Sitting Down With The President, Part 2

Alan Meerow

The second part of our conversation with Spirit of Harmony Foundation founder and president, Todd Rundgren.

AM: Craft and inspiration seem to be kind of the twins of not just musical creativity, but other kinds of muses. You’ve talked about how Laura Nyro influenced your early solo work, and she was kind of the catalyst for my rediscovery of your solo music after being a huge Nazz fan in my teens.  And I’m just wondering where you find inspiration in the 21st century?

TR: I actually think because of the way that the music business has become decentralized and that the pace of technology has or had accelerated so fast, the combination of not being able to get a label deal is sort of solved by the idea that now you don’t need a label, that you have a decent laptop, you get yourself some software, a microphone and interface, and you can sit in your bedroom all day long and make music and refine your chops. When you’re satisfied with something you put it on YouTube and if it’s of any interest to people, word-of-mouth will drive up the hit count. And at that point who needs the record label? The only thing you haven’t done is monetize it yet. And so what you have to do is what musicians have done since time immemorial; you have to go out and play it, because music is a service not a product. And technology has evolved to the point that this has just become plainly obvious. People buy their music online from online service, and fewer and fewer people actually feel the need to have the physical artifact that contains the sound. Essentially you are getting your music pre-ripped [laughs].

AM: Yeah, my children – that is how they listen to music.

TR: And if you get yourself a service like Napster or something like that, you can pay ten bucks a month and listen to all music you want. So, things have certainly evolved in that regard. And I know acts who have never and have no intention of ever signing with a conventional record label. They make all their money on merchandise and live performances which they advertise with their YouTube videos. So an act like that, that’s the only way you can experience them.  You can’t go out and buy their music. They don’t even sell CDs at the merch table.

AM: So is it some of these younger musicians doing it that way that sort of influences you these days in some way?

TR: No, actually this was something that I was notorious for taking note of back in the early nineties. Everyone was talking — it was an Internet conference — and everyone was talking about “how do we monetize the Internet, how do we make money off the Internet,” because they had yet to have commerce systems and things like that. It was actually the good old days of the Internet, where everything was kind of like … mostly academic and information based and stuff like that. HTML was essentially a magazine publishing paradigm: how do you make something look like a printed page screen.  And I went to a conference that was essentially about trying to figure out how people could turn it into a business, which obviously turned out to be an unfortunate thing [laughs].  I got the idea and talked about at the time, the idea of eliminating record labels from the process.  And that’s when I came up with the idea of PatroNet.  Essentially you go directly to the people who want to hear your music and ask them to underwrite you directly.  Because that’s all the record label was doing anyway. They were advancing you the money they expected to get from your fans.  The fans never gave you money directly. And there may have been some illusion in there, but essentially the record label is the bank.

AM: Why do you think it faded? I was a charter subscriber and a frequent visitor and there seemed to be just something so difficult about making it happen.  Was it the time, the age, the state of technology?

Todd Rundgren directing at rehearsal for the Sound of Music highlights show at his Tyrolean Getaway. Photo by Marilyn Baird.

TR: A lot of it was the time and the state of development that the Internet was in. There were issues that no one had actually dealt with. There were issues of security, personal privacy, trying to create a space that only people who belonged in the space would be in.  And all the while that this is going on everything underneath is constantly changing. You can’t do it just for Apple, you can’t do it just for Microsoft. You have to do for both. Both are changing all the time, and versions of software that you depend on, may also be changing all the time. Whenever that happens everything goes – if you know anything about programming, everything goes nuts after that and you have to start over and rebuild a brand-new application. That in combination with my early experiences with the social aspect of what I created, the ability to chat and create bulletin boards. It revealed a problem that I had not quite foreseen and did not have a solution for: the troll, the person who behaves in a way they would never behave in the flesh, but now with this isolation and protection, they just do evil things. They attack other people; they pretend to be other people, they pull scams, that sort of thing. You give people free rein to essentially get into the social space without actually checking anyone at the door [chuckles] and then you wind up having to do a policing job after that, you know, you’re fielding complaints from people, tracking down, monitoring, booting people off then if they’re persistent and evil enough, they’ll just invent another personality, join again and it won’t be long before they start their nefarious stuff. Some of the worst of it is when someone thinks they’re the most authoritative fan: “No that’s not what he’s thinking, I know what he’s thinking,” [chuckles], that kind of thing.  They think they’re in my head and will lecture everybody else about it. So at a certain point, the combination of that, the combination of constantly trying to keep up technologically — and I was doing it pretty much all myself. It just broke down under the weight. Actually, something killed it. I sold it to another company and I was supposed to essentially manage it and further its development and that sort of thing, but the company ultimately wasn’t interested in it so much as they were completely ignorant about [laughs] how things should be done. So they bought it, ultimately sat on it, didn’t do anything with it for like a year or more. I asked for it back, they said “Okay, you can have it back,” but by that point, you know, it had been off-line for a long time. Getting it back online would have been just more energy and expertise that I would bring to bear. So it isn’t that it couldn’t possibly happen again, but it would have to happen with enough resources to build it and maintain it, and with specific solutions to some of those other problems. Security and privacy, there are lots of solutions for that nowadays.

