In there eyes: The real world of Peter Gabriel and David Stephen
One of the music industry’s greatest luminaries and the CEO of his record and multimedia label articulate a raison d’etre for interactive music and multimedia entertainment circa 1993.
By Anthony Perkins, founder & editor, Red Herring
From December 1993 issue
Ever since his days with Genesis, Peter Gabriel recognized the inherent interactivity of the rock medium. During his distinguished career, he has sought to combine his musical talent with technological inspiration to create a universal language. Mr. Gabriel’s Real World MultiMedia, which released the critically acclaimed entertainment CD-ROM Xplora, merges his music with the interactive medium to promote creative expression and educate people on global human rights and environmental issues. He is also the co-creator of the Real Experience theme park in Barcelona, Spain. Along the way, his ten solo albums have sold 20 million copies worldwide, his album So won a Grammy, he wrote and produced the soundtrack for The Last Temptation of Christ, and he co-founded WOMAD (The World of Music, Arts, and Dance), a series of festivals combining traditional and modern music and dance from around the world. By early 1994, Mr. Gabriel found himself operating six different business units — ranging from one of the prime residential recording studios in Europe to a music video production operation. He also saw the opportunity to turn his interactive software company into a huge business. In order to pull all his enterprises together and leverage their potential he recruited Oxford-trained/Harvard MBA film and game industry veteran David Stephen to be CEO of Real World. “It’s David’s job to steer Real World into a more profitable existence,” said Mr. Gabriel. Mr. Stephen admits that it wasn’t easy to get the job. “I had to meet with Peter a dozen times before he would hire me,” he told me. Together they promise to build a multimedia entertainment company where over 50% of revenues come from interactive products. I caught up with Peter Gabriel and David Stephen recently at The MIT Media Laboratory Digital Expression Symposium in Cambridge, MA.The following are excerpts from our talk with two gentlemen pioneering interactive music. Read on and learn what it’s like in the Real World.
FOUNDER, REAL WORLD
Perkins: How did you get involved with technology?
Gabriel: After time, we just kept acquiring computer tools that we could play around with and use to enhance photographs and music videos and things like that. I have always fancied myself as a designer of experiences. Both the WOMAD festivals and the theme park we’ve been working on in Barcelona are examples of experiences you can create. So for me, learning how to implement technology in my work has been a slow process of experimenting with different ways to create new and interesting experiences for people.
Perkins: At some point, you broke away from classical music and started experimenting with pop music. Was this the beginning of your personal evolution towards artistic experimentation?
Gabriel: Or devolution. [Laughs] One day, a friend and I bought a ninety dollar kit and assembled what I think was the first programmable drum machine. I was so excited, because I had actually tried to teach myself to be a drummer for a long time, but I never really mastered it. So I had to spend a lot of time negotiating with whoever was my drummer at the time trying to get the right groove. The nice thing about the drum machine is that it never talked back. But it really changed the way I wrote music. That tool became an inspiration for me during the idea generating process. It helped me to be more sophisticated about my approach.
Perkins: Could you explain that process a little more specifically?
Gabriel: Well, for example, tempo lets me sample rhythms. I program the tempo I am experimenting with into my keyboard and use it as a rhythm composition base. That is an inspiring tool to work with.
Perkins: Some would argue that CD-ROM technology is a rough medium — that it is difficult to leverage as an art form. How do you create a quality, satisfying experience for people with CD-ROM technology?
Gabriel: With Xplora, we tried to make the look and feel very pleasing. We used the earth, the sky, and some other elements to create a natural experience. Xplora is also designed to invite people into the experience, and make them participants. Users can actually mix their own music for example — which I think is going to become very popular. That’s the great thing about interactivity, it allows us to step inside and work on the interior, instead of standing on the outside as an observer. But I would agree that CD-ROM technology still has certain limitations. I think it is only an intermediate technology until online fully develops. But we think a lot more can be done with CD technology, and we’ve only scratched the surface of its capability so far. We are now working on several other CDs that should be even more satisfying.
Perkins: When you’re developing a CD title, you have to take into consideration so much more than merely the composition of the music. That seems like it would be a lot harder than writing a song.
Gabriel: I still feel very much at the beginning stages of learning about what the new media can and cannot do, so there is clearly more experimentation that goes into the process. But it’s a lot of fun. It’s also much more about collaboration than the work I did before. In developing CD-ROM titles and the experience parks, there is more collaboration and interaction within the artistic process.
