LONDON (Billboard) - Peter Gabriel has long been admired as a pacesetter of musical exploration, a passionate campaigner for human rights and a pathfinder in technological development.
That widespread admiration will much be in evidence January 28 in Cannes, France, when Gabriel is named Personality of the Year at music industry trade conference MIDEM (Marche international de l'edition musicale).
The honor from "the world's music market" befits a true man of the world in both music and communication.
It's also the latest in a distinguished collection of trophies. In May 2007, Gabriel received a lifetime achievement title at Britain's Ivor Novello Awards, and a few months earlier the Nobel Peace Laureates bestowed the Man of Peace honor on him.
But far from resting on his laurels, Gabriel continues to pursue new challenges.
The years he spent as frontman during Genesis' most innovative era barely hinted at the inquisitive spirit of this four-time Grammy Award winner.
In the past year, Gabriel has worked extensively to develop more of the globe-embracing ideas that have always been his stock in trade. He spoke with Billboard about some of them and what 2008 holds in store.
Q: How do you feel about being MIDEM's Personality of the Year?
Gabriel: "I must be getting to that awards time of life; it's God's way of telling you you're getting on.
"MIDEM, I think I've only been once before, when we were doing OD2 (the digital provider he co-founded in 2002). We were trying to get this union together (MUDDA) of digitally downloading artists, but the artists didn't leap to it at the time. Nowadays, people get it a lot more easily."
Q: When you recently co-founded digital music platform We7, did that feel like a successor to OD2?
Gabriel: "Well, it was just another punt in the music business, but it is another thing I think is potentially important for artists. With their traditional stream of revenue -- record sales -- being largely taken away, we've got to be a little more inventive. There are lots of different models emerging, and it was exciting to see the Radiohead one. (Radiohead released its latest album online initially, letting fans set their own price.)
"With people used to hearing ads on commercial radio, we were trying with We7 to see -- if we did a lot less than that but still included ads -- (whether) there was a way people could get songs, and eventually films, for free.
"The theory is that the more targeted the ads -- and you obviously have to choose to volunteer information about yourself -- the less painful it is. If I'm looking for a hybrid car, that's the moment when I'm probably interested to hear the ads from different hybrid manufacturers, so you don't get the old 'dog food to cat owners' (advertising).
"It's not the only way of doing things, but for a generation that's grown up with 'music for free,' it's a way of continuing that but still getting some stream of income to the people that created the content."
Q: To some extent, did you pre-empt Radiohead when you said you were considering releasing your next album without a conventional record company?
Gabriel: "Yes, but I hadn't conceived of the 'pay-what-you-want' thing, which I think was very brave. Clearly they're at the peak of their career, so they can rely on a certain number of fans.
"Deluxe packaging is something I've been talking about for a while -- I do think that's going to work, where people get something for nothing, a regular package for a reduced cost, then a deluxe or handmade item above that."
Q: Since 2005, you've also been working on TheFilter.com. What's that about?
Gabriel: "It's a recommendation engine of sorts, but my dream there, which I'm still pushing hard for, is a mixer that you can stick anyone in, whether it's (a recommendation from) a favorite artist, a magazine, your friend, someone who looks like they've got interesting taste, and you (could) just press a 'do it' button and get a combination of people's tastes. At the moment, it makes recommendations for you based on what you like."
Q: You admire new technology not for its own sake but for what it can do to connect the world, don't you?
Gabriel: "Yes, I'm passionate about it; actually, I've been spending more time on that than music stuff in this last year. We've got this thing called TheElders.org up and running, and the Hub at (human rights organization) Witness, which is intended to be a sort of YouTube for human rights.
"The Elders is extraordinary: respected people, like (Nelson) Mandela and Kofi Annan, that are beyond career-building but still have leverage and respect and wisdom, which is still an underused natural resource.
"I'm also trying to push a thing called Face the World, which is a serious attempt to get every living face online. With Google Earth, I can pretty much zero in on any living tree, but I can't zoom in on any living face.
"It's only part of the process, but being able to hear people and listen to what's going on is the first step in any healing process."
Q: Will the mobile phone play a role in connecting people from different cultures?
Gabriel: "There was a 'Geek Week' on Channel 4 (on U.K. TV) where they tried to find a Masai tribesman without a mobile, and couldn't. Then they interviewed this fantastic Kenyan girl and asked her, 'What's going to change things in Africa?,' and she picked up her mobile phone. The interviewer said, 'I don't really believe in a single technological fix,' and she said, 'Oh, you don't believe in the wheel? Or fire?'
"In the Mandela Foundation, they gave mobiles to coffee growers in Zimbabwe, who were getting continuously ripped off. The very next day, they were getting the latest prices from Chicago, and suddenly could do a deal related to the current price."
Q: Did you get to see any of the shows on the Genesis reunion tour?
Gabriel: "I didn't. I was trying to get to the Rome (show), but if they do another (tour leg), I'll try to get there.
"We had discussions about (my taking part), but the time commitment they wanted was growing, and I knew with trying to get the Elders going, I wasn't going to be able to do both. I'm not in principle against the idea of doing something."
Q: How's the new album coming?
Gabriel: "Very slow at the moment. I've been heavily distracted, but I'm determined now to get back into it, and some new songs are coming through that I'm very happy with."
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MTS Centre, Winnipeg - May 26, 2008