Todd Rundgren has never liked playing follow the leader; he's always a step ahead of the pack. His transformation from multifaceted rocker to multimedia techno-head reached fruition in 1993, when he composed, produced and performed the world's first interactive audio-only CD-ROM, "No World Order."
He went a step further last year with "The Individualist," the first title ever released exclusively on CD+, a format that allows PC and Macintosh users to view graphics and other visuals.
The 48-year-old Pennsylvania native--who fronted the '60s pop band the Nazz and later the progressive rock group Utopia--also has been hosting his own weekly radio program, "The Difference," and developing computer software. He continues to write, record and produce music and will play a solo show at the Galaxy Concert Theatre in Santa Ana on Sunday night.
Perhaps his most exciting--and certainly his most potentially controversial--project calls for no less than turning the recording industry on its head. Rundgren says it is time to forgo the middleman (a.k.a. record labels) and to start taking music directly to the people.
"With things like the Internet, I'm asking the question: 'Is a record company necessary at this point?' " he said this week, on the phone from his home on Kauai. "I can get connected directly to the people who want to hear what I do, and the tools are accessible enough to most artists that they can make their own records. They can then distribute them through the connectivity mechanisms of the Net.
"What I'm gonna be doing, probably early next year, is offering subscriptions to myself, so people can patronize me directly. Instead of me getting a big chunk of money from the record company and gambling on whether or not the record will ultimately pay back that advance, the audience will decide up front if they care to support my efforts. They'll subscribe to me like they would to Sports Illustrated or whatever, and I'll know what kind and size of audience I have.
"If the idea and product become very popular, and there's too much demand too fast, that could cause some frustration and problems," he added. "But infrastructure problems of speed and accessibility are things that are being aggressively dealt with by computer industry people. Like anything else, I think the only long-term issue is whether or not the customers will get the quality of product they expect."
Which is to say, the quality of his music.
"My songs are an attempt to be honest about where I'm at, and what I'm thinking about, at a particular point in time," he said. "When I started out, I was writing about relationships between people and the heartache that that involves. When you're young and alone, you're more interested in your own personal situation.
"But now that I'm older, the focus has shifted away from me and onto the societal and institutional forces that can be destructive to the people I care about. My thoughts and emotions now are mostly tied to the frustration and rage I feel about the present situation of the world, which is not good."
So, though he still performs his early hits, the love-won-and-lost themes of such Todd tunes as "We Gotta Get You a Woman," "Hello It's Me" and "I Saw the Light" have given way in his writing to larger, more threatening issues.
On "The Individualist" (released under the moniker of "TR-i" for "Todd Rundgren--interactive"), he examines social, cultural and political breakdowns. In "If Not Now, When?," "Temporary Sanity" and the title track, Rundgren--who has three sons, ranging in age from 5 to 16--wonders what kind of world we're leaving to our kids. And in "Cast the First Stone," he lashes out against the moral hypocrisy he sees in many political and religious leaders.
He plans on performing some of "The Individualist" at the Galaxy on Sunday. But that could change.
"The live thing is an opportunity to expose myself to my own material, in a way," he said. "Art is an act of self-examination, of reassessing the truth of things in a public forum. I've abandoned using a set list [of songs] because I can only decide what feels honest and real to play as the show evolves.
"There's certainly a visual component to this show, but it's really more like revisiting the concerts I did in the mid-80s, using just a grand piano, guitars and some small-scale technical support. I'm more of a cyber-troubadour, which means I can pack up all my instruments and high-tech gear into just a couple of cases."
* Todd Rundgren plays Sunday at the Galaxy Concert Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana. 8 p.m. $25-$27. (714) 957-0600.