Peter Gabriel

Music Pioneer Embraces Surround and Online Distribution

Much has been written about Peter Gabriel during the years: A founding member and theatrical front man for the progressive art-rock group Genesis from 1967 through 1974, Gabriel has had a successful solo career for a quarter-century and has made a name for himself as a rock video pioneer, recording studio owner (Real World), world music label chief (also called Real World) and human rights advocate. Gabriel's fascination with the possibilities of technology, his broad musicality and his natural, ingrained spirit of altruism have made him a hero to forward-thinking artists the world over, inspiring others to think outside-the-box for the good of art and humanity.

For this “Mix Interview,” we eschewed the usual questions concerning Gabriel's recorded history and addressed his thoughts on a number of issues facing the music industry today: online music distribution, copyright protection, surround audio and his latest passion, an artistic co-op called MUDDA (, which he has formed with Brian Eno. (Okay, he also plugs his latest concert video, Growing Up Live.) As always, he proved to be an articulate and passionate spokesperson for rank-and-file musicians and music fans.

One of the highlights of my DVD-viewing existence during the past few months has been experiencing your Growing Up Live release.

Oh, great! I appreciate that. I'm very happy you like it.

Not only is the music great, but also one of the things that really stands out is the cinematography. You could freeze-frame almost any moment and it would work as a well-composed photographic still.

We had some good cameramen, and Hamish Hamilton, who did the direction, is very talented.

“Darkness,” which is off of your last album (Up), is a potent meditation on the power of fear. As a recording, it is mesmerizing and disturbing, but in its live form, there is something special — almost an element of grace or vulnerability that is added — that happens in front of a packed house.

Yeah, that comes alive more. I think one of the things about writing in the studio is that the song hasn't matured, if you like, so quite often the vocals are early attempts. Whereas once you've taken it out on the road a bit, you learn more about a song. I've never really done it, but I know I would like to tour an album before I record it. [Laughs] One day, perhaps, I'll get around to doing it.

I think that you get the mood of a song stronger if you get it right that way. On the other hand, you put some songs out live and they don't catch flight. They just flop. It is hard to tell until they are out there.

There was one that we worked on in production called “My Head Sounds Like That.” We did it in a couple of shows where we were performing to smaller audiences without production and it was one of the stronger songs. Then, when we tried it in the production, it just didn't seem to hold people's attention, but it might have been the way we were doing it.

Have you thought about putting out Growing Up Live as a straight CD release?

We did think about it. Maybe that is something to look at later on.

In the meantime, you have made your concerts from last year's tour available to fans through the Internet in the form of the Encore Series.

Yeah, in the digital world, it is so much easier to put stuff out without a great deal of paraphernalia and fanfare.

Your involvement with music distribution and the Internet became a more formalized business endeavor with the creation of OD2 (On-Demand Distribution), which you formed with Charles Grimsdale.

When we started OD2 in 1999, we were really expecting to work more with independents and so on because the major labels were spending millions on their own Pressplay and equivalents online, which haven't been very successful. Over time, we ended up working with all five majors in Europe, and we're currently the Number One distributor in Europe. iTunes has announced that they are coming in, but they haven't yet started over here.

Concerning iTunes, the deals have mainly been done with the record companies. But the artists, with some exceptions, haven't been very well-represented. This is partly because the record companies have largely been copyright owners. That has also been true, to some extent, with OD2.

Apple is doing what they've been accusing Microsoft of doing for so many years: employing a closed system. We've asked whether we could have access to their digital rights management and so on, so we could sell to the Mac community. However, they have kick-started [downloading music on the Internet as a viable undertaking] and it has definitely helped. Even though we've been running a while, iTunes' success has definitely helped us, so I have some mixed feelings. But what worries me is that deals are being done now that are going to shape the future, and I think that the artist is not visible enough and the independent artist and label aren't visible enough.

So as OD2 increasingly did business with the majors, the idea of creating MUDDA as an empowered artistic collective or voice became a necessity.

OD2 was a business opportunity, but as a musician and minority-interest record company, it was also a chance of being involved in the distribution.

We are trying to change things and allow artists to be at the front of the food chain and become their own retailers and keep a big part of the margin. They can get paid directly as the money comes in and they can monitor it day-to-day totally transparent. That is a model that I would like to see adopted by the music business.

That model, in our dreams, would be a powerful representative of artists' opinions and needs, as well as a place where people could actually get the music. We wrote a little manifesto with just some ideas on how this digital revolution could transform music-making itself, and that is the part that people have generally ignored so far. They've been totally preoccupied with the business side of it, but not so much with how the new formats — or the freedom of formats — could change the nature of what exactly is created.

One thing that really appeals to me is this idea of music being a living thing that has an evolution that, in a way, enables the artist to sell a process rather than a piece of product. That is now possible. Those artists who are comfortable doing this can offer everything from the earliest demos to the first recordings and the different mixes, arrangements and live versions. People could really hear how a piece of music evolves rather than just the one moment that gets frozen in time and becomes the defining version and maybe a live version. In classical music and jazz, there is obviously a longer history of different interpretations of pieces of music. The whole thing could be made available and we think that the artist's Website is the ideal place to do that.

