Apps, Mobile & SMS

Ty Roberts: From Working With David Bowie To Co-Founding Gracenote

David-bowie-isGracenote CTO and Co-Founder Ty Roberts is one of those tech guys who crosses such divisions as the creation of the World Wide Web and the boundaries between art, music and technology. At a time when programmers are ascendant with a growing pushback from creative types, Roberts is someone whose work back in the days of interactive CD-Roms with artists such as David Bowie and Brian Eno carried over into the creation of music metadata company Gracenote.

I spoke yesterday with Ty Roberts and he shared the tale of creating the Verbasizer for David Bowie who used it in the studio to generate song ideas, titles and lyrics. This work was was one of many efforts that helped lead to the founding of Gracenote.

David Bowie Demonstrating the Verbasizer in 1997

In the 90s Ty Robert founded and was CEO of Ion Music where, from 1992 to 1994, he created interactive CD-ROMs for musicians including David Bowie and Brian Eno. Such work helped set the stage for the interactive content experience we now take for granted on the Web. During this time he was invited into the studio with Bowie and Eno in England where he found that Bowie was using cut-up techniques for generating ideas and lyrics.

Roberts described Bowie as taking multiple word sources, from the newspaper to hand-written words, cutting them up, throwing them into a hat and then arranging the fragments on pieces of paper. He'd then cross out material that didn't fit to create lines of lyrics.

Roberts suggested he could create software for Bowie to speed up the process and did so for use on a Mac laptop. The app was called the Verbasizer and you can see it in use by Bowie in the video above in which he refers to a "friend" aka Ty Roberts. It allowed for different input methods including simply typing in words and then arranged them in columns which could be restricted to nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc. Each column could be weighted and have multiple words if desired. With a push of a button lyrics would then be created.

The Verbasizer was used in the creation of "Outside" which employed additional creative techniques for bypassing one's usual methods of artmaking that fall into patterns that are otherwise difficult to avoid. Roberts had the unique experience of observing Bowie's working methods as he went from the computer to the mic with new material sometimes in just a minute.

On Co-Founding Gracenote

This was one of many experiences that eventually resulted in Roberts co-founding Gracenote. Prior to Ion, with some overlap, Roberts worked with the Quicktime team at Apple bringing in musicians like Todd Rundgren and The Residents.

In the later years at Ion in the 90s, they began to focus on content being posted by artists on the Internet as the Web was still emerging. Issues were arising such as the disconnect between interactive music projects and the official homepages for songs and albums that often resided on record label sites.

Addressing the problem of facilitating recognition of content and taking users to the song's homepage led to the creation of Gracenote's initial CD Database. Roberts co-founded Gracenote in 1998 and began pursuing such projects. Now Gracenote not only recognizes songs but provides a wide range of information about the music and the artist.

For example Gracenote, now a division of Sony Corp. of America, powers a variety of music metadata services for such companies as Apple, Amazon and Ford.


Screenshot of the Verbasizer 2.0 for "David Bowie Is" Exhibition

With the return of David Bowie, everybody's getting in on the action including London's esteemed Victoria and Albert Museum which is preparing to debut "David Bowie Is." The exhibition "will feature more than 300 objects that include handwritten lyrics, original costumes, fashion, photography, film, music videos, set designs and Bowie's own instruments."

Though many details of the exhibition remain secret, Ty Roberts created a contemporary version of the Verbasizer (see above screenshot) for a section of the show possibly titled "David in the Studio." Roberts now works with the Gracenote R&D groups' media and technology lab and they recreated the software for an iMac with a more automated process than the original Verbasizer.

Since Bowie drew on newspaper content as one of his sources, the Verbasizer 2.0 draws in news feeds and automatically generates lyrics. It's another step removed from the cut-up by hand but it caused Roberts to recall Brian Eno's interest in generative processes for creating music that were a bit ahead of their time back in the 90's.

Back then Roberts actually worked more with Brian Eno and that work included developing software to autogenerate visuals though not music because the computers available for their use were not up to the task. Of course now Brian Eno is developing Generative Music apps such as Scape for iOS.

A Possible Takeaway for Tech Startups

There's a lot one could take from these tales, including the fact that pre-Web ideas offer a lot of potential for those who are aware of the history of art as well as technology. Many of these ideas are unavailable to the typical Silicon Valley tech startup full of engineers and coders.

Though the current mantra is that everyone should learn to code with the counter that programmers should learn about design and art, interdisciplinary teams who can collaborate with mutual respect and understanding now have the potential to make new moves inaccessible to teams dominated by designers, programmers or artists.


Peep the combined merch game of David Bowie and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Trash talk all you want but Bowie is still taking you to school.


Hypebot Senior Contributor Clyde Smith (@fluxresearch/@crowdfundingm) also blogs at All World Dance: Videos and maintains Music Biz Blogs. To suggest topics for Hypebot, contact: clyde(at)fluxresearch(dot)com.

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