Oldfield Pioneers Music/Cyberspace Border

November 5, 1994
Marilyn A. Gillen

New York-Mike Oldfield's forthcoming WEA Records album is adamantly about the future from its source (a science-fiction novel by "2001: A Space Odyssey" author Arthur C. Clarke) to its groundbreaking inclusion of a bonus multimedia track on a regularly priced CD. "The Songs of Distant Earth" which follows Oldfield's 2-million-selling 1992 release "Tubular Bells II", launches November 14 in Europe and early next year on Reprise in the States. When it hits, it will mark the highest profile merger yet of the traditional album and the emerging world of CD-ROMs and the highest profile measure yet of consumers' interest.

WEA Records, a unit of Warner International, says the album's jewel box will be stickered to alert consumers to the inclusion of the multimedia track, which can be accessed by buyers owning a multimedia computer or CD-ROM drive. Other buyers will still have the equivalent of a standard album, except they will need to skip over the first track when playing it back.

WEA Records head of international Mark Crossingham says that traditional marketing efforts for the album will be expanded to tap into the new pipelines generated by the multimedia component, such as placing ads in computer magazines, placing the product in the interactive-display stations in record stores, and running in-store and in-window video demos of the CD-ROM clips. Ads also will tout the bonus clips.

The science-fiction angle, including liner notes written by Clarke, is another novel aspect that will allow WEA to push the album through a variety of publications and other related channels.

"Nobody's pretending this will sell millions more albums yet," says Crossingham. "But, together, it brings in a new audience we might not have gotten, and also gives something extra to fans buying the album."

"Every CD gives you 680 megabytes of space," says Brendan McNamara, head of interactive production company Balanda Multi-Media and producer of the interactive portion of Oldfield's album. "And most albums use only about 400 of those megs. So there is a perfect opportunity to drop something extra in, just as a bonus."

The "something extra" in this case, about six minutes worth of 3D computer generated material evolved naturally from Oldfield's creative process," he says.

"I was having difficulty in the beginning associating the music with the book it is inspired by," Oldfield says. "I needed some in between stage so that I could visualize it. As it happens, at this time someone gave me a copy of [the Broderbund CD-ROM game] "Myst" and I loved the look of it. So I got turned on to the possibilities of Silicon Graphics technology, and made quite an investment in it for myself."

The visuals and the audio thus "developed side by side" in his studio, he says. "What you see is the visualization of my creative process. It's what I was seeing in my head as I was composing."

What consumers with multimedia computer will see is part game, part music video, part sci-fi adventure-all based on the novel about a space voyage.

Users accessing the CD-ROM will first encounter a spaceship designed by Oldfield, and enter. Inside, they navigate through a city, eventually encountering a control room, and come across an access code they will have to crack to proceed.

Once they break the code, users get a choice of viewing four clips, each relating visually to a particular piece of music on the album. Among them is an audio visual piece of Oldfield singing one of the album tracks, while another area, the "Hibernaculum" offers a chamber where the ship's long distance voyagers are frozen for the duration.

The latter clip relates most closely to a follow-up project currently in the very early stages of production, according to McNamara, who will produce it. He describes this album's multimedia section as "sort of a trailer" for the next project.

That project, a CD-ROM game for which Clarke is being asked to write the script, will include music from the album. McNamara says, as well as a full-fledged adventure/journey through space. No release date has been set, and Oldfield says plans are still tentative.

As for the album itself, its vision of the future as depicted in Oldfield's music, paradoxically, eschews any cliches about eventual technological dominance.

"I see our ultimate development not in a technological sense, but in a spiritual sense," says Oldfield. "That's why I felt that music from the future should be calm and warm, not "techno" and cold."

The album's 17 tracks, primarily instrumental, trace a virtual narrative based loosely on the Clarke book. In composing, Oldfield avoided sounds that were "too terrestrial"," he says, and strived for ethereal, otherworldly sounds which occasionally mix-as on "Prayer for the Earth" and "A New Beginning"-with such vocal elements as chanting (achieved through samples of Polynesian ceremonies).

There is a strong rhythmic skeleton underlying all the music, something Oldfield hopes will help his album span the generations - right down to the clubs.

WEA says several tracks already are earmarked for remixes, something Oldfield likens to the interactive process.

"It's all about control and giving some of it away to your audience," he says. "What I think is the great thing about interactive media, and why the world seems to be getting so excited about it, is that it offers choice. You're not like a passive cushion soaking up this music; you have some say is what you see and hear."

Mike Oldfield Tubular.net
Mike Oldfield Tubular.net