Todd Rundgren On Curating A Unique Livestream Experience During ‘Clearly Human’ Virtual Tour

Over the course of the last two decades, the internet has become the primary source of music distribution, upending business as usual for major labels thanks to the rise of both online file sharing and streaming.

As it became increasingly difficult to monetize recorded music, artists began seizing upon touring as a primary income stream. Lavish VIP experiences and the ability to sell branded merchandise directly to an energized audience on a nightly basis quickly became a primary revenue stream.

Amidst pandemic, musicians were hit particularly hard as live performance in front of a crowd began to cease almost immediately. Artists quickly began shifting their focus toward concerts performed from living rooms, rehearsal spaces and empty venues for broadcast online.

Nearly a year into quarantine, livestreams have started to take on a redundant, homogenous feel, challenging artists to come up with a unique fan experience worth investing in.

Always known as an innovative musician and producer, one with a significant tech background, Todd Rundgren is taking the online concert experience to a new level with his “Clearly Human” virtual tour.

Since early February, Rundgren has been holed up in Chicago, cultivating a fully immersive concert experience on stage within a fully functioning concert venue. Partnering with livestreamer NoCap, Rundgren will perform 25 concerts from Chicago, each geared toward a different city with an 8 PM local start time, about as close as any artist has come to actually staging a tour.

Each show will feature 19 socially distanced fans seated near the stage alongside monitors showcasing online VIPs watching online in each city.

With a focus on his 1989 album Nearly Human, each show will feature a unique set made up of nearly two dozen songs running about two hours in length. The shows see Rundgren backed by a 10-piece band including a horn section and backing singers. Each show is fully produced by a five person crew which includes a director and four cameramen. The shows are highly interactive and key to the success of each is localization, with Rundgren and company bantering on stage about topics unique to each city, even going so far as to adapt backstage catering to reflect cultural trends of the city at the center of each “Clearly Human” concert.

Earlier this month in Chicago, during a tour of the “Clearly Human” set and full band rehearsal, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominee explained the origins and execution of his remarkably ambitious livestream endeavor. “Clearly Human” concert dates run through March 22, 2021.

On the idea behind the “Clearly Human” virtual tour…

TODD RUNDGREN: One of the principal reasons why I started getting these ideas was actually climate change – and how it was effecting everybody’s ability to travel. What happens if there’s like a polar vortex splintering, or whatever that is now, and there’s ice storms all across the southeastern United States, and you had a tour planned? What do you do now? Because you can’t get there. I had been thinking about it in the back of my mind. It was like, “What is your backup for this?” Because climate change is affecting everything. California was on fire all summer. Half of Texas is under water. You can’t think in the usual terms and expect to be able to deliver a product everywhere. So that was the first time I got that idea. 

But I thought, “OK. The audiences – the local people – they can manage to get to the venue. So we’ll narrowcast to a venue somewhere…” Because most places have video now. So the fans could have the same experience that they normally would. They get out of the house, maybe go have dinner and go to the show. The only difference is we’re not physically there. We’re doing a show for them – but we’re not physically there. Then of course the pandemic happened and now the audience can’t get to the gig either!

So that’s how this concept got fully developed. 

On curating a unique concert experience that stands out from the clutter of the pandemic livestream experience…

TR: You play in front of your bookcase and… (laughs).

The whole last year, I did do a thing that was ostensibly for my fans. I did six episodes of a livestreamed, hour long like lifestyle show. But I never played any music during it. Because, for some reason, I just didn’t want to do what everybody else does. That’s me. So, when I decided to do this, I said, “there can’t be any compromises.” It has to be as if you’re really doing it. You’re really going to go out on the road and you’re really going to give people a big show and establish maybe a bar to achieve or a new paradigm I guess in some ways. 

We have a video truck which is essentially in charge of delivering this whole show. We’ve got jibs and remote cameras. There will also be some fixed cameras throughout the set. Because there is an option for you to buy into being your own director. Essentially, you can choose the things that you want to see. For instance, if you’re only interested in the drummer, you can watch him all night long. 

Our director Chris Anderson is in charge of what people really see. He’ll be doing the director’s cut and directing his crew. Everything else will be kind of remote control cameras. So even though there’s only four live cameramen, there are multiple viewpoints available.

On the importance of localization to the success of each “Clearly Human” concert…

TR: If you’re doing it for as many years as I have, you’re familiar with all of these towns. When you get there, there’s walks you like to take and landmarks you like to see and restaurants you like to eat at and fans that you recognize.

There’s so much about the local aspect. If we do the show at 8 PM here in Chicago, it’s 9 in New York and it’s like 6 in Los Angeles or some ridiculous hour that wouldn’t really be when you would go to see a show. [So each show starts at 8 PM local time] The whole part of it is, we don’t want people to change their routine. And we want to retain as much of the experience for us, as performers, as well. 

Usually the dressing room areas are already some local representation. The most important thing for us, is in some ways, is being able to actually see people’s faces while we’re playing. [We’ll have] live video [in front of us] from people who have decided they wanted to sit in the “front rows” – which is, like a normal concert, a little more expensive. But they will have the knowledge that we can see them and we can react to them and they’ll definitely recognize it. We can mix live people in there with social distancing in between all of the panels and stuff like that. So we will get remote reactions and real time in the room reactions as well.

There will be like a slide show that goes on showing landmarks and stuff from the cities that we’ll be in. Before the show, this runs so that everyone will recognize places from their own town. Or, if you somehow bought a ticket from another town, it helps you get into the mood of being there. And, at the end of the slide presentation, we put up a big still of a proscenium from a theater in that town. So it will look like we’re actually on a stage [in that town].

One of the advantages of not traveling is that you can have a bigger band. And there’s not only the people that are standing on the stage. Look at all of the support and infrastructure that goes with all of that. Imagine having to tear that video wall down and all of this stuff to load it into a truck and drive to another town to set it up again. It’s about as high-res as they come. So the whole idea is to create an entire complete space that looks like a real gig.

The crew members and the musicians. The thing that’s driving this is all of the pent up energy that everybody’s had for a year. The first thing that happened I think when we first started playing together was everybody going, “Oh man, I miss this so much!” Playing with other people. I mean, Zoom is fine but… It makes you feel like you’re in the venue in a way.