Todd Rundgren knows a thing or two about music. Not only is he a talented multi-instrumentalist and songwriter, but he is also an incredibly gifted sound engineer and producer, having worked on some of the most acclaimed albums of his day, including The Band’s 1970 record Stage Fright. When Patti Smith inducted him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – the ceremony of which refused to attend – she spoke of his dizzying levels of confidence in the studio: “He would tell The Band, ‘If you know what you want, I will help you,” Smith said. “If you don’t know what you want, I’ll do it for you.’”
This self-belief saw Rundgren adopt several new technologies before very early in the game. As well as producing music videos – recognising their innate commercial and artistic potential – he also promoted the use of computer technology to revolutionise the music industry. The interviews Rundgren participated in at this time show how an astonishing level of insight into how the industry was changing. After all, he was going to need a firm grasp on the ins and outs of the industry, if he wanted to push it into the future.
During a 1993 interview with Spin, for example, Rundgren said: “When I got into the music business in the late ’60s, it was totally different. People our age always go around saying, ‘Wasn’t the music better back then?’ The whole industry was different then. When I first got into it, when I got out of high school back in 1966, the Beatles were just hitting their peak and people were beginning to realise that there was some degree of legitimacy in the music business. Nobody went out expecting to be a musician for the rest of his or her life. The whole industry expanded so fast, there was this gold rush thing. A pivotal moment was Frampton Comes Alive!, when there was such a thing as a multiplatinum album. Everything had to be multiplatinum.”
While much of it stood in opposition to capitalist ideology, the music of the countercultural era was quickly exploited by the hungry capitalists at the top of the music industry, meaning that artists became valued not for the quality of their output but for their ability to sell records. In this sense, Rundgren implies, the modern music industry is founded on a self-devouring impulse. “The whole blockbuster concept, after which the record companies are no longer independent. They get bought up by larger corporations and get run out of the country. Van Morrison? He’s selling 50,000 albums? Drop him. Doesn’t matter if someone is a musical icon anymore. They get judged solely on the basis of their record sales.”
By the 1990s, Rundgren found himself within an industry that bore very little resemblance to the one he’d started out in. Describing the state of music in 1993, he offered this remarkable insight: “What happened eventually was that it was shot way out the other end, that music had very little to do with it. Did you see The Player? The whole scene where they’re talking about eliminating the writer and then, ultimately, well, if we could just figure out how to get rid of the director and the actor.
“The whole music business has been moving that way, and that’s why you have phenomena such as Madonna and Michael Jackson, where the music is the souvenir of the experience. The value in and of itself is like buying a T-shirt. You have to know it so you can discuss with some acuity Madonna’s latest outrage at a cocktail party.”