Extra! Extra! Subscribe To Todd Rundgren!

Musician/programmer Rundgren, in speech at Webnoize conference Nov. 3, described his subcription service as way to bypass record labels.

LOS ANGELES -- To hear pop-rock singer Todd Rundgren tell it, he is at least a year ahead of the rest of the music industry.

That rather confident assertion, which he made at the podium at the online-music industry conference Webnoize here Nov. 3, refers to the singer's online subscription service, launched three months ago, with which Rundgren claims he's successfully eliminated the middleman between himself and his fans by enabling fans to buy from him directly.

But he said he isn't stopping there.

It was at a similar online-music industry conference two years ago that Rundgren first discussed his plans to allow consumers to underwrite an artist's work directly by subscribing to the artist online. But at that time, the musician and programmer -- known for his solo hits such as 1972's "I Saw the Light" (RealAudio excerpt), his leadership of the fusion group Utopia and his numerous production credits (New York Dolls, XTC) -- was still far away from realizing that goal and launching his service, dubbed PatroNet (www.tr-i.com).

"This is no longer a blue-sky proposition," said Rundgren, who had his black hair streaked with blonde and was dressed in jeans and a T-shirt.

Via PatroNet, music fans commit to buying an artist's products by paying a subscriber's fee, which ranges from $25 to $60 per year. The product -- which may be a recording or a written portion of Rundgren's autobiography -- is then delivered to subscribers directly as it is produced, thus bypassing standard retail distribution, eliminating middlemen and avoiding the inventory costs that burden traditional record labels. "The service isn't anti-label but anti-inventory," Rundgren said.

Former Throwing Muses singer Kristin Hersh also recently launched a subscription service, "Works in Progress." Fans pay $15 a year to download 12 of Hersh's unreleased songs in near-CD quality MP3 format.

Rundgren's appearance at Webnoize '98 came at the end of the second day of a three-day conference (Nov. 2-4) held at the Sheraton Universal Hotel in Los Angeles. Focusing on the convergence of music and the new-media industries, the event consisted of keynote speeches, panel discussions, presentations and company showcases; it featured forerunners of the online-music industry as speakers.

For the time being, the 50-year-old Rundgren is using himself as a guinea pig and marketing only his own video, audio and written material through his service. But come January, he said, he will announce the signing of "three to five" more artists to the service. Though he refused to name names, he added after his speech that the additions will be pop artists who "have had success before, but are not necessarily successful now."

He plans to add unknown artists later, since they require different marketing techniques from an artist like himself, with a loyal following seeking out his material.

"A lot of artists are never going to get a label deal, so the only way they're going to [make a living] is to do something like this," Rundgren said. Though he said he wasn't sure what approach he'll use to draw subscribers to new artists, Rundgren added that a key factor is convincing consumers that they have the power to break artists by buying their music directly.

PatroNet subscriber Thom Williams, the creative director of the digital-arts and communications website DigArtz.com, wrote in an e-mail that he plans on marketing his own music through the service. "I truly believe it's the future direction of the music business," the 39-year-old Williams, who is based in Sarasota, Fla., said. "No longer can record-company executives with no musical talent or skills control what music is produced and released. Money and lawyers will no longer be the guiding force of what is distributed."

Without providing numbers, Rundgren said he has made twice as much money through his subscription service in three months than he did on his last record deal. He added that he has yet to actively promote the service.

During his speech, Rundgren offered several colorful asides about the current state of the music world, including a comment that music fans today hear "hipper music in a Volkswagen commercial than on the radio."

Toward the end of the speech, Rundgren responded to a question about how he plans to handle copyright protection by saying he saw it as unnecessary, because being a pop artist essentially means being a thief. "It wouldn't be commercial if they didn't steal it from someone else," he said. "The demand for copyright protection means that they're uncreative and afraid this is going to be the last song they'll ever write."

Rundgren's website is called "The Artist Formerly Known as Todd Rundgren," in obvious reference to The Artist Formerly Known as Prince. The Ex-Prince (born Prince Rogers Nelson) also has marketed his work directly to his fans, first by traditional mail order and subsequently online. Though fans' reactions to the direct-sales tactic were mixed, The Artist has called it a success in that most of the profit has gone directly to him and his camp rather than to a separate business entity.