Is this an enterprise that you are trying to staff?

Yeah. [Laughs] It has a staff of one. We have a guy named Jon Webster, who used to run Virgin in the UK, so he's a gamekeeper-turned-poacher, I guess. He was the guy who thought up the Mercury Music Prize, which featured new and lesser-known bands and artists from many different genres that's not industry-owned, if you like. The industry does have some influence on who gets other awards. With the Mercury Prize, they don't. Jon comes from the business, but his heart is still very much in the music. Currently, we have about 12 major names that have said they want to be a part of MUDDA.

I think another thing is that we don't really want exclusivity. We accept that it is in the artist's interest to be on sale in every place where they sell music. Right now, we are just putting our fingers out there and saying we think that this would be a good initiative — that it should be an artist-owned cooperative — so that artists feel that they can trust it. If we get enough support, we can grow it and make it open to everyone, which is the long-term aim.

The issue on protection and compensation of intellectual and creative property has increasingly been a daunting undertaking.

I'm a bit cynical that it ever will be addressed properly. I think it is healthy to get some sort of copyright protection. But some of it has gone on forever.

People go on and on about the copyright issue, and that is central to what is going on now. Someone sent me an article from the Register this morning about this person named Fisher who has proposed an extra $6 per month on every broadband user's bill that would supply enough revenue to pay all the money that is earned from records and films. Maybe then you could get it all free — with free exchange. I think it is a very interesting idea and in the macro version of it, I can see a lot of good arguments.

Nevertheless, I have observed for over 30 years how these blanket payments get made. As an individual artist and as someone who works with world musicians, for instance, I know that, historically, minority interest artists and all young artists are at the bottom of the food chain. I think it is the weak and the young and the minorities that you need to look after to get a healthy creative environment — to get a lot of choices, a lot of different styles of music, a lot experimental stuff that everyone else feeds off.

I think this is best served by an old-fashioned idea, which is copyright. So I'm not saying that you couldn't overcome these problems in other ways, but, currently, there is no evidence that I have seen that these big commercial interests will adequately protect the rights of the less powerful. Older, more established artists are going to find ways to survive very comfortably, I'm sure, as we have — whether it is through film or through live [performance] or any of the different ways that we can sort of try and exploit any of the channels open to us.

Your catalog was released on SACD last year. When we received the releases, a number of us convened at Georgetown Mastering in Nashville to listen to them. The first thing that inspired remarks was that the SACDs weren't backward-compatible.

Yeah. You can only play them on an SACD player, which is, I think, a space issue as far as I understand. I would prefer that you could play them on anything.

You can format SACD to have another layer that can play CD. That is easily doable. I was curious as to why that happened. The Rolling Stones CDs came out before yours and they were able to play on both CD and SACD units.

I think it is because most of the manufacturers want to persuade you to buy their thing, or maybe it is the record companies who want you to buy the catalog again. I don't know. It's silly, isn't it?

Do you have a preference for DVD-Audio or SACD personally?

When we did the blind tests, SACD came out a little ahead for us, but they are both worthwhile improvements over what we have at the moment. To an average listener, there may be small differences, but as you know, when you spend so much time in the studio trying to get things to sound right — anything that allows people in on all of that work and the effort that you put in you appreciate. Another one of those blind tests that we did recently was some of this watermarking that they do. They put it into the high frequencies and you are supposed to not hear it. EMI had put out all of their records with this stuff all over it, and on 90 percent of the occasions, we could hear it very clearly.

What are your thoughts on 5.1?

I love 5.1. Sometimes you can't squeeze everything in comfortably into a stereo picture. There is a lot more space in a 5.1 environment.

Have you considered doing 5.1 on your catalog albums?

Yeah. We started doing that now. We've done So and Up and we are going to gradually do them all. But most companies, I'm disappointed to say, are just throwing these out to people who sort of rush them through without a lot of love and attention. It is a crying shame.

In the spirit of care and love, are you planning on getting Steve Lillywhite or Daniel Lanois involved in the surround production of the albums they were involved in producing?

Kevin Killen had approached us and said that he would love to do So. So that was really the initiative behind that. We tried to reach Dan at the time and get his input, but whether some of the producers want to take the time to go backward, if you like, I don't know, but we can certainly ask. I would like to give people the opportunity.

There is an amazing lack of attention and vision at the labels to understand the power of surround.

Yeah. And the potential. In their eyes, it is like they want to have 5.1 for as few dollars as possible. Like most things in life, if you want to put love and attention into something, it will most likely have greater worth to people and mean more to them. That is certainly true with this 5.1 thing.

I really encourage people through this magazine to take some time and effort and get people who really care [to do] your 5.1s, and if you play with sound or enjoy sound as most of us do, then there are some wonderful things you can do with it and allow people inside the music in ways that they haven't been allowed before.

Rick Clark would like to thank Sujata Murthy, Amy Gardner, Annie Parsons and Jon Webster for their help in this article.