Seventeen years later, under the name Thomas Dolby Robertson, this MTV pioneer is still living in a cybernetic world. In 1994, Robertson founded a company that eventually became Beatnik (www.beatnik.com), which has recently released a series of tools and digital audio formats for "sonifying," or bringing sound, to the web. With the Beatnik Audio Engine and Rich Music Format (RMF), Robertson's company is making the mostly silent Internet into something that can talk or play music without interminable download times or memory-intensive streaming audio.
"On the web, it's as if we're living in 1929, the point when sound began to get used in movies. Nobody is really sure what to do with it yet," says Robertson, looking like a slightly funked-out geek sitting next to a giant web display in his black beret. Robertson is talking shop in the Silicon Valley offices of Beatnik, whose recent accumulation of venture capital is likely to send the company into a growth spurt. But while Beatnik's recently appointed CEO Lorraine Hariton strategizes about the company's revenue plans, Robertson is still most interested in the marriage of music and science. "At this point, entertainment and high tech need to collaborate on sound. Sound needs to become a first-class citizen on the web," Robertson decrees.
Although most people don't focus on the meaning of sound outside the music industry, it's a crucial part of most visual media. Imagine, for example, the movie Halloween without its famous soundtrack. Or consider how humorless a Marx Brothers movie would be without the goofy accents and verbal puns. Like film, the web is about to undergo a revolutionary process as sound is integrated into every aspect of its structure, from noises that accompany "nav bars" (places where you click to navigate a site), to soundtracks associated with pages or pictures.
For Robertson, it's like the early days of MTV all over again, when his and other artists' groundbreaking music videos brought visuals into a previously aural medium. Robertson explains that ironically, his hit songs like "She Blinded Me with Science" didn't get radio play until they had come into heavy rotation on MTV. "I was always a visual artist," he notes, "and after my first brush with music videos, I basically learned to do them myself. It's very much the same situation on the web today, where artists are driving the medium forward by taking hold of it and building their own websites."
Web music has been in the news ever since the great MP3 panic, during which record companies had conniptions and unsigned bands were elated to discover that the MP3 digital audio format would allow users to download music to their computers or MP3 players and listen to it without ever going to a record store.
As far as Robertson is concerned, MP3 makes perfect sense -- it's an example of how web music can serve the interests of artists, even relatively unknown ones. Beatnik's RMF complements MP3 nicely, in that it performs a very different sonic function online. Whereas MP3 is a downloadable format -- effectively, a form of distribution -- RMF files are so tiny that they don't need to be downloaded to be heard. So RMF files allow surfers to listen to music, noises, or "soundtracks" while they're online. This effectively makes sound as much a part of web surfing as images and animations are now. And RMF files are encrypted ("locked up" with code) so that the creators of websites serving up original sound don't have to worry that their creations will be ripped off and used without their permission. Users who want to experience Beatnik's sonified web can download a free Beatnik player that plugs into their web browser and plays RMF files automatically.
Beatnik has already partnered with multimedia industry heavies MTV.com and Yahoo! Digital (digital.yahoo.com) to create sonified web environments. Using Beatnik plug-ins packaged with popular website authoring tools like Macromedia Dreamweaver and Director, designers at MTV created a web-based mixing board where surfers can literally remix a song in real time online. And Yahoo! Digital is conduct-ing experiments with "sonic branding." When you pass your mouse over the Yahoo! logo, for example, an RMF plays the famous "yaahoooo!" noise the company has been using in their radio ads.
But isn't there a disturbing contradiction between the kind of artist empowerment and "interactivity" promised by web sound, and the top-down mentality of creating sonic brands to sell products? Robertson agrees there might be a contradiction, but adds, "There's an ecosystem on the web where people tolerate ads being thrown at us, because so much of the web is full of things that are fun and free. A good Beatnik site has subtle, tasteful branding. I think having a lot of good free things available on the web balances out having brands thrown at you."
Maybe that's true. Nevertheless, it's hard to imagine what tasteful branding might be. And nobody really knows how long the web will remain free.
Annalee Newitz is a freelance writer and surly pop culture geek who lives in San Francisco.