Todd Is God (Of Geofenced National Tours)

Rob Shanahan
Multi-hyphenate Todd Rundgren has for more than 50 years developed a legion of diehard fans who’ll follow him anywhere, as well as an ocean of admirers in the music industry for his visionary takes on record production, online music distribution, and now, digital touring with his Chicago-based “Clearly Human” virtual outing.

Todd Rundgren was feeling a tad bit antsy before departing his home in Kauai, Hawaii, for Chicago when Pollstar caught up with him in early February. 

“Man, it’s been a rough fuckin’ year. Pardon my English,” Rundgren said. “You know, we’re all excited and a little concerned. Like, this flight to Chicago will be the first flight that I will be on in a year.” 
The reason for the COVID-be-damned flight to the Windy City was to begin rehearsals for a unique, 25-date “Clearly Human” virtual tour, produced by streaming concert production and ticketing platform NoCap, that launches Feb. 14. 
Rundgren acknowledges that despite COVID-19 still raging, he’s anxious to perform after nearly two years off the road. His band and crew need to get back to work. The fans need engagement. 
As famous as a tech early adopter and for coloring outside the lines as for his music, Rundgren went to work on a solution to the involuntary isolation that safely replicates touring to “visit” cities around the country without leaving a central location.
“Clearly Human” may be the first digital tour of its kind for Rundgren, but it’s not his first time at the livestreaming rodeo. 
With his background in computer programming, Rundgren briefly considered the field after leaving his first band, Nazz, in 1969. He decided to dive into record producing instead, but the lure of technology never left him. He’s a pioneer in the world of internet music delivery, organized the first interactive television concert in 1978, and designed the first color graphics tablet in 1980. He created what was an early prototype of social media with PatroNet, a platform that allows fans access to not only his unreleased music but works in progress for a subscription fee, and continues to offer new music via his website. 
“We did our first live streaming concert on the internet in 2002,” manager Eric Gardner of Panacea Entertainment says. “We made a practice in the ’70s of selecting one show on every tour and shooting it for home video purposes and also for licensing to television.”
Todd Rundgren cover
Jean Lannen
– Todd Rundgren cover

Gardner says it goes back to 1978, in the infancy of cable television, when Rundgren played an “interactive” show at the Ohio State Fair in Columbus, Ohio, for then-new Warner Cable. They also played the first live concert on cable TV from the former Country Club in Reseda, Calif., on Halloween night on the new USA Network. Gardner then made a deal with D.I.R. Broadcasting to simulcast it in stereo via microwave on the “King Biscuit Flower Hour,” which had never been done before. 
And then there’s PatroNet, possibly the first social media network, that Rundgren developed to distribute his work and that of subscribers. While has been idle since 2007, Rundgren gets animated talking about it and says he hopes to resurrect the site as early as fall.
But the “Clearly Human” tour updates the digital concert model by putting Rundgren, his band and crew back to work for a couple of months and gives fans an opportunity to experience a unique, full-production live show that, while not in person, has a local flavor.  
The tour, kicking off with a Buffalo, NY, show, employs geofencing technology and NoCap’s platform to create a “venue” that allows fans in specific regions (and beyond, with the purchase of VIP and multi-city ticket packages) to view a show that promises to be very different from a typical livestream. Geofencing provides a virtual perimeter around a real-world geographic area or, in this case, market.
Todd Rundgren
Lynn Goldsmith
– Todd Rundgren

Initially, ticket sales were restricted to residents of the 25 markets being targeted. But demand was such that Rundgren and NoCap chose to relax geofencing so residents outside of markets are directed to the virtual performance “in” the city nearest their zip code. For example, a fan in Alaska would be directed to the ticketing site for the Seattle concert.
In some markets where Rundgren was slated to physically visit on his postponed 2020 tour, some contractual blackouts remain – essentially, his own radius clause may apply to the livestreamed shows – but fans in Philadelphia, Boston, Atlanta, Miami, Fla.; Washington, DC; Grand Rapids, Mich.; and Charlotte, N.C., can still purchase a ticket bundle option previously announced.
While many artists have livestreamed concerts during the pandemic lockout that marks its one-year anniversary next month, they’ve been streamed from venues or sound stages to essentially a single, global market. Rundgren wanted a different energy that not only sounded but felt as much like a physical tour as possible.
“You put your all into one show and hope  that show is worth the effort,” Rundgren says. “But that’s not what touring is about. It’s about adapting the show to the place that you’re at and the localities you’re in.”
He chose to plant his flag in the Central time zone in order to keep showtime as close to something that feels like “normal” regardless of what time zone in which a North American fan might reside. 
“If we were to do one show, that would be great for whoever was in the optimal time zone,” Rundgren explains. “Most of the time, if you go out to a show, it’s like at 8 p.m. So you plan your day around it. You get home from work, jump in the shower, hire the babysitter, go park the car, go have dinner, go see the show. It’s a whole routine that goes with it. 
“If we do one show and pick a locale for that show, that’s actually going to be alive at odd times for anybody who isn’t in that particular time zone,” he continues. “This is one principal reason why we chose Chicago. If we play a show on the East Coast that’s supposed to be at 8 p.m., it’s only 7 o’clock in Chicago, and it isn’t uncommon for us to do a show at that time. And for a show on the West Coast, we in Chicago would be doing a show starting at 10 p.m., which is not that unusual either.”
What may be a little more unusual is the lengths Rundgren is willing to go to “localize” each show. 
“Localization is important, because the live show fits into people’s lifestyles, and that’s one aspect of it. The other aspect of it is actually about the effect it has on the band,” he says.
One appeal of touring, Rundgren points out, is that it gives him and his band an opportunity to revisit the music. 
He acknowledges that the “mood” of each show is slightly different with each show and they tend to improve as the group finds its groove over time. 
Todd Rundgren
Danny O’Connor
– Todd Rundgren

