Online game amps up Dolby’s new music effort

Music for Screens: Summer 2011

Thomas Dolby, whose 1980s hits “She Blinded Me With Science” and “Hyperactive” cemented his status as a pop icon, decided to step away from the music business in the early ’90s and forge another fruitful career as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur.

His company, Beatnik Inc., invented the ringtone synthesizer embedded in billions of mobile phones, and he served as music director for the California-based TED conferences, a renowned lecture series named for its roots in technology, entertainment and design.

Now back in his native U.K. and retired from Beatnik at age 52, Dolby is gearing up to release his first album in more than two decades, titled “A Map of the Floating City,” which is accompanied by an online multimedia video game.

“The Floating City” allows players to use Web browsers, social networks, smart phones and tablets to explore a fictional Google map, forming tribes and trading relics in a sea-going barter society while interacting with Dolby’s music and winning concert tickets and other prizes.

Dolby, who has produced albums for Joni Mitchell and Prefab Sprout and has been nominated for five Grammys, says the game currently has about 4,000 players that will influence the direction of the new album.

“The album is sort of like a soundtrack to the game,” he says. “A lot of the game is driven by the players themselves. It’s kind of a collaborative fiction environment, so what the players democratically decide is the truth becomes the truth. A lot of the songs have stories to them and I’m a bit reluctant to finish the stories until I see how the game unfolds.”

During his 20 years away from the music biz, Dolby noticed that his online fan forums continued to flourish, creating mythologies based on the characters in his songs, with some people claiming to actually be the characters.

“Looking at online forums and my core fanbase, I realized they love the mythology in my songs and the richness of the stories and the characters,” Dolby says. “But making a video seemed very 20th century somehow — it’s a very passive, one-way experience. People aren’t buying music and watching movies as much but they’re spending a lot of time playing games and a lot of time in social networks. So it seemed to me I needed to find a 21st century idiom in which to create an immersive environment where people could bury themselves in that mythology.”

In “Floating City” Dolby departs from his trademark synth-driven pop sound to experiment with an array of musical textures, including honky-tonk piano and fiddle, classical guitar flourishes and jazzy saxophone solos. That said, Dolby fans will immediately recognize his literate, storytelling, songwriting style and the gorgeous soundscapes he effortlessly creates. The album features several notable guests including Mark Knopfler, Regina Spektor and Imogen Heap.

Dolby recruited game designer Andrea Phillips and longtime friend J.J. Abrams, director and creator of “Alias” and “Lost,” to advise him on the direction of the game.

“You can tell from the game there’s a very strong flavor of J.J.’s ‘Lost’ worlds and the whole mystery behind everything he does,” says Dolby, who traveled to Santa Monica to meet Abrams and his staff at Bad Robot Prods. to talk through ideas for the game.

Although the current cycle of the game is due to culminate in late August so Dolby can complete the album and dole out prizes (including a private concert for the winning team), he envisions it entering a new phase and taking on a life of its own. Dolby plans to offer pre-concert lectures about the game when he tours the U.S. following the album’s October release.