Ringtone pioneer Thomas Dolby didn't say 'I told you so,' but ... - Technical.ly DC


Ringtone pioneer Thomas Dolby didn’t say ‘I told you so,’ but …

There was a time when tech companies didn't want sound anywhere near their products, said Dolby, who came to Washington, D.C. to promote his book last week.

Thomas Dolby speaks at the National Press Club about his memoir, "The Speed of Sound."

(Photo by Andrew S. Harper)

For many in the technology arena, music legend Thomas Dolby is the epitome of success in the convergent space of music and technology.

The man behind “the world’s best-known ringtone” appeared in Washington, D.C. earlier this week in order to deliver a special keynote that preceded an intimate signing of his new book, “The Speed Of Sound: Breaking the Barriers Between Music and Technology” during the annual Campaigns & Marketing Summit held at the National Press Club. Not only was the conference audience privy to deep, personal insight from Dolby, but he also gave a live reading of a portion of his book that details his work in the music and technology industries.

Dolby, now a resident of Baltimore and an instructor at Johns Hopkins’ new masters program for film and media, said that, because of the personal archive research that his position at the university entails, he was inspired to write “The Speed Of Sound.” The book is an inspiring, amusing, introspective look at the career of the man known for his mega-synthesizer hits such as “She Blinded Me With Science” and as the pioneer behind a former tech company called Beatnik. Beatnik went on to become the impetus behind the well-recognized Nokia ringtone and also created a portion of the technology that would become inherent to the future ringtone explosion.


Dolby’s new book. (Courtesy photo)

Dolby said that he made the transition to Silicon Valley from the music industry at a very unique time but that it was not without challenge.


“Luckily, I could easily get meetings due to my recognition in the music industry,” he explained. “But when I started out in the early ’90s, computer companies didn’t really want sound in their products. They thought it would annoy the guy in the next cubicle to even have speakers. Really, the only company that got it was Apple, and they were considered dreamers at the time. Guess who the top company in the world is now?”

Another tech giant that makes an appearance in his book in Microsoft. In the book, Dolby writes about how he was hanging out with Bill Gates and a friend years back when the friend told him that the cloud was going to be very big. Gates started shouting that the cloud would never catch on and that Dolby’s friend was absolutely wrong.

“Now Microsoft Cloud is like their big thing,” Dolby said. “So a lot of things came to be that weren’t very obvious at the time. But I was able to get the meetings and start to penetrate the scene because they thought I might be able to do things like help them get in backstage to see the [Rolling] Stones or something. So once I got in, I’d show them this interesting stuff.”

In order to gain a foothold, Dolby convinced companies to provide their content at no cost to them. “But there was no real business model behind it until Nokia came along,” he said.

Dolby recounted overcoming obstacles while working with engineers, plus legal issues and vast cultural differences at Nokia to actually create a partnership that would later lead to what is known as the ringtone revolution. He cites perseverance and belief in his company’s mission as part of the equation that lead to his success.

"Music has the ability to transcend oppression."
Thomas Dolby

“We really had to think about how to approach these issues and stay the course in the technology industry,” explains Dolby. “But now I see, particularly via my students, that for this generation of kids, solutions are always only just a few clicks away. That’s progress and that’s just great.”

He said that he also sees this spirit extending to the Baltimore community overall and it’s something that inspires him today.

“Everyone here I see seems to be trying to make things better,” he said. “I love being surrounded by that rather than people just looking out for No. 1 like they were when I was in the music industry.”

However, he certainly sees music as that which will not only intersect even further with technology but become more integral to social justice movements.

“Periods where there is an oppressive government is historically great for music expansion and creation. Music has the ability to transcend oppression,” he says. “So I’m looking forward to that and all the good that it can do.”

“In fact,” he added, “more than ever, it’s important that the good work we do gets out there, particularly after the results of the recent presidential election.”

Dolby concluded, tongue in cheek: “I could just go back to England and subscribe to a bunch of fake news sites, but I think staying here is better!”

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