Thomas Dolby burst onto the pop-music scene in the early '80s with his quirky hit single "She Blinded Me With Science." One of his hits you might not have known about: the Nokia ringtone. Dolby didn't write it, but he helped develop the synthesizer software to play it in billions of mobile phones.
Recently, Dolby added "online game developer" to his resume when he launched The Floating City, a multiplayer game based on a dystopian alternate vision of the 1940s. That's one of many detours he's made in a long hiatus from his recording career, but this month, he's going back to his roots. His first studio album in 20 years, A Map of the Floating City, comes out Tuesday.
Dolby tells Weekend Edition Sunday host Audie Cornish that the decline of the music business was already under way by the time he quit it in the early '90s.
"The writing was on the wall: The first digital downloads were appearing," he says. "And I went to Silicon Valley, where it was quite the opposite. It was the beginning of the boom of the Internet. I had always been involved with some technology companies, because they made the hardware and software with which I make my own music."
Dolby began consulting for tech companies and eventually formed his own: Headspace Inc., later renamed Beatnik Inc. The company saw virtually no profit until the end of the '90s, when it created software that was used to make digital polyphonic ringtones for Nokia and other mobile-phone companies.
The new game and album fuse Dolby's dual careers in music and technology. In the game, players travel through three continents, joining tribes and trading with other players. Each continent is in turn represented by a section of the album, which was originally released as three shorter EPs.
"Coming back to music after 20 years away, it occurred to me that people aren't buying records much anymore, but they're spending an awful lot of time playing games and in social networks," Dolby says. "So, in order to entertain a younger audience, I needed to reach out in a new kind of way. What better way than to sort of create a social network based around interest in my songs? ... The places, the fictional characters, and objects from all of my lyrics go into this game. It's a little bit like collaborative fiction."