“That’s why we want to do 25 shows. We expect that things are going to get better,” Rundgren says. “They are going to get more nuanced. We’re going to understand the material. So it helps us do our best.
“In a way, the fact that we’re turning over a new audience every night means a bunch of fresh ears to play to. And we fully expect that  the dynamic that we experience on the road, which is essentially the band getting tighter and more adventurous as the tour goes on, that will happen as well for us.”
Another way Rundgren has devised for creating that localized “head space” for himself and the band is by changing the physical environment of the Chicago space for each city on the tour by decorating backstage areas with posters of local sports teams and other local memorabilia. 
Even the catering will be adapted to reflect local favorites of each city. 
There will be a limited number of tickets available in Chicago for a socially distanced audience but, to give the band the sense that there’s a full audience, the first few rows will have video tiles of fans in between actual seated fans to give those on stage that illusion.
“From the time we leave the hotel to go to the event space, the clocks in the van will be set to the local time of the city that we’re playing to,” Rundgren explains. “Everything in the venue will be localized. The backstage area will be festooned with posters and sports memorabilia from the town we’re playing and, if at all possible, we’ll get food sent in from a local eatery. And if not, we’ll try to get the recipes and we’ll make it ourselves.
“You go to Memphis, you expect barbecue for your catering. You go to Buffalo, you expect wings. It’s all in service not only of convincing the audience that we are, in a virtual sense, in their town but also self-hypnotizability; convincing ourselves that we are in their town.”
“Self-hypnotizability” rolls easily off Rundgren’s tongue. He’s been a master of creating cosmic, alternative realities throughout his career – even his former band name “Utopia” seems to reflect his mindset. 
“He’s brilliant,” NoCap co-founder Cisco Adler says of Rundgren. “It’s still very early in this [livestreaming] medium and we have been able to experiment and try things. We have a visionary legend to put our heads together with and put together a model specifically for certain markets. Just working with him was exciting to see how he thinks of this, and did even pre-pandemic. He’s a rare unicorn.”
Ever the forward-thinker, Rundgren floated the idea of a virtual tour to his team, including  Gardner and Live Nation’s Gerry Barad, at least two years before COVID forced the issue.
“Even before the pandemic hit, Todd asked me to set up a call with our partners at Live Nation because Todd wanted to pitch them a virtual tour, as a proof of concept,” says Gardner, Rundgren’s manager of 46 years. 
“Todd’s argument at that time was with climate change causing some real weather events, he started experiencing canceled flights on tours. Trucks and tour busses couldn’t get to shows. Todd started thinking, once again, ‘Let’s get ahead of the curve here. Let’s do some proof of concepts in terms of virtual touring, because with virtual touring, you don’t need to worry about climate change.’”
At the time, Live Nation declined but Rundgren had planted the seed. While it took a pandemic, rather than climate change, to make virtual touring a reality, Rundgren had a very clear vision of why the idea needed development.
“I came to the realization that this is going to be a more and more frequent occurrence because of climate change, because of the fact that there are more storms in the Atlantic now than ever previously recorded,” Rundgren says. “And they have an effect on any major air hub that’s on the East Coast. So you’re in Miami and, suddenly, planes aren’t leaving Miami. That means they’re not getting you to wherever you are next. 
“I started to think, ‘Well, this is not going to get better.’ It could get so bad at a certain point that you can’t tour. For instance, if you had booked a tour in California, the whole state could be on fire. Or if you want to tour Texas and half the state is under water. More things are going to occur like this more often. So what is the alternative? How can I guarantee to deliver my product, which is a show?”
RIchard Kerris
Todd Rundgren still occasionally breaks out his famous psychedelic Gibson SG guitar affectionately known as “The Fool,” a gift from no less a fan than Eric Clapton.

