Todd Rundgren Musical Web Master
By Mac Randall
The first time I'm scheduled to interview Todd Rundgren over the phone, he's in Boulder, Colorado, one of the many stops on a six-and-a-half-week U.S. tour he's doing with bassist Kasim Sulton and drummer Trey Sabatelli. Or at least that's where he's supposed to be. Ten minutes before the interview's due to begin, Rundgren's tour manager calls me and says apologetically that Todd's not around. Earlier in the day, apparently, he had to high-tail it to Denver for an urgent meeting regarding PatroNet, the pioneering online music subscription service he debuted in 1998, and he's still not back. The tour manager would reschedule the interview for later today or tomorrow, but things'll be a little busy; Todd has requested that he be moved to a different hotel because the current one's phone lines won't give him a fast enough Web connection. The reason why Rundgren's catchy new single is called "I Hate My Frickin' ISP" becomes ever clearer.
A couple days later, he's in Seattle--the same day, coincidentally, that Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson orders the breakup of Microsoft--and this time we're able to get down to business. After some brief discussion of his son, an aspiring baseball player who's been drafted into the major leagues, we talk a bit about One Long Year, his latest album, which collects 10 songs previously available only to PatroNet subscribers. From there, we venture into grander topics, principally the future of music in cyberspace and the attitudinal shifts needed to ensure that musicians can make a living from putting their work online. Todd Rundgren the pop wunderkind, whose classic '70s one-man-band recordings have influenced everyone from Prince to Trent Reznor, is not a major subject. Neither are Todd Rundgren the esteemed producer, whose credits range from XTC's Skylarking to Meat Loaf's Bat Out Of Hell, or Todd Rundgren the dedicated family man, who's Liv Tyler's dad in every sense but the biological one. But Todd Rundgren the tech-head, whose interest in computers and interactive media has been nearly as long and far-reaching as his musical career--now he gets a lot of play. And make no mistake, the man knows what he's talking about.
"In the early '90s," he says, "when I got to the end of what was essentially a 19-year relationship with Warner Bros., I said to myself, 'I'm not going to go around begging some label to give me one- or two-album deals for progressively smaller advances.' That kind of roll of the dice usually doesn't work for artists who've been around that long. Labels don't tend to give older artists a lot of support, and the future looked bleak in that respect. I was already very interested in computers, and so I started looking for ways to apply technology to do things that a label might not let me do."
The eventual result of this experimentation was PatroNet. Putting on his master programmer hat, Rundgren built the service primarily on his own; he didn't deem any existing Web browser secure enough to be used for it and so he created an entirely new and separate non-HTML client environment, which users download once they agree to subscribe. For a set fee that goes directly to Rundgren, PatroNet subscribers get the chance to hear a year's worth of Todd's creative output via exclusive sound files that present music in varying stages of completion. Due to the nature of this service as a form of artist support and the presumed respectfulness of fans who'd subscribe to such a service, file trading and piracy--the current bugaboos of the music industry--are unlikely, though not impossible. If they do occur, it's pretty easy to track down the culprit, since every user is registered. "The idea of PatroNet is to exchange the experience of material outside an album release for support from your most committed fans. I get the resources to actually make music, and the fans get the music but they also get an insight into the process." And they get collector's items; because the songs on One Long Year were remixed for the album, the PatroNet versions of those songs are unique.
In keeping with the PatroNet form--a little of this, a little of that, and who knows what you're going to hear next--the album's something of a hodgepodge, incorporating everything from the aggro powerpop of "ISP" to the techno experimentalism of "Jerk." Eight songs are new, and two are renovations of Todd nuggets: a live solo ukulele version of "Bang The Drum All Day" and a breezy run through "Love Of The Common Man" begun during the sessions for the bossa nova album With A Twist but only finished later. Rundgren explains that since he's not bound by a traditional record contract, he can now communicate with his listeners in a more stream-of-consciousness manner.
"I can't guarantee any schedule of output [in this arrangement]. A musician's life doesn't allow that, so I can't say I'll deliver a tune a month or an album a year. I can certainly pull together enough material to make an album, but it might not be all intended for one specific project. Part of the PatroNet thing is you get to hear stuff that you wouldn't otherwise. If I had a regular record contract, maybe the limitations of that contract wouldn't allow me to redo old material or use stuff that was from other sessions. PatroNet gets the artist out of thinking that everything is intended for the CD form factor. And that form's going to disappear anyway, now that people are getting more into this MP3 individual song mode. People are getting back into collections of songs rather than whole albums.
