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By most standards, the music industry has treated Todd Rundgren well. His recordings have been put out by major labels since the late Sixties, and while not all of them were hits, the sales of those that could be described as such have sustained him through the inevitable career downturns. Moreover, his studio expertise has won for him a number of plum producing assignments over the years--enough to easily fill an entire CD (Todd Rundgren: An Elpee's Worth of Productions, issued by Rhino in 1992). Among the artists with whom Rundgren has worked: the New York Dolls, Patti Smith, XTC, Denver's own Jill Sobule and Meat Loaf, whose 1977 release Bat Out of Hell is the most commercially successful platter with which Rundgren has been associated. In short, Rundgren has far less to gripe about in terms of corporate screw jobs than do many of his contemporaries. But that doesn't stop him from doing just that. Ask the man some people still insist upon calling "Runt" about the way business is done in the music game and you'll get an eloquent earful.
"The record company takes 80 percent or more of the commerce that goes into any project," he says from his new home in Hawaii. "And then they impose all of the business-related things like inventory management on both the artist and the audience. They can help some records go gold that might not under other circumstances, but it costs so much money to drive them to that level that the artist is left with far less than he deserves to receive. And in the end, the people who buy the album aren't necessarily the ideal audience for it. Audiences, as we all know, can be very fickle."
Such complaints are not new. But while most artists are content to grumble about inequities without doing anything to eliminate them, Rundgren, who's always been something of a Don Quixote, is not one to wait idly for someone else to cure these ills. He's come up with an Internet-based scheme to revolutionize the marketing and promotion of music, and he plans to use himself as a guinea pig.
"What I would like to do first of all," he begins, "is to eliminate most of the middlemen between me and my audience. And the Web allows me to do that. Secondly, I want to set up a different relationship between me and them in terms of the commerce that goes on--that being that my patronage would no longer come by way of a record company. Instead, it would come directly from the people who want to hear the music or experience any of the other things I do that go along with it. They would essentially subscribe to me like a magazine, and then I would deliver 'product' to them on a regular basis. So rather than having to wait a year and a half or two years until I finish a whole record, I'll deliver music to them as I create it. That will give them the advantage of freshness, as it were. And because my overhead will be drastically reduced, that will allow me to survive on a much smaller audience."
To understate the case considerably, this is an ambitious notion that brings along with it no guarantee of success. Entrepreneurs are flocking to the World Wide Web, but few of them are getting rich, in large part because a generation of computer users has grown up believing that information on the Internet should be free and available to all. But if anyone can pull off such a ploy, it's Rundgren, who has never been allergic to new technology. He was on the music-video bus almost from the beginning: His clip for the tune "Time Heals" was the second ever to appear on MTV (following the Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star"). In addition, he is credited with developing the first digital paint program for personal computers; he licensed his creation to Apple way back in 1981. Twelve years later Rundgren offered up No World Order, an interactive CD that allowed listeners to use his songs as component parts with which they could make music of their own. He followed up this experiment with 1995's The Individualist, which was among the first albums to be released exclusively as a CD-plus--meaning that it operated both as a standard CD and as an elaborate CD-ROM.
Thanks to such ventures, Rundgren has built for himself a computer-friendly base of fans who will not be freaked out by his new ideas. Far from it: The Web has become a haven for the "Todd Is God" crowd. "The TR Connection," at http://www. roadkill.com/todd/trconnor, is a prime example--an absolutely mammoth computer site obsessively dedicated to anything and everything Rundgren has done, is doing or ever will do. Rundgren is familiar with the enterprise, noting that "it makes me a little self-conscious, which is why I don't actually hang out that much around it. People wonder, 'Is Todd going to pay attention?' and stuff like that. So it's probably better that I observe from afar and not get too into it. There is a flattering aspect to it, but you don't want it to encroach on your work process. It can make you feel good to realize that these people are spending so much time thinking about you, but it can also make it hard to create."