In considering a solution, he realized that most venues have video capability, and he could stream a concert to an individual venue’s screens using multiple cameras and streams to simulate an in-person show. “It wouldn’t affect the audience’s behavior at all,” Rundgren thought. “They would go to the venue and hire the babysitter and everything else.”
In other words, if you can’t bring Todd to the concert, you can still bring the concert to Todd, wherever he is.  Of course, on the “Clearly Human” tour – with the exception of the live audience members – babysitters and concert halls won’t be necessary, thanks to the coronavirus. But the concept is the same.
For Toddheads – and there is such a thing – the “Clearly Human” tour has ticketing options that come with perks like access to multiple camera streams that focus on not only Rundgren from a single angle, but from multiple perspectives, and individual band members. Multi-city packages and a full tour option is also available, along with merch including a specialized face mask.
Live Nation’s Barad considers himself something of a “Toddhead,” and though he’s not taking a direct role in routing “Clearly Human,” he’s not concerned about it stepping on the routing of live shows that may, or may not, return in the fall. 
“There’s something like five artists in the world that have this kind of rabid fan base,” Barad tells Pollstar. “You’ve got the Grateful Dead, or Dead & Company, and you’ve got Phish. You’ve got Rush when they worked. I’m sure Frank Zappa in his day had the same sort of thing where people followed him. And Todd’s fans are like that; he’s their favorite artist and they don’t care about anyone else.”
Barad gave his blessing to “Clearly Human” and Rundgren booked his tour himself. 
“[Virtual touring] is never going to take away the life experience,” Barad says. “It just never can and never will. It can’t replace the gathering of the tribe, you know? Everybody’s in an arena or venue together and there’s the smell of food and liquor and whatever else people are doing, and everybody’s there. You can’t replace this energy. But this is a stopgap and a good conduit in the meantime.”
Another happy outcome of the otherwise unwelcome downtime may be the resurrection of PatroNet. 
“Ironically enough, I invested a lot of time, especially earlier this year, in exploring how to update the concept and figure out how it might work, given that everyone’s in a new milieu,” Rundgren says. “When I first introduced it, back in the ‘90s, it was a technological nightmare because there were no standards. The problem was, those Microsoft machines, which dominated the market because they were so cheap, were their own nightmare.”
Every time Microsoft upgraded its software, he explains, prior versions would stop working – including Rundgren’s PatroNet software. “I wound up doing it all, like Microsoft customer service,” Rundgren says, laughing with the memory. “Once everybody got a PC and issues going on, that affected the software that I was delivering to them. It kind of collapsed under the weight of that.”
Clearly Human
– Clearly Human

But with current platforms using uniform coding language, Rundgren sees a place for the continuation of PatroNet, particularly its chat and other interactive functions, in the social media world.
“There is, I think, a need for it. Facebook is a cesspool,” Rundgren says. “The success of a similar thing called Patreon has kind of provided something of a model, although it’s not the same thing as PatroNet, which 
was essentially supposed to be a flat platform with no distinction between users and creators.
“Any user could become a creator as long as all they had to do was create something within the environment that other people thought was valuable. And suddenly you’re a business. 
“And the whole idea was to give everybody all the tools that they could need in order to create a space to sell their music, their writing, their videos, whatever it is that they do, whatever their creative output was. And on top of that, it was a social media platform. In other words, everyone who was there could communicate with anyone else who’s a member of PatroNet. And you could do it ubiquitously.”
Adler marvels at his association with Rundgren and Gardner, and believes it will only advance his own NoCap business, which has already seen a month-over-month growth rate of 189% with more than 80 concerts produced and livestreamed, he says. Single “Clearly Human” individual tickets cost $35 with a five-show package running $149.
“Todd’s manager, Eric, who is a legend in his own right, was connected to me by someone we’d done a show with and we got to be fast friends,” Adler says. “It’s great to talk to a legendary manager who sees [NoCap] has a viable future and really values what we’re doing and bringing it forward. 
“It’s the wild west,” Adler continues. “We see it as a hybrid, an additive to the existing live music business. There will be those situations where you go into a city and hope you’re selling out your shows. But when you sell out the city, you open up the digital audience.”
But until such a time as selling out an audience at 100% scale is again a reality, Rundgren and Adler are at the forefront of bringing out the next best thing. 
As for Rundgren, another goal during the next two months is to get vaccinated. He’s got a fan in Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, though he insists he wouldn’t call in any favors to cut the line. But as antsy as he is about boarding a plane to Chicago, “I have some confidence that getting on the plane is probably a safer bet than getting on the plane from someplace on the mainland, like from Chicago to Hawaii.”
But at least he only has to do that once.