"The Beatles brought in the era of the album," Rundgren continues. "Before that, people made singles, and once they had enough singles, they'd make an album out of them. I benefited from what the Beatles did in a way, because for most of my career I've been an album artist. So I tended to labor under that tyranny that everything has to be an opus. I think what broke the back [of that tyranny] was the CD, because it essentially doubled the amount of music you needed to fill a record. That's when the quality of music started going down. You couldn't just suddenly become twice as prolific, but you couldn't put out a CD that was 30 minutes long, so the concept of album filler came in. And now music is so ubiquitous that it's no longer a quality time experience; you realize that you can listen to a given record anywhere, so you never make the time to listen to the whole record. It makes people think, 'Why do I want to buy this whole CD? They're charging 18, 20 bucks for the f--kin' thing, and I know I'm only going to ever listen to a couple of songs.'"
As Rundgren sees it, the online universe offers a way out of this unfortunate situation for both artists and consumers, but the music industry is looking at the Web in an outdated way. "A lot of record companies are thinking, 'Oh, now we've gotten people programmed to pay 20 bucks for an album, we can charge 'em two bucks for a song.' Wrong! Absolutely wrong. Now that you don't have the cost of inventory and all that entails--shipping it around through all the capillaries of the retail system, having to buy it back when it doesn't sell, making too many records 'cause you're guessing how many people want them, having to do all the physical promotion when the Web now does all that sh-t for free, people just trading links on high-volume sites that cost nothing--they have to pass that savings on to people. It's not gonna work otherwise. One person will pay two bucks for a song, and 200,000 people will steal it."
Obviously, Rundgren does not advocate stealing music. In fact, when it comes to the raging controversy over Napster, he makes no bones about siding with Metallica and Dr. Dre. "I wasn't surprised at all by the Metallica suit," he says. "They were brave to do it, but they've been brave in a lot of other ways. They allow their fans to tape their shows and trade the tapes; that's fine. But the music they make under contract to their label has to be protected. Everyone's saying, 'Well, it's just the major labels that are complaining,' but the artist gets f--ked over, too. If an artist wants to give their music away for nothing, they should have the freedom to do so. But nobody has the right to declare unilaterally that every artist must give their music away for nothing. There is a schism over this in some sense. Chuck D really thinks Napster is great, but I don't think Chuck D understands the issues. He just wants to come off as a revolutionary because that's his thing. Any musicians who really say, 'Oh yeah, I don't mind Napster' are just being sycophantic to their fans."
This subject gets Rundgren going. "The concept behind Napster is not new," he says. "There's been software around for a while that enabled you to do the same thing. But the crassness of it was what was really original. The Internet has conveyed this ethos to the public at large, and even to people who should know better, that anything you find on the Web is free: you find a way to download it, it's yours and you've done nothing wrong. The fantastic thing about Napster is that they went so far as to found a start-up based on a piracy tool, and nobody involved in this ever thought about the intellectual property issues, even though before you can download Napster you have to check off their licensing agreement. In other words, they know about intellectual property--for themselves. And all these college kids who are saying, 'Oh, music wants to be free,' and who have turned this into such a phenomenon, are all going to go work for companies whose lifeblood will be intellectual property, and who will sue anyone who infringes on that.
"To me," Rundgren says, "the most dangerous thing about Napster is that it makes no distinctions between who's on a big label and who isn't. Some guy just starting now to sell his songs and build an audience on the Web--his music has been devalued to zero, just like the labels have been, because everyone is freely trading his music. The whole attitude that musicians shouldn't have the right to make a living off their music is just...well, it'll kill the revolution. Musicians will not put their music on the Web because they do not want it stolen and given away for free. The thing that will revive the old-fashioned record business and make you continue to have to pay 20 bucks for a CD is Napster."
But there is another possibility for the future. "What's going to happen," Rundgren predicts, "is that music will become an aggregated service, like cable television. You'll just pay a monthly fee and get all the music you want. What has to die is the idea that one song alone is worth anything. Things have to be thought of more in terms of a service." A service, as it happens, not completely unlike PatroNet.
Speaking of which, noted music-biz honcho Danny Goldberg recently made industry waves by buying Rundgren's company and the technology that goes with it. Some observers have expressed surprise at what seems at first glance to be an artist voluntarily giving up his prized independence for filthy lucre, but Rundgren says that he was more than willing to give up this particular type of freedom: "Because before I was basically the only person working on this, I was winding up doing more tech support than content creation. Now that we've finally got most of the pieces in place, that'll mean that I'm freed up to do more music."
More is expected soon from PatroNet: six to 10 artists in addition to Rundgren should be offering subscription service by year's end. Does Rundgren feel any sense of satisfaction about being just slightly ahead of the online music game? "Actually," he chuckles, "this may be one of the few times that I've been in sync with the mean. Usually I'm too far ahead, and I've moved on before the returns start coming in. But if I decide that I want to stay in this area for the next several years, then I think it will have definitely justified the effort I've put into it."
Copyright © 1997-2000 LAUNCH Media, Inc.