AM: Do you think you’d be interested in revisiting it or has that bird flown?

TR: Only if I didn’t have to do any of it myself, if I could just say this should look this way, this should behave this way, that sort of thing. It was an incredibly ambitious thing. It was supposed to be built in its own language, essentially, so that anyone could extend it, anyone could build more. Java was in there; Java was part of the technologies so it originally started with Macromedia Director, ’cause Macromedia Director was essentially a multimedia presentation tool with a plug-in structure so you could extend its capability.

AM: I remember it and briefly tried to learn it, but just gave up.

TR: Yeah, and it evolved, it changed into different things. But essentially it’s drag-and-drop things on the page, assign actions to them, that sort of thing. Then Adobe bought Macromedia, and all development on the programs stopped. And I’m not sure if they sell it anymore, but they have not developed it at all. And it’s gone to the point that there’s no user base for it anymore. So I moved on to a different thing. Originally Apple had a program called HyperCard, and that was the same sort of thing except the paradigm was postcards or three-by-five cards. And essentially you could drag-and-drop graphics onto it, and type, and things like that. You’d get specific actions when somebody clicked on something like “jump to card five” or something like that, they had transitions built in, so it was more like TV.  Part of the idea was that instead … everything when I started putting it together, was still an HTML print model. I thought I wanted to make something that is like a television model, you don’t have crap like controls and crap all around on the TV screen; the entire screen is devoted to what you’re supposed to be watching, so all of that navigation stuff was kind of like hidden.  You had to roll over a corner or something like that. You would find the navigator or the combadge.  And it did a pretty good job at that, of changing the metaphor. But again, things were evolving. One of the other things that it did was sort of like a local caching scheme because people at the time had 1440 modems. Nobody had high-speed Internet. There was no such thing as wireless Internet [chuckles].

AM: You just dialed in…

TR: That was it; it was all dial-up.  And so, you sent people a lot of data. Every time they went to the same location, you’re gonna be looking at the timer, depending on how good a connection they got.  So essentially the system was smart enough to know this was the first time that you were using the resources on this particular channel, and it would download them to a local cache, so that the next time you went to the same location, you wouldn’t have to wait, it would come up instantly. A lot of that has become more moot as well. All of this would affect a new potential design. The fact that you can more or less depend on people having some kind of high-speed Internet access.

AM: Turning to certain aspects of your musical legacy — the Runt LPs.  I think you know they inhabit kind of a sacred space for a lot of us, but it seems that you’ve been very selective about which songs from from those two records you will perform live.  I’m thinking in particular of ones that I’ve never heard you perform, such as “Baby Let’s Swing, Boat On The Charles, Hope I’m Around, Birthday Carol.”

TR: Because indeed I’ve never performed them.

AM: Is that the reason why at this point?

TR: Part of it is that my solo career started out as a sideline.  After the Nazz, I went to work for Albert Grossman and became a record producer and engineer.  But I continued to write songs, and at one point I had enough songs and musical ideas and I had been successful enough for the Albert Grossman organization that I asked them if I could go make a record, because making records is what I do, and they said okay.  And I delivered the record, and I thought “Ooo, is this gonna be a wreck!” I didn’t expect any hits off of it.  It was intended to just be a listening experience, but accidentally had a minor hit single, “We Got To Get You A Women” on it.  And when that happened, I was encouraged to put some musicians together, go out and try and play, and front a band, which I had never done before. And I just had a horrible time singing live. I had not learned how to sing. I can punch myself in in the studio [chuckles], a note at a time, and create a performance, but as far as going on the road and singing twenty minutes straight, by the end of that my voice is gone, and then I’m just like rasping for the next twenty minutes. So eventually I learned to get over that, but that all happened in a period — the first two records —  that all happened in a period when I was not confident as a performer in the first place, so likely only performed the things that were easiest. There was still a lot of the Nazz guitar player in me. I never played piano live in those years. I did not have the confidence to play piano live, so a song like “Be Nice To Me” or something like that, didn’t get played because I couldn’t play the piano part live and sing. And as a result, certain songs have just never been performed, and I’ve never felt inspired to go back and learn them again so that I could.  ‘Cause I just got way more material than I could ever fit in a set.

AM: That’s certainly true!

Next week: “There are fakers in every genre. There are people who just do it by formula. They don’t try and inject any sort of creativity, originality, or even true emotionality into it.”

Part 1.


Alan Meerow works as a tropical plant research biologist in Florida and is the managing editor of the Spirit of Harmony Foundation blog pages.