Thomas Dolby on why he left music for Silicon Valley in the '90s

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"At the beginning of the '90s, Silicon Valley was more exciting to me than the music business. Given that I always had a tech bent, I decided to go there and tried to influence things.

"In the beginning, when you talked to computer companies about sound and music, it was just an annoyance: 'No, we don't really want speakers in our computers, because it's just going to annoy the person in the next cubicle as he's trying to do his spreadsheets.' That was their attitude.

"Fast-forward to today. ... Apple is the biggest company in the world, and guess what their killer app was: It was music. It took a while for that message to get through in Silicon Valley, and I had a great time in the early days. I was being funded to invent innovative music applications on computers and on the Web. Many of the experiments we did are like apps you can get now that will help you remix music, DJ apps, and stuff like that. But of course back then there was no business model for them because nobody wanted to pay for content on the Web. Millions of people experienced it, but we couldn't get paid for it.

"By the end of the '90s it probably would have imploded like many other dot-com companies that had no revenue were it not for the fact that we made this little synthesizer and Nokia licensed it and we put it in their mobile phones and most of the other manufacturers followed suit. So at its peak the Beatnik Synthesizer I co-designed was in about 3 billion cell phones around the world.

"That window closed because as soon as people got mp3 players on their phones, there was no real need for synthesized ringtones because you could use any music clip as your ringtone. So it was a window of maybe six or seven years when that was the king. But I never really set out to be a businessman. I found that side pretty onerous, really, and it took me longer than I would have hoped to extract myself from it and get back into music which is my first love."


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