Todd Man Out
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."
That's seldom been a problem for Rundgren: His mind cranks out fresh concepts like Oscar Mayer makes franks. Not all of his brainstorms deserve plaudits, and it can be credibly argued that the music he's made throughout the Nineties has been far less interesting than the innovative ways in which he's presented it. But even those who dismiss his current songwriting efforts should be pleased by his refusal to jump on the nostalgia bandwagon with, among others, Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey and John Entwistle. "I prefer to focus on material that I haven't played before," he says in describing his latest tour. "And while there'll also be some of my so-called standards, I don't commit to what I'll play on any particular night--and I obviously never commit to performing a certain musical albatross that's hung around my neck all these years." When asked if said albatross could be "Hello, It's Me," Rundgren's 1973 solo smash, he laughs. "Could it be? What else could it be?"
It's unfortunate that so many observers reduce Rundgren's history to a single ballad--one that, quite frankly, isn't among his better pieces. After all, his transformation into what he kiddingly describes as "a cyber-troubador" is only the most recent of his many incarnations. Born in Philadelphia, Rundgren first came to the public's attention as part of the Nazz, a group with Beatles-esque pop instincts and some pretty good songs, including "Open My Eyes." ("Hello, It's Me" dates from the Nazz era.) When the group busted up, Rundgren landed at the Bearsville label, where he became the house producer and engineer. Between sessions with other artists, he assembled Runt, his 1970 solo debut. The platter was tuneful and fairly unpretentious (especially in comparison with much that would follow), as was his next effort, 1971's The Ballad of Todd Rundgren. But the package that established Rundgren as a pop wunderkind was 1972's Something/Anything, a double album that he pretty much put together by his lonesome; three of its four sides feature no one other than him. Given the wildly eclectic nature of its material, this epic should have fallen flatter than Kate Moss's chest, but somehow Rundgren pulled it off. There aren't many two-record sets that work from top to bottom: Something/Anything is one that does.
In the years since then, Rundgren has done his best to surpass his magnum opus, and while he's never quite managed to do so, he should be commended for refusing to play it safe. In the mid-Seventies he formed a band, Utopia, that paid homage to the synthesizer; too bad albums such as the 1977 clunker RA provided such a cogent argument for the outlawing of art rock. (The best Utopia platter remains 1980's Deface the Music, a Beatles tribute/parody so precise it makes the Rutles seem like pikers by comparison.) Rundgren's solo recordings, meanwhile, became so insular and idiosyncratic that all but the most committed fans moved on to other things. Still, his finer accomplishments--such as 1978's Hermit of Mink Hollow and 1983's The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect (featuring the ballpark favorite "Bang the Drum All Day")--reminded those who were still paying attention that Rundgren, undisciplined and mercurial though he was, could make wonderfully entertaining music when he put his mind to it.
Problem was, Rundgren's mind was generally busy thinking about other things--like change. Following Utopia's 1986 dissolution, he made a slew of albums (1989's Nearly Human and 1991's 2nd Wind among them) that had little in common other than Rundgren's name on their covers. Consumers soon began to turn away from his work in droves, but rather than retrenching, Rundgren threw himself headlong into the world of computers, quite accidentally reviving his career in the process. He sees the increased attention his latest albums have received as an argument against turning back the clock. "I don't feel any temptation to do that, because I don't think it would increase the size of my audience," he says. "Actually, only my recent forays into contemporary music have even stemmed the bleeding and introduced a less conservative audience to what I've been doing. Even though what most people want to talk to me about is the ways that I create music or the new ways that I envision it being experienced, it's only because of those areas that anyone under the age of thirty knows about my music."
As for those over thirty, they were recently reminded of Rundgren's continued existence by The Difference, a nationally syndicated radio program that he began hosting more than a year ago. Although the series doesn't air in Colorado, it's been added to the lineups of more than thirty U.S. stations, most of which fall into the Adult Album Alternative, or Triple-A, category. But several weeks ago Rundgren decided to sever his relationship with the show. As he tells it, the program was originally intended to introduce people who'd gotten out of the habit of exploring unfamiliar musical styles to the wonderful variety of sounds being made these days. But while his vision earned The Difference plenty of critical acclaim (including a Billboard magazine nomination as "Rock Radio Show of the Year"), it didn't endear Rundgren to program directors.
"When we started, we realized we were playing to a format," he concedes. "It's not an ideal format, but it's better than some in terms of exposing the world of music--so we decided to start off slowly in the hopes of evolving into something more adventurous. That was why we called it The Difference--because we wanted to be more adventurous than the affiliates themselves, in the hopes of pushing stations in better directions. But the stations weren't interested in being pushed. Their loyalty is ultimately to advertisers; their survival is dependent upon ad dollars. If Zima is spending money like water--which is what Zima tastes like, by the way--they're doing so because they want to target a particular audience. And anything that might be seen as unappealing to that particular audience is seen as dangerous--which is what we were."
As a result, various stations began demanding that Rundgren homogenize The Difference in ways that he was unwilling to even consider. "Essentially, it got to be where there were more and more cooks instead of fewer and fewer cooks. Things began to deteriorate seriously over the summer, and I finally just said enough is enough. I said, 'If I can't play a broader range of music--if I can't play jazz or Latin or Tex-Mex or zydeco or hip-hop or really heavy metal or anything that I feel like playing without garnering complaints, then fuck it.'
"In the end, I refused to be dragged around by parochial local concerns," he adds. "And it's those concerns that are already killing any potential that Triple-A might have had. Nobody stuck with the format long enough to peel off the smart, younger audience that should have been interested in it. Instead, they began regurgitating the same old things. They figured that people were less interested in something that might have broadened their views than they were in Bad Company--or in Hootie & the Blowfish, which is just plain old dreck. That represents the complete antithesis of what I wanted to do. So if the syndicator wants to keep the show going, he'll have to do it without me."
Don't shed any tears for Rundgren over this disappointment, though; he's so enthusiastic about his Internet project, which he hopes to put into operation during the first quarter of 1997, that he's already put his association with The Difference behind him. He claims not to know what challenge he'll tackle once his computer-generated storefront has opened, but he's certain that something will present itself to him before long.
"I have a short attention span, which tends to be a symptom of younger people," says Rundgren. "As people get older, they usually narrow down their range and start to focus in on certain things. They start to be less open to newer and more radical things and stick to more of a core of set ideas--mostly, I think, because your brain starts to hurt after a while and you just want it to stop. But I've gotten used to the constant racket." He laughs. "In fact, I kind of like it."
Todd Rundgren. 9 p.m. Saturday, November 30, Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax, $18.50, 830-2525 or 1-800-444-
Get the Music Newsletter