CANNES, France -- Peter Gabriel was saluted in grand fashion here Monday as the 2008 "personality of the year" during the annual MIDEM international music conference, an award previously handed out to such music-biz luminaries as Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, Clive Davis, Quincy Jones and Montreux Jazz Festival founder Claude Nobs.
But the musician and technological innovator skipped the opportunity to revel in the past that this kind of honor affords.
Accepting a glass trophy from MIDEM President Paul Zilk before a group of about 300 industry movers and shakers that also included his mother and sister, Gabriel remarked that "It's time to put the corpse of what we know as the record industry in the ground and let some other beautiful things start to grow out of it."
Few appeared to take offense, as the forward-thinking musician echoed comments he'd made earlier in the day and that others have been raising during the five-day gathering of nearly 9,500 participants from 91 countries.
In both settings Gabriel, 57 and hobbling on crutches with a broken foot from a recent skiing accident, urged musicians and industry executives to embrace rather than fight the technological changes and shifting culture patterns that have put the music business into a nose dive in recent years.
One specific response of his own is the recently launched We7 Internet service that generates free legal music downloads by pairing music with brief advertisements that create the revenue to pay artists. Gabriel has sunk $6 million of his own money into We7, which he said has logged about 1 1/2 million downloads since it went online last year.
The advertising-driven download model is one that many companies represented at MIDEM are experimenting with in different ways, and Gabriel acknowledged the potential pitfalls of so directly mixing art and commerce.
"It's climbing in bed with the devil," he said shortly before the award dinner at the Carlton Hotel. But the day of keeping the two segregated may well be over.
"I'm a big fan of Neil Young," Gabriel said, "but the artist who has complete control of his music and keeps his music completely apart from advertising is probably a thing of the last century."
The way Gabriel sees it, most young listeners are accustomed to hearing music in advertising environments. So by combining the ad-sponsored downloads for free with commercial pitches tailored to each We7 user's individual interests, ads can "become less annoying and more informational. It's about not selling dog food to cat owners."
The idea expands on what Gabriel helped develop with TheFilter.com, a website that generates music playlists based on users' record collections.
Asked whether he was worried about other similar services now coming online, Gabriel said, "I love competition -- bring it on."
And he pointed to Radiohead's recent release of its "In Rainbows" album first as a pay-what-you-will digital download and then a physical CD as the wave of the future. "I think we'll be seeing a lot more of that, where artists don't just release one thing in one form," said Gabriel, who bought the deluxe version of "In Rainbows" costing around $80. "Fans will probably be able to get a free download version, then have the choice of buying a physical copy, or paying a bit more for a deluxe version with lots of extras. Finally I think we'll be seeing more artists releasing the limited-edition, handmade, signed edition. I think all those models can coexist."
As for Gabriel's long-incubating "Big Blue Ball" project, featuring artists from around the world who recorded in his Real World studio in England over three years in the '90s, his numerous philanthropic activities have limited his time to finish it. He quipped that it would be released "this century -- weather permitting," but added that it should see the light of day in 2008.
It was his involvement with the Elders, a coalition of 13 world leaders including Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Kofi Annan and Jimmy Carter, that prevented the singer from joining his original band, Genesis, on its reunion tour last year.
"There's no animosity" with his former bandmates, Gabriel said, and left open the possibility of revisiting the reunion idea. Not long before Led Zeppelin's reunion in London in November, Gabriel said he got a call from singer Robert Plant, wanting to know one thing: "He asked which of us was going to sell out first."