Island Man

Chris Blackwell moves into the digi-web-world-global-video age

Eye pressed to a digital video camera, Chris Blackwell pans the view from the wood hut on stilts overlooking an inlet in the Caribbean that he calls his main office. A long table surrounded by batik-upholstered chairs and littered with DVDs, books, and CDs dominates the sun-filled room, where on a Sunday morning, the CEO of Palm Pictures has been editing some home footage on his iBook, a good distraction from the fact that the phone lines are down and he can't access his e-mail. As CNN drones from a TV in the corner, he grabs his cell phone and steps barefoot onto the balcony, greeting a passing fisherman in Jamaican patois.

We are at Goldeneye, the former home of James Bond author Ian Fleming and now one of the rock star-worthy retreats owned by Blackwell and managed by his company Island Outpost. Still best-known for founding Island Records in the '60s and taking Bob Marley international, Blackwell was often seen around South Florida in the 1990s, when he redeveloped South Beach hotels including the Marlin, the location of his South Beach Studios. The Jamaican native often came to Goldeneye as a young man, accompanying his mother, Blanche, a legendary hostess and friend of Fleming's, who liked to swim in this secluded cove. Blackwell is now 66; he looks craggy but fit in a pair of worn sweatpants and a T-shirt. He has recently been spending a lot of time in Jamaica, tending to his business interests on the island and overseeing Palm Pictures projects.

"The key is to find yourself a place that has got some soul," he advises earnestly. "If you find yourself a place like that, then you get yourself totally plugged in. It's never been possible before, but now it is possible. You can work from a place that is meaningful to you. Technology makes a joke of geography."

Such is the premise behind 1 Giant Leap, an extravagant global-music DVD and CD released last year by Palm Pictures. It resulted from filmmaker Jamie Catto and producer Duncan Bridgeman's trip to 25 countries, recording their encounters with musicians with a DV camera and laptop. Although the accounting department at Palm has been wont to refer to the project as "one giant holiday," it has had critical success; it was nominated for a Grammy and will be turned into a National Geographic television series. Palm Pictures and National Geographic are together planning a similar project in Latin America.

Blackwell founded Palm Pictures in 1998, after selling Island Records to PolyGram and subsequently leaving the label after clashes with corporate management. "I didn't get along well with the people running PolyGram at that time -- but once I left because of that reason, I felt that I should pretty much see through what I was thinking about," he notes: in short, finding a viable strategy for a 21st-century entertainment company. Blackwell, who positioned Marley and the Wailers as a black rock group, foresaw the rise of the LP format in the 1970s and signed U2. He then decided to bet on new formats like DVD and the Internet for distributing music and introducing "a new generation of digital storytellers" to audiences.

"The recordings are going to be available to a large extent for free," says Blackwell, who identifies the troubled major record companies' biggest mistake as not joining together to buy Napster. "I think that's clear, and it's going to stay clear. But then there is somebody, whether it's a person or a group, with whom you have an emotional connection. You still want to own something of theirs, whether it's a CD or something with a lot more visual imagery or print material. Or you'll be somebody who wants to download it on your computer and have it on your hard drive and get it whenever you want. You have to have those different options available."

Palm Pictures encompasses a film division (which recently released the Spanish hit Sex and Lucia), music labels Palm and Quango, the Japanese anime producer Manga Entertainment, and digital media companies Sputnik7 and RES. A new division, Arthouse Films, has announced the upcoming theatrical release of controversial artist Matthew Barney's Cremaster films.

Blackwell describes his musical interests as "world music and also a new kind of alternative rock group." These include Ethiopian singer Gigi, California post-punk outfit Earlimart, and Sidestepper, British producer Richard Blair's blend of electronic dance beats and Colombian song. The band's upcoming release also puts a Jamaican dancehall DJ into the mix.

"Maybe that's a direction we need to go in," muses Blackwell, who admits he has not been inspired to record any new Jamaican music for some time. "When Bob Marley became really big and when he died, a lot of people were trying to emulate him -- they were trying to be Bob Marley," Blackwell explains. "But you can't sing songs like that unless you really feel it, because it just sounds fake. And then the kind of DJ culture came that caught the youth because by now, classic reggae was the music of their parents, and no adolescent is going to like the music that their parents like. For a long time, it was doing pretty well, and then it started to eat itself and become pretty boring. And then rap started to take its place, and for the first time in 40 years, Jamaica was importing music. I think now is the time when Jamaican dancehall is starting to merge a bit with rap, and I think you can get some good stuff out of that. I think Jamaican music's going to come into a very good phase."

For now, Blackwell is backing a more nostalgic project featuring Ernest Ranglin, a famed Jamaican bass player and member of the Skatalites who is widely credited with inventing ska. Ranglin played on the earliest Island records back in the 1960s, and he arranged "My Boy Lollipop," performed by Millie, which was Island's first big hit. A DVD project with seminal South African big band the African Jazz Pioneers will be released at the end of the year.

Blackwell describes such musically driven projects as complicated to produce and a reason Palm Pictures is "not doing bad creatively but still having a hard time financially. If you're doing the kind of projects that we're doing, there's a long line from when you're putting money out to when you're getting it back." But the long-toothed producer seems confident that such multimedia, cross-cultural projects are the right thing to do now.

"We're seeing huge changes [in the music industry], more than ever before," he stresses. "But still, there are people who are songwriters and singers who can connect with an audience, and the audience will want to maybe own their music and definitely see them perform. I think the emphasis in the future will be more on personal performance again and on the song in terms of the business and less on the recording.

"There still needs to be the people who translate," Blackwell adds, fiddling with his camera. "People like myself, who can perhaps hear something and have it reach a wider audience."

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