Perkins: How do you think interactive technology will change the role of the artist?
Gabriel: Traditionally, the artist has been the final arbiter of his work. He delivered it and it stood on its own. In the interactive world, artists will also be the suppliers of information and collage material, which people can either accept as is, or manipulate to create their own art. It’s part of the shift from skill-based work to decision-making and editing work — where choice becomes as important as the actual construction of the piece of work. That’s what’s so exciting — the fluidity and flexibility of technology is a good complement to the human artistic spirit. In other societies, it’s just assumed that all people are born artists who can express themselves through visual art, music, or language.
Perkins: You often talk about the potential of technology as a communication tool that helps bolster democracy and human rights.
Gabriel: That’s right. PC technology allows people to communicate and disseminate information around the world at any time, which I think has positive consequences in furthering the idea of democracy. The ideal would be that all citizens could use computers and video cameras, and other types of technology to record their stories for people around the world. I’d like to see a building immediately opposite of the United Nations which would be an archive of human rights abuses, so any citizen of the world could film and record their story and send it to this archive, no matter how gruesome it might be, and people could acknowledge and answer them. At least their experience wouldn’t be denied. Even Gorbachev used his video camera to show what was happening after he was kidnapped.
Perkins: How important is it to you that the human rights message in Xploraactually makes a difference?
Gabriel: I think it’s important that the message is there.
Perkins: At Red Herring we always promotes the idea that technology can also promote economic growth. Do you agree?
Gabriel: Absolutely — especially in the Third World. It is clear that information technology provides the Third World with the opportunity to jump from an agriculturally based economy to an information economy and skip the pains of an industrial transformation. So it’s very important to me that the Third World is not excluded from the information revolution.
Perkins: In our interview with your new CEO, David Stephen, he talked about your emphasis on producing quality work, and how that’s going to make his job of building a strong brand name for Real World much easier.
Gabriel: I’ve always been driven to produce the best work I can, which I think is also good business. You see, I believe that in the long run, we all have a natural tendency to pursue quality. There was an experiment done with kids where they were put in a supermarket and told they could eat anything they wanted. In the beginning they all ate cookies, chips, and sodas, but after a couple of weeks they moved on to primarily fruits and vegetables. So I do believe, hope, and trust that people will migrate towards nutritious information.
Perkins: I guess it’s conceivable that people could get hooked on junk information, just as some have junk food habits.
Gabriel: I had a conversation with Bill Joy [inventor of Berkeley UNIX and co-founder of Sun Microsystems] about the side effects of the information revolution, and he proposed the idea that perhaps the ultimate freedom is the freedom frominformation. I think Bill’s observation was very interesting, because, if you think about many of the spiritual disciplines, achieving a state of absence of information — the meditative state — is the ultimate goal. So, as we move forward, we should probably try to find the right balance.
Perkins: As you have changed and progressed as an artist, has your audience changed over the years as well?
Gabriel: Ah. One of the ways I test that is when I go out on stage, I look at the faces in the front row and see if they can sing along with some of my old songs. [Laughs]
Perkins: Just like Sinatra does. How long did it take before people stopped asking you to play Genesis’ songs?
Gabriel: Oh, about ten years. But I think that as our tools have changed, so has our audience. We are no longer asking people to just sit there for several hours and take in our output. We are trying to give them tools so they can engage in an activity, and take our music where they want to go. We are trying to provide a fishing rod for every fish. This focus tends to appeal to a younger, more computer literate crowd.
Perkins: While technology can unleash creativity, it also has a tendency to automate things. How do you avoid the risk that new technology tools, of whatever kind, might make your work or your performances stale?
Gabriel: Technology is just a tool. It still takes an artist behind the wheel. I always leave room for improvisation, and I really think much of the equipment provides some real advantages in expanding the creative process. Brian Eno talks about transparent technology, and I think that’s what the goal of tools should be, really. Like the drum machine, which can be there to inspire you during the process, but in the end the tools disappear. Until an artist finds a way to achieve a degree of fluency, when physical actions become more instinctive — bypassing the body — I think it can be helpful to use technology interfaces to get you there.
Perkins: You have also experimented with using technology in the audience, so they can interact with the show, haven’t you?
