ONE DAY ALL RECORDS WILL BE MADE THIS WAY.
Or that's what we thought in 1993.
In 1993 a press conference was held for the world’s media at a converted flour mill set in the English countryside outside Bath. The mill, now a state of the art recording studio, was acquired by British rock star Peter Gabriel in the 1980s from the fruits of his enormously successful music CD, “So”. Seen as the seminal 80s pop album by many, “So” was about be filed away as part of a distant era of passive linear entertainment.
The gentlemen of the press had dragged themselves away from their offices in London, Frankfurt and New York not only because they liked to ‘hang’ with a famous rock star but because they felt something important was about to occur. In the Wooden Room (other rooms at the studio were either Stone, Wooden or just Big) Peter Gabriel and his team formerly launched their new product: Xplora 1. The product was not a music CD but a CD-Rom.
Although the CD-Rom disc looked just like normal compact discs, it was capable of holding vastly more data, not just words but also video stills and animation. Xplora 1 contained, 100 minutes of video, more than 30 minutes of audio, over 100 full-color photographic images and the equivalent of a books worth of text – 600 megabytes of data. All of which was linked together in an “entity model”. You played them on your computer or on one of the new multiplayers linked to your television, like the Phillips CD-I.
To most people that day the CD Rom was something new and exciting. John May from the Independent thought that the name Xplora 1 was “like some Martian space probe”. Steve Nelson of San Francisco Company Brilliant Media had pitched the idea to Peter Gabriel as he was releasing his new CD and Gabriel had gone for it. I was co-ordinating the visual material for his "US" album with my partner Nichola Bruce and was recruited to write and direct the CD-ROM with Gabriel. As we had never made a CD-ROM a lot depended on the skills and patience of Steve Nelson who was going to have top make the whole thing work. As the project continued Nichola left Real World and I followed Gabriel around as he promoted his album, gathering documentary assets on my hi-8 camera, and periodically went to San Francisco to work with Steve Nelson's team there. It was one of the first interactive multimedia CD-Rom discs to be made by a major musician. Something that seemed to have enormous potential. Peter Gabriel was asked if he would ever record a normal CD again – was this the death of recorded music as we knew it.
The independent newspaper,1993. John May
John May wrote, Peter Gabriel is at it again, transmuting himself into another medium, exploring yet another technological frontier. Fifteen years ago he began thinking of himself as an experience designer.
The project, originated with Steve Nelson a San Francisco-based multimedia designer who came to England with his partner (who later led the production of a CD Rom for David Bowie), and met with Gabriel, Michael Coulson and his partner Nichola Bruce. Bruce and Coulson were refugees from the London film world, hired to help Gabriel with the launch of his new album and related projects. Steve Nelson gave a demonstration of the CD Rom’s possibilities to them and Gabriel, was fascinated. It was decided to move forward and make a disc before anybody else. Coulson was to take the role of director of the project, liaising between Steve Nelson in San Francisco and Gabriel in England..
As no one had made a music CD Rom before it was soon clear that everyone had different ideas about what it should be. Coulson and Bruce wanted it to have filmic elements, Gabriel wanted it to be like a toy and Nelson who had to program the piece was hoping it would be more like a catalogue. Not surprisingly the completed disc was an amalgam of many things. Part fan magazine, part documentary, part game, part catalogue, and part music player. It also blurred the boundaries between conventionally separate disciplines.
Xplora 1 was divided into four regions: ”US”, Real World”, ”Behind the Scenes”’ and “Personal File”. Inside “US” was all the art work from the album, which was programmed so that the user could interact with it, watch documentary video clips and listen to music. “Real World” allowed you to examine and listen to the entire Real World catalogue; to investigate and play some of the instruments used; to go on a virtual tour of the Real World studios and see work in progress. You were also given the opportunity to do a simple remix one of Gabriel’s tracks by moving the levels on an on-screen mixer. This was all simple stuff but it was all new in 1993 and people seemed to like it.
The added feature of interactivity meant that people felt an involvement with the material, particularly in sections of the disc which dealt with the artists’s personal life. ”Personal File” was located inside a suitcase full of Gabriel’s past. Included were his family photo album (click on the photos and they come alive as super-8 mm home movies) and his Eternal passport (open it by clicking on the cover and you see his animated passport photo endlessly cycle from baby to old man to skull and back).
Gabriel felt that the interactive medium had given him a new set of tools with which to dazzle his public. He had always been interested in pushing the boundaries of rock and pop music – his early concerts with Genesis were notorious for his appearances in elaborate costumes so restricting that he couldn’t sing or move about the stage. He was famous for being in the forefront of music video development. Now the CD Rom was empowering him and making him feel like a artist.
“The role of the artist is changing in a sense that there’s always been a linear route through a work of art before, and now we are providing an environment which may contain a linear route but which is also a playground for people to go off and explore for them selves. So you can produce a finished piece of work and also provide collage kits. People may explore your forest or they may take your trees and put them in a dome. In the same way that we have a dictionary in our heads which provides us with the tools for our communication through language, our kids or their kids will grow up with some kind of multimedia hieroglyphic capability”. Interactive media will, Gabriel believed, “find a huge place in the market in the same way that video did”.
Peter Gabriel’s ‘Xplora 1’ went on sale on 21 December in the UK, price £39.95. Made for Apple users. A PC versions followed.
Because It was also a brand new medium, Record company executives were terrifed about losses in revenue. Lawyers were gearing up to sort out disputes over ownership and rights issues. For a generation of aging rockers - David Bowie, Rolling Stones, Todd Rungren – CD- Rom seemed a great way to repurpose their old material, stay ahead of the competion, and increase their creative lifespan without having to share the profits with their record company.
Gabriel felt bouyed up by the success of Xplora 1 – it won every interactive award in its category in 1994 and became the world’s biggest selling music CD-Rom – and felt he could do more, that he was just scratching the surface of a whole new medium.
What is possible is affected very much by what is believed to be possible.
He planned to have a dozen projects up and running within the next year.
Xplora I was one of the world’s first music CD-ROMs, and became the largest selling music title, with 12 awards worldwide.