Over the past eight years, I have had the privilege of becoming friends with Chris Blackwell. Chris is a living legend. He’s the fiercely independent music entrepreneur who founded Island Records, brought the world artists like U2 and Bob Marley, helped revitalize Miami’s South Beach, and was the first music mogul to embrace the Internet. He’s also one of the nicest, funniest guys I know.
On Wednesday, Chris had a group of friends over for dinner at his apartment on the Upper West Side. About half of them had just returned with Chris from a trip to Africa. They had journeyed to the Festival in the Desert, a music and Tuareg culture festival in Essakane, Mali – about 40 miles north of Timbuktu in the Sahara. The entire journey sounded amazing. Everything I heard and saw about the trip — the stories, videos, pictures and excitement in the faces of those who went — convinced me that I must go one day.
One story really stood out and got me thinking. Chris recalled how they were traveling through the desert, somewhat lost, in the middle of nowhere. When someone refers to Timbuktu as a major hub, you have to take his word that it was really the middle of nowhere! From across the horizon, a vehicle raced toward them. It was a jeep mounted with a 50mm gun being driven by a young, local guy. Understandably, Chris and his pals were a little concerned. The local wasn’t the friendly type. He confronted them, asking who they were and what they were doing. As the local asked more and more questions, it came out that Chris was the music man who discovered Bob Marley. Suddenly, the heavily armed local reached in his pocket, drew a darkly-colored object, and pointed it toward Chris. It was his mobile phone. Visibly overwhelmed and smiling with joy, the local pressed a few buttons and presto! Immediately, they were dancing in the middle of the Sahara, to the rhythm of a music video being played on the phone – Bob Marley’s hit song "One Love."
I often say that there are two things young people can’t live without — their music and their mobile phones. For this cannon-sporting youth, I guess two out of three ain’t bad. His love for music and mobile proved that, even in the remote Sahara a few hours outside Timbuktu, their universal appeal is undeniable. I didn’t learn what type of phone it was or how he loaded it with a Bob Marley video (presumably, it was side-loaded, unless Sahara Cellular has a faster network than Cingular. Perhaps!). Given that the local was in some type of military, he probably had greater financial means and access than your average Malinese. Regardless, this is an amazing tale and a colorful, real world reminder of just how quickly mobile entertainment is transforming the world — not just the developed world but, perhaps more importantly, the developing world. Most people in the world, whether they be in Africa, Asia, or South America, will be introduced to digital music through the mobile phone and will continue to consume it primarily through that channel. The mobile is their first phone, their first camera and their first music player. It may soon be their first computer and their first credit card.
I wonder if the gun-toting young man thought about his encounter and reflected for a short while on mobile entertainment? After all, how many of his countrymen before him, if they had met the man who introduced the world to Bob Marley, could have instantly proven their devotion as fans? More importantly, how many of them could have shared their passion and created a spontaneous concert in the middle of the desert with strangers from across the globe? And lastly, how many of them could have plugged Blackwell’s digits right into their phones (along with his picture) to ensure that their first chance meeting might not be their last?