Gabriel: Yes. We try to use technology to give the audience a way to interact with what’s happening on stage. That approach has the potential to make each show a very unique and different experience for people. I know when I am sitting out in the audience watching someone else perform, I like to feel that I am powerful enough to influence what I am about to receive. But there is always a danger that if things become too programmed you give the audience a sense of powerlessness that they can’t change the nature of the performance.
Perkins: What are your thoughts on interactive TV?
Gabriel: I still think there will be a large demand for couch potato television. I watch television in the studio to switch off. But I think the prospects of getting viewers more engaged in television are good. I agree with Nicholas Negroponte [founder and director of the MIT Media Laboratory] that technology will allow the distribution of television to become more decentralized. That the walls between telephones, television, and content development will be destroyed, and the communications and entertainment industries will take on a new and exciting shape and form. It will be harder to distinguish who does what.
Perkins: In the end, what would you like to think your contribution has been?
Gabriel: Well, I’d just like to be part of the process that gets technology out there in the hands of everyone so they can be empowered to pursue their economic and artistic freedom. Real World would like to help use multimedia technology to create a new language so kids and people from all nations will be able to better communicate the richness of their cultures. That excites me.
Perkins: So, what can we look forward to next?
Gabriel: Our current project is a double live and video album called Peter Gabriel Secret World Live. And I think you’ll find the interactive titles we publish in 1995 very exciting.
CEO, REAL WORLD
Perkins: What do you think motivated Peter to recruit a CEO for Real World?
Stephen: Peter was looking for someone with a business and entertainment background who could help develop the right corporate culture at Real World. The company was heading lots of different directions. So we spent a lot of time talking about what the new mandate should be.
Perkins: Were you a Peter Gabriel fan before you took the job?
Stephen: One of the nice things about the job is that even before I met Peter, I was a big fan of Real World Records, which has a catalogue of about fifty records from about thirty artists from different parts of the world. When I lived in LA, I used to listen to KCRW, which played a lot of Real World Records’ music. KCRW has to be the best station in the world.
Perkins: Is it hard to make money representing non-western artists?
Stephen: Yes, but that said, it’s going quite well. We are, of course, always starved of radio time. Commercial radio is very narrowly focused. But one of the opportunities we see with the online services is we can put our music out through these services. We have developed an online program for Mercury called Radio Real World — which has just been demoed at a telecoms trade show in England. It’s caused quite a stir — it’s visually very rich and we’re very excited about its potential.
Perkins: So between Real World Studios, and Real World Records, you can handle the entire process of recording, packaging, promoting, and distributing a new record?
Stephen: We’re moving that way, though of course Virgin is our distributor world wide.
Perkins: What other operations do you have to look after?
Stephen: Well, WOMAD, the World of Music, Arts, and Dance, a festival series that combines traditional and modern non-western music and dance from around the world. WOMAD has been running for about ten or twelve years, and produces about ten or twelve festivals a year. Then there is Real World Trading, the merchandising arm that sells t-shirts, jackets, records, etc. It also publishes The Box, a small [5,000 circulation] magazine that focuses on art, technology, and the environment. I’m very proud of it. We hope to grow the subscription circulation to 15,000 and then move it onto newsstands. Maybe we should be talking to you about all this. How did THE RED HERRING do it? [Laughs]
Perkins: We’d be pleased to help. Do you produce Peter’s videos in-house?
Stephen: That’s done by a combination of individual directors working with Real World Productions. We are trying to move that part of the business into doing more television work. Mike Coulson, who is a creative director at Real World, has just completed the series direction for MTV’s World Environmental News.
Perkins: It seems that Peter’s videos are more computer enhanced than those of other artists.
Stephen: That’s right. Peter likes to experiment. If you look back at the Sledgehammer video, Peter was using single frame camera shots, which you usually only saw in experimental films in those days.
Perkins: How would you describe the condition of the company when you took over six months ago? This may be the part you want to talk about off the record.
