Cover Story: A Whole New Groove

Todd Rundgren on why the future of music distribution doesn't include the music industry

 


In a career that spans nearly 3 1/2 decades, Todd Rundgren has made a reputation for himself as a restless rebel of the highest order. At nearly every turn, he has confounded critics and even risked the wrath of his own fan base in an attempt to satisfy his creative need to expand and grow.

Consider his history: In 1970, after the demise of the critically acclaimed Nazz, Rundgren released his first solo album which contained the Top 20 hit "We Gotta Get You a Woman." In 1971, he followed the Runt album with the highly personal and little-heard Ballad of Todd Rundgren. Thus began a career pattern of Todd Rundgren's resistance to pursuing the easy avenue to success in favor of satisfying his own creative impulses.

The whole scenario repeated itself two years later, when Rundgren followed his magnum opus (and greatest commercial success), the brilliant double album Something/Anything, with the even more brilliant and yet wholly misunderstood A Wizard, A True Star. In many ways, the two albums couldn't have been more alike. They were both rife with Pop hits, and both were wildly experimental as well. But Rundgren long ago made a conscious decision to ignore the caterwaul of mindless Rock critics and trust that his fans would understand his need to evolve and follow him wherever that led.

Rundgren himself would disavow any input on this discussion.

He has long proclaimed an aversion to being questioned about either his personal affairs or his long and detailed history. He started work on an autobiography several years ago as a defense against such queries. But the preceding is offered not as a musty timeline of career events, but as proof of Rundgren's sincere desire to follow his own path exclusively, at the expense of critical favor, industry acceptance and even fan loyalty.

That quality looms largest in Rundgren's current activities, which have in recent years taken him down a decidedly technological path. Rundgren's curiosity concerning the nuts and bolts of music production back in his Nazz days led him to learn all he could about production techniques, and has helped him to become one of the modern Rock era's most in-demand producers.

When computers began making inroads into music production, Rundgren was already ahead of the pack. He had begun exploring the options of computer animation in the late '70s, and was light years ahead of the curve. His greatest asset in this regard is the ability to see the lateral as well as the linear applications of whatever he's working on at the moment. His latest venture may well be no less than the future of music.

Last year, Rundgren announced he would no longer seek the comfort afforded by major label status, and would begin his own method of dealing directly with his fans. To that end, he developed a totally unique concept and delivery vehicle. The concept was to turn Rundgren's career into a stock option, offering subscriptions at varying levels of interest and involvement, which would yield equally varied benefits and rewards. The bottom line to this idea would be that Rundgren would be taking his monetary advance from his fans rather than from a label, and fans would then receive their music directly from him. The contact point for all of this would be a Web site (www.tr-i.com) that would house all of the information and where any downloadables would reside.

It was a bold move, and many industry honchos were probably hoping Rundgren would fail miserably with this plan. But Rundgren is succeeding on a rapidly expanding scale, having secured thousands of subscriptions so far, and is now in the process of mailing out his second release of new music to subscribers. The traditional face of music distribution has just had its portrait done by Picasso.

Of course, Rundgren is now seeing the supply problems that labels face every day, and his regular dilemmas are now those of the landlord as opposed to the renter. It is a challenge that Rundgren relishes and dreads at the same time.

"It's a lot of work, and I've been investing myself in trying to figure out ways to make it less work," Rundgren says from his digs in Hawaii. "In other words, for me as an artist, somehow reduce the amount of maintenance so I can concentrate on making music. Making content for it rather than having to also maintain the whole thing as well. I've gotten some help in that, and that help will be coming online in the next couple of weeks. So I'll just go back to being talent."

There is a tremendous amount involved in being "talent" when it comes to being Todd Rundgren. He is hoping to continue to explore groundbreaking animation of the sort seen on his label-distributed enhanced CD release, The Individualist. He is also still in the midst of writing his voluminous autobiography, odd pages of which find their way onto the Web site occasionally. And then there is that whole music thing.

"Yet again, more things that, if I wasn't writing code all the time, I could be doing," Rundgren says of his hectic schedule. "Now that I've gotten things a little bit more organized, more time will be returned to me, and I can direct it towards that. It's a part of the site that only I can do, and that really needs some updating."

The site itself points up the larger question of Rundgren's rabid fan base, and how many of them have been put off by his recent forays into experimenting with his sound and the technology. His 1994 "Evening of Interactivity" tour that supported the No World Order album was a case in point. Rundgren conceived a multimedia kiosk that featured computers to run prerecorded support instruments, keyboards, lights and video cameras, and display screens to show cycling video images, all of it located not on the stage, but in the middle of the dance floor where the audience had a limited amount of access. The idea was so far ahead of its time that it left most of his fans out of the loop.

