Lost & Found: Mandarin of the music biz

Island Records founder forms new kind of media co.

Name: Chris Blackwell

Description: Jamaican princeling who founded a music empire out of his car trunk, popularizing reggae.

Last Seen: In 1998, he formed a new kind of media company, Palm Pictures.

Born into Jamaican aristocracy and educated at Harrow, the man behind Bob Marley, U2 and Steve Winwood has long cut a princely figure in the often hardscrabble music biz.

Island Records founder Chris Blackwell continues to push artistic boundaries with Palm Pictures, his almost willfully genre-busting media company, which is about to release a cutting-edge “visual album” on DVD even as it struggles to stay afloat.

Upcoming release “1 Giant Leap” blends music with highly politicized interviews from diverse figures. Producers Duncan Bridgeman and Jamie Catto collaborated with some of the world’s most notable musicians — including Baaba Maal, Michael Stipe, Asha Bhosle, Brian Eno and Linton Kwesi Johnson — on new musical tracks, then interspersed comments from writer Kurt Vonnegut, Body Shop founder Anita Roddick and porn star/AIDS activist Sharon Mitchell.

The resulting DVD isn’t always successful, particularly given the decontextualized political commentaries dropped into the often striking music. But it is indeed a giant leap for the medium, and one that is difficult to quantify, much less market.

“The good news is we’re ahead of our time, but the bad news is we’re ahead of our time,” Blackwell says. “People in general aren’t that interested in non-narrative projects.”

But he argues that using digital video and DVD may be a better platform for selling music than CD.

“You’re able to get performances and catch things you were never able to catch before,” Blackwell says.

Palm routinely packs DVDs filled with musicvideos, interviews and other material into initial pressings of its artists’ CDs. For minimal extra cost, the DVDs give fans reason to buy the CD instead of copying it off the Net.

“I hope we can hang in there long enough so Palm Pictures can become the place people come to do those projects,” Blackwell says.

And hanging in is a challenge for the 4-year-old Palm, which is actually an undercapitalized archipelago of companies.

Other units include RES magazine and RESfest digital film festival, anime distribbery Manga Films and several small labels. Palm also produces and acquires theatrically released features, including most recently the steamy Spanish pic “Sex and Lucia” and hip-hop history “Scratch.”

Blackwell, 65, still travels regularly between Los Angeles, New York, Jamaica and London, overseeing his various holdings (which include a string of 11 Caribbean resorts).

To ease some of Palm’s cash crunch, he recently secured $10 million from Colombian conglom Grupo Santo Domingo. Longtime backer Ted Waitt, CEO of Gateway Computer, also continues to chip in funds through his Avalon Capital Group.

But being a pioneer hasn’t been easy.

“It’s very difficult to survive right now,” Blackwell says. “The times are difficult when it comes to raising the funds sufficient to do what you want to do.”

Palm still hasn’t made a profit, and Blackwell says it lacks the resources to “really bring ’em home.”

He seems little inclined to change his trailblazing direction, however.

“I’m ruled more by my heart than my head in general,” Blackwell says. “If it’s not this, it’ll be something else.”

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