Thomas Dolby Robertson

beatnik and beyond

Thomas Dolby Robertson

I had a rare opportunity to be entertained by Thomas Dolby Robertson for almost two hours. The first and largest part was a demonstration/presentation he gave at SXSW 2000 for his vision of music on the internet and a peek at his company’s stake in it. Robertson’s company, Beatnik (online at http://www.beatnik.com), produces internet software applications that range from online broadcasting technologies to desktop sound editing. Beatnik seems to have several pots cooking, and if there’s any relation between all the dishes, it’s that they are bringing the power of interactive music to the people. And if there’s any thread holding Robertson’s work together over his two decades of life in the public eye, it’s his love of integrating technology and music.

After the seminar, I got a chance to sit down with Robertson for a few minutes to talk shop. He was amiable and enthusiastic despite the fact that he’d probably been doing this for the last four hours, if not the last four years.

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When did you start Beatnik?

I founded Headspace in 1993 — incorporated as Beatnik in 1998.

Did you see any of this coming in 1993?

Absolutely! I was up there on my soapbox, saying the future of music was on the internet. In 1993, most people thought I was crazy.

Have things come along on the schedule you expected?

Slower. In fact, now I’ve moderated my views and I think now that it’s going to be a slow evolution. The level of activity and frenetic pace doesn’t necessarily mean everything changes overnight — it’s just a bunch of hot air up the chimney. But it’s encouraging that so many more good minds are involved in this space, and it’s good for Beatnik because what we do is quite distinctive. It’s not about downloading music, or MP3’s, or putting the record companies out of business. It’s about enhancing the user experience on the web using music.

Back in 1993, what did you visualize as the state of music and the internet in 2000?

I thought that you would start to see individual artists publicize themselves via the net and that it would be a lifestyle change for many musicians, that would liberate them from the constraints of a record deal. There’s two kinds of musicians, the one that wants a record deal, and the one that wants to get out of a record deal. That’s the way it was, and I think it’s going to change. There’s going to be a third type, who is just happy to coast along and make a little bit of money from his music, and reach a global audience via the net.

I heard something interesting yesterday, where someone remarked that the future of music is going to resemble the days of sheet music, where people would buy music to interpret themselves in their own homes. Is that where you think some things are headed? Beatnik technologies seem to enable this to a degree…

The more the web becomes the distribution vehicle for music, the more it will encourage interaction with that music, because there’s no longer a reason to just receive a static, rigid version of the song and enjoy it passively without being a part of the process. There still will be people buying albums in ten, fifteen, a hundred years, but there will be an increasing level of participation.

Do you think involvement of technology in music is creating a schism between people whose work is tied in to technology and those who are working from a guitar and a song?

Well, variety is good. I wouldn’t call that a schism, there’s all sorts of different strokes.

Wouldn’t someone like that [a songwriter is strumming a guitar in the background] be left out of an interactive version of music?

On the other hand, here we are, he just played for a roomful of people, and they clapped, and they’re talking to him, and they’ll ask him if he’s got a CD, get his address and send him an email. What you see there is interaction. If I make an album and six months later I’m on a desert island using my royalties to pay for my cocktail with a little umbrella in it — there was no interaction. I did very nicely, and so did a bunch of intermediaries, but there was no interaction. “Interactivity” really means a continuous feedback loop between the listener and the artist. Being in technology provides a way to do that. Chat rooms do that, having a web page with an email me or a comments address provides yet another. Basically, I’m in favor of it, because it’s a two-way medium rather than a passive one.

What do you feel is the most over-inflated buzzword on the Internet today?

Um. [Pause] Revenues.

And the most underappreciated one?

[Long Pause] Permission.

Is that where the future value of the internet lies, in persmission?

I think that on one level, being on a web server is like drinking from a firehouse. You get this incredible variety, this smorgasbord of information. At your own election, you should be able to get more of that, get it pushed to you and you should have ways of filtering what you want to know about. You can get stuff for free if in return you give persmission for people to send stuff to you that you may not be so keen on. That’s a model that exists today on the web, and it’s underappreciated, a lot of companies going online are thinking that they have to sell a product to someone, and get a buck back and that’s the only way they’re going to be able to have a business online — and that’s becoming an antiquated model.

What would you like to be doing five years from now?

Oh. Playing the piano in a smoky little club somewhere.

Do you see yourself wrapping up this big project you’re involved in…

I could use a break. It’s been a long haul, but it’s like my work is never really done here. As soon as some of the stuff that I predicted becomes true, and some of it turns out to be completely off the mark, I’ll be ready to move on to the next thing. There’s always a blue sky on the horizon.

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