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I Want My MP3

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But there is one artist who isn't waiting for big companies to run their tests and focus groups, as the number of people getting online doubles every three months.

Todd Rundgren's Website (www.tr-i.com) comes from the man who is among the most technological-minded of musicians. (He even authored the first Paint program for Apple.) It's an entirely new online-music business model. Fans of the man behind "Hello It's Me" and "Bang the Drum All Day" can subscribe to underwrite the artist's future music endeavors, which all come under the umbrella of a company called Patronet (as in patronage). There are different packages (online music, offline music, book, and video) that cost in the $10 to $40 range. After ponying up the dough, Rundgren's followers can preview and download music he is working on and participate in online chats with him and communicate closely with an artist who understands and appreciates the way this new medium can be used.

The site uses a specially designed Web browser. And as Rundgren explained soon after the site went online last fall, his goals are partially commercial. "A record company does not develop a more or less permanent connection with the core following [of an artist]," he says. Underwriting, he continues, "is a radically different model in that [the way a relationship with a record company works] is like going to the bank, borrowing a bunch of money to make the record, and then paying it back at an onerous rate."

Instead of going into debt to a record label, Rundgren keeps his costs low by being paid in advance, allowing him to stay in the black even before pressing a CD. "If my rate of subscription remains the same, I'll be doing better than I would have done with a record label, and it's [still only] a relatively minuscule fraction of the potential audience."

The way Rundgren sees it, record companies need to get consumers away from the idea that they go to the store and buy music; they should be converting people to the thought that music is disposable and temporary, like music on the radio. Computers and the Internet, Rundgren says, will allow people to call up whatever music they want on demand, instead of having to keep all of their favorites at home. It's a long-term vision, Rundgren admits, but he thinks of his site as a giant step in that direction.

Instead of having records manufactured and then distributed to stores, where visibility and availability lie in the hands of the retailers, Rundgren suggests that industry people "should be thinking, 'Let's put all of our stuff on a server somewhere, and we'll sell it as it leaves the server.'" Music will eventually become a service in the way cable television is a service, he says; you'll pay by the month for the privilege of listening to any music that you want.

Removing some of the distance between himself and his fans has had unexpected side effects. "It is an awakening of a certain kind for artists to suddenly deal directly with their most devoted fans. You discover how great they are and how screwy they are at the same time. Some of your best fans turn out to be your worst enemy in some regard," he says with a laugh. "It may give [the artists] the desire to go back to the old way of doing things."

But the interaction between the musicians and their fans is precisely what makes the Rundgren model appealing and feasible. Country musicians have known for years that a strong connection with their fans is what can sustain a career. Rock musicians have treated fans a little bit differently, but what Rundgren's model offers is a way for his fans to feel like he cares about them, that they have a unique connection.

And even though Rundgren is an iconoclastic figure, his model could work for other artists, and he is considering bringing others on board. Much in the same way indie-folkster Ani DiFranco has controlled her career, a new artist could theoretically develop a fan base on the Web through the Patronet system and never go into debt.

Still, as the record industry struggles to resolve how it wants to approach the Net, Rundgren can't help but be skeptical of the results. "The Web is already considered to be threatening enough to the music business that they are slapping together hasty solutions," he says. "I don't think record companies are yet on top of it. I don't think they yet understand the potential and how quickly it can become realized, because a year ago they didn't realize that they were going to have a losing lawsuit over the distribution of digital music. Suddenly they were required to completely rethink their position.

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David Simutis

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