Stephen: [Laughs] Well, I’d say unclear. Certain parts of the company were well run, while other parts were not so well run. Real World has always produced excellent product, which is an incredible natural advantage. Part of my mandate is to focus each part of the operation and make them financially and creatively independent of Peter. What’s interesting to me is that if you look at the spread of businesses we are involved in, I should be standing in the middle of an operational disaster. The only entertainment companies that have traditionally been able to leverage their properties across so many different mediums were the big Hollywood studios. It was only the Disneys that could afford to sell the movie, and the sound track, and the books, and so on. But I think a couple of things have changed which are opening up more opportunities for small companies. First, distribution channels have become far more diffused and blurred. I can now go down to the record shop and also buy games, videos, books, and tapes. So the small guy doesn’t have to worry about setting up so many separate sales channels. Second, the ability to digitize video, sound, and graphic information has made it much easier to repurpose creative content across the different mediums. For example, we can have the same person who shoots Peter’s videos also perform work for one of our interactive CDs. You don’t need the huge spread of skill sets you used to in the past.
Perkins: What do you see as the big opportunity for Real World in this new environment?
Stephen: We have the opportunity to create a very valuable brand name in entertainment products, particularly on the music and interactive side of the business. We have a credo for our brand that it is high-tech, handmade, and worldwide.
Perkins: What does the handmade stand for?
Stephen: It’s the emphasis on care and quality. The worldwide is that we draw inspiration from many sources from around the world and hopefully our products have a global appeal, and the high-tech is…high-tech!
Perkins: Are there any music company models that are similar to yours?
Stephen: Not that I’m aware of, but as an example for us, think of Virgin and how it began as a record company, then diversified into games and airlines, using its name as a symbol of quality. A brand is a symbol of quality and value to customers. That is where we are aiming Real World.
Perkins: Is Peter as intense about the business model as you are?
Stephen: Peter is very much interested in growing Real World. I believe a large measure of Peter’s personal appeal, both to consumers as well as to people within the industry, is because he has cleaved to an unbending idea of quality and integrity. He wants everything that he does and everything that Real World produces to have a consistent quality and integrity about it, which squares firmly with my idea of how to build a successful brand in entertainment products.
Perkins: Where are you currently focusing most of your energies?
Stephen: My immediate concerns are the overall financial management, and the marketing and distribution side of the business. We need to sort out the constraints that exist in these areas, so we can really grow the business. For example, at the end of this year, for the first time, each part of the operation will have its own business plan.
Perkins: How are the people within the company responding to more structure?
Stephen: Very well, I think. People usually respond positively to better organization, which should, if it’s working right, facilitate rather than constrain what they do.
Perkins: What are the company’s current revenues?
Stephen: Right now they fluctuate around Peter’s work. I would hope that within three to four years the other parts of the company will produce steady revenues apart from Peter Gabriel. Our goal with the multimedia group is to have six different products in development by late next year. In five years, I would hope that up to 50% of sales will come from interactive products and services.
Perkins: There are many industry pundits who are saying that music will serve to enhance the interactive experience, but it is uncertain whether interactivity does much for the music experience.
Stephen: I absolutely agree with them. There are probably fifty bands in the world who can bear one CD-ROM. There are probably less than a dozen who could bear more than one. Unless the artist has a long history, with a breadth and depth of interests, they are not going to be able to produce a CD-ROM like Xplora, which has a real depth to it.
Perkins: Don’t you think that it’s just Peter Gabriel fans who are buying Xplora?
Stephen: No. There are plenty of people with CD-ROM drives who want something interesting to look at and play with. I think there is a dearth of good quality product out there. If you could count the number of die hard Peter Gabriel fans who have CD-ROM drives, I don’t think the number could account for the success of the title thus far.
Perkins: How many units of Xplora have you sold?
Stephen: I think after the PC and CDI versions come out, we’ll sell a total of about 300,000.
Perkins: What’s it going to take to create successful multimedia products?
Stephen: In my best business school-ese, I’ll call it the “Three Cs.” One is for competing. We want each product to have elements of game play. And good gameplay involves interacting and competing with others, be they sprites, characters, or, at a more basic and exciting level, with the mind of the program designer. The second “C” is for curating. We want to give users the feeling that they are stepping into a museum, or the experience that they can wander around anywhere they want, and for however long they want, and discover whatever they want to about the subject. The final “C” is for creating — allowing the users to be a creator. Xplora allows people to mix a track. You play producer — it’s a creative tool. We are focused on developing more of these types of tools — which are beginning to change the way in which artists relate to audience and vice-versa.
It also requires the courage not to repeat the structure of a program, simply because it was successful in a prior product. Constantly experimenting and developing different form is the best way for us to go.