The History of PatroNet

by Todd Rundgren June 29, 1998

Late in 1996 I was a panelist at a digital music conference in Santa Monica. It turned out to be a very exclusive panel since the only other participant was Phil Ramone (N2K) and the moderator was Thomas Dolby (Headspace). During the course of the conversation I outlined an idea I'd been brewing that had to do with using the web to electronically distribute music that was directly underwritten by a group of subscribers. I didn't have much of a timetable or details but the initial response and the press reaction snowballed until it seemed like I had better make a demonstration of the theory before Microsoft did.

I refined and published the concept and called it PatroNet. The online community, particularly the fan population, was extremely encouraging and enthusiastic about getting music delivered by wire as this seemed to justify the hardware and learning investments they had made. The traditional 'unconnected' fan base was skeptical that I would be making ever more onnerous demands for them to experience the only thing they were interested in- the music. The curiosity of other content creators convinced me that the idea was important enough to risk losing some people in order to redefine the relationship between artist and audience one more time.

In order to understand what PatroNet needed to be I had to experience all the woes of trying to build and maintain a valuable service. When I started putting the pieces together I had no more expertise than a mediocre web designer. I made the assumption that certain things were possible as advertised, but such was true only under the most ideal circumstances. The 'early adopters' who went along for the test rides experienced no end of bugs, flukes, freezes and crashes due to the complex interactions of software and the high demands on computer resources. Though I had been building a database of potential subscribers it was never exploited since the service was unable to deliver to my satisfaction.

In the summer of 1997 I realized that I would have to accelerate a timetable that I thought might take years into one that spanned a few months. I abandoned the established Netscape/Explorer model and began to develop a standalone solution that would insure even modestly empowered subscribers connection to the service and participation in the communal activities there, seamless preview and download of high quality content, and a continously updateable context capable of presenting any kind of media.

This effort caused the project to pretty much 'drop off the radar', since I was starting from scratch with an entirely new paradigm. I had to discover how to do things that had always been theorized but rarely practiced. I was working in a realm where consultants and experts hardly existed. I was tying together technologies that had spoken only in passing and had never been tested in a mission-critical system. The creation of new music came to a standstill because of the demands on my time and concentration. The resulting prototype, the TRTV Tuner, is as close to my expectations as current technology can provide.

However, other faulty assumptions had to be rectified before this technology could be useful. I was not offering a typical retail transaction but a term-based, feature-optional, online/offline, individualised package that did not fit into the prevalent shopping cart model designed to run in an HTML browser. Thus I had to venture into uncharted and highly dangerous areas that involved transactions taking indirect routes to get their approval. Should any function along this route fail to execute properly then money winds up in the wrong place and in the wrong amounts.

With this the only remaining step to a complete solution, we quietly opened the subscription forms for those brave enough to step to the head of the line. Within 24 hours we knew something was wrong but the solution (and cleaning up the mess) turned out to be heroic and added another few months of testing and wrangling. Service for those who were successfully subscribed has been erratic as we test the integrity of the system and it's database. I'm hoping we're set and can quietly open again, but with the net it seems occasional problems are almost guaranteed. If we feel we've got them to a point of manageability then we'll soon announce the official opening.

Though there are more tangled explanations for some of the mistakes and delays, I am fronting this project and the buck stops with me. I apologize for the seemingly endless delays, and particularly the inconveniences caused certain individuals who may have believed that this was a more fully matured service. I would also point out that it has been about 18 months since PatroNet was a newborn concept, a time during which I completed and delivered 2 full albums in the traditional format and toured internationally in support of them. With A Twist is only 9 months old.

Only I know how arduously long this process has taken and