more compelling reading than somebody who has this 20/20 vision that the whole thing can sort of lecture you about what happened. You would read these memoirs and you’d kind of want to throttle me, because I would get obsessed and have tunnel vision on one particular thing I was working on, and not see the big picture.

So did it turn out how you were hoping?

Yeah, I think for the most part. I had a blast doing it, really. A lot of it, I really just wrote in stream of consciousness and went back and edited later. I was slightly concerned that a Hollywood ending would be that I would be a billionaire living on an island somewhere, which I’m not.

It turned out that my ending was that actually, I made choices all the way down the line that were the artistic choices that felt right instinctively to me, and it was frustrating to the business people around me who were more focused on the bottom line. But at the end of the day, I’m a happy person. I think that making those correct artistic choices has accumulated for me a lot of respect and status that I’m very grateful for at this point. It has opened and will continue to open new doors for me, which maybe if I’d been more focused on the bottom line and just sort of followed the money, that wouldn’t have been an option.

Does it feel like you’ve come full circle?

Yeah, it’s full circle because I’m watching 19- and 20-year-olds that are experiencing some of the same challenges that I had when I was their age, but some of the challenges are very different. Very often, some of the solutions they need are just a few keystrokes away. But a lot of the most creative solutions that I came up with were when I hit a roadblock and there was no obvious solution to the hurdle that I was facing, so I had to circumvent it and find creative ways around it.

I think these days that people tend to think, ‘Well, I’ll find a YouTube video of somebody that figured it out, or I’ll download the user manual, or I’ll post a message on a forum. By tomorrow, somebody will have told me how to figure it out.’ People tend to think there’s no such thing as a roadblock, so as a result, they’re never forced to use their ingenuity to circumvent it.

I like to take students out of their comfort zone. I’ll put them in a room together with no internet and say, ‘I’m gonna come back in an hour and I want to see what you present to me and what you’ve done.’ And I hope with the new degree that that’ll be the case. A lot of the work we’re doing will be in areas where there’s no obvious precedent for the stuff that we’re doing. Therefore, they’ll be forced to be ingenious like that.

Ethan McLeod
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Ethan McLeod

Associate Editor at Baltimore Fishbowl
Ethan is Baltimore Fishbowl's associate editor. He previously covered Baltimore-area news as a web producer for Fox45/WBFF-TV. Before arriving in Baltimore, he worked as an assistant editor for CQ Researcher in Washington D.C., and a reporter for Connection Newspapers in Northern Virginia. Look for his freelance bylines in Baltimore City Paper and DCist.
Ethan McLeod
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