Rundgren: Musicians Will "Fish" for Fans on the Internet

In the age before recordings, music was a service business. Composers wrote for their patrons, and musicians performed for money. In the days since Edison's inventions, music has become a commodity business in which record companies stockpile large inventories and attempt to move them into the market of music lovers through a dense network of distributors and retailers. For established artists, the service aspect of music---playing for pay---now exists primarily to support the commodity business. For developing artists, public performance is a form of self-promotion to aid the search for a recording contract.

Todd Rundgren believes the Internet will change all that. Speaking last week in San Francisco at the New Minds Forum, and addressing the question "Can Technology Have Soul?," the musician and self-taught computer whiz opined that a utility model, like telephone or electrical service, is more appropriate for delivering music. "What's killing record companies and artists is inventory. You can't predict how many albums will sell," Rundgren said. What would make more sense for both musicians and music lovers, he believes, is to "pay for what you use." He suggests that Internet-savvy fans might be able to support their favorite artists and somehow participate in the creation of new art---as patrons of the arts did during the Renaissance.

Rundgren has designed a browser to give his fans direct access to him and his developing work, and claims that it will work for any artist who wants to spend more time on music and less time on promotion. Known as Patronet, the system will work with a 28.8 modem, and won't require cutting-edge equipment or advanced technical knowledge for users to enjoy the music. "People can watch you create the music and be the first to hear it," he said, acknowledging the eagerness of fans to be the first on the block with their favorite artists' new music. "Freshness is the product. People will pay for that."

He mentioned that, at the end of the collaborative creative process, a CD could be made that would then be marketed by music companies, but it wouldn't "matter how many they sell. I already made the money before I made the music."

Rundgren's proposal would appear to have some potential to free established musicians from indentured servitude to record companies, but it isn't clear how this would help the record companies. They have always been in the business of selling hard goods in (hoped-for) high volume. Although they do take chances on unknown artists, and lose money on those who don't catch on with the public, the financial trickle that rewards successful artists is secondary to the river of cash inundating a record company with a major hit album. The retailers and record companies take the bulk of the profits (if any), and the performers get what's left. Under Rundgren's model, very popular music distributed directly to fans could prove to be more lucrative for musicians and less costly for fans than it has been traditionally.

But without the record companies' promotional machinery, million-sellers aren't likely to happen. Not on the Web, Rundgren admitted, using the metaphor of "fishing" as a more appropriate concept for how musicians and listeners will connect over the Internet. "You put out a nice piece of chum and wait for people to find it," Rundgren said. "It can hang there all year long."