"The so-called 'Evening of Interactivity' tour, to see how much interactivity we could get out of the audience," Rundgren says with a resigned laugh. "It depended on the place, but generally it seemed like people were not in the mood for it."

No World Order, with its Hip Hop rhythms (which made it easier to break up into small chunks for purposes of computer manipulation), and the subsequent "Interactivity" tour may have been the first instance of Rundgren losing a large part of his loyal audience to his experiments. He had always assumed that a certain number of fans would stay throughout his career, some would fall away at experimental moments, to be replaced by others who might be attracted to him at that moment. No World Order then — and the Web site now — may be further alienating Rundgren's fan base, but he sees it as the natural evolution of the process.

"This doesn't just divide my audience, it divides the world," Rundgren says with authority. "We're at a point in time where people are formulating their attitudes about this. But you could say that it's more or less like in the '40s, before everyone had multiple televisions in their houses. Everyone had to go through the decision of 'Do I want a television in the house? Am I happy with radio?' In the early days of any technology, there is a degree of primitiveness in the tools and the way that things work in general. Before cable, it just depended which direction you had your rabbit ears pointed. We're in a phase where this is something of an audience divider, no matter which audience it is. There are those who have come to the realization that this is the next entertainment appliance and that you really need to have one and get comfortable with using it. I'm over 50 now, and a lot of my fans are in the same generation, and when people get old, they don't like to learn new things."

New things are at the very heart of Rundgren's newest career phase. With the increasing accessibility of music via the Internet as downloadable MP3 files, the landscape seems to be changing more every day, and Rundgren is the beneficiary of that technology.

"It is the beginning of a new paradigm and the end of the old one, in a sense," Rundgren says. "Record labels have come to realize that, although they may not be completely up to speed, this is the future of music. That people are going to shop for and download and duplicate and reproduce music without ever leaving their homes. That, from my standpoint, is a great thing. There are any number of inducements that you have to give people to get them into a record store to buy your record. If any one of those things break down, you have no transaction. If you don't get on radio or MTV, they don't even know there's a record there to get. If your local store doesn't order the record and put it in the shelves in some logical place, then you're not going to get it when you go to the store. The advantages that online delivery brings to the artist are obvious. The advantages to the record labels are the thorny issues right now. They don't understand the mechanisms at work, but it's a completely different model from what they're used to, which is manufacturing and distributing piece goods."

On the day that Todd Rundgren makes his latest appearance in Cincinnati, he will also celebrate his 51st birthday. Of the limited-date tour, Rundgren promises a cornucopia of Toddiana.

"Something old, something new, something borrowed and blue," Rundgren says with a laugh. "I wanted to give everyone another opportunity to see the With a Twist show (Rundgren's Lounge versions of his own catalog), since it was such a well-received, popular presentation. But because the tour isn't going on very long, just a couple of short legs, I didn't want to mount the entire production. So we have a sort of stripped down version of that. And then we're also our own opening act — we're going to do some pretty much straight-ahead guitar music, including a bunch of new songs."

It seems strange to talk about almost mundane subjects like a tour and Rundgren's upcoming production schedule in the face of his monumental contributions to the way music will be perceived and consumed in the 21st century. But touring and producing have always been the meal tickets that have allowed the other aspects of Rundgren's career to flourish. So fans of Rundgren's more traditional pursuits will celebrate this new tour experience and his upcoming summer boardwork for ex-Cincinnati/current Minneapolis band 12 Rods and Punk legends Bad Religion.

When the subject turns to his work on the just-released Splender album, Halfway Down the Sky, Rundgren takes the opportunity to vent a bit more on the industry.

"Since I'm so far from the mainland, I never hear mainland radio," he says. "I never knew what was going on with it, and we finished that record over a year ago. One of the things about the record business that drives me nuts is I never knew when the record was coming out. That kind of thing just drives me berserk. I've tried to just not pay attention to it. I never have a whole lot of faith in even the sure things, because there are so many variable involved. I watch with curiosity what evolves out of it. I hope the band does well, but I don't know."

It is easily one of the few things that Rundgren doesn't know. To look at his 30-plus years of survival and accomplishment in the music business is to believe in his past. To hear him talk about the changing face of music in the immediate future is to believe in that future. Although Todd Rundgren lives in the present just like the rest of us, he knows that the future is no more than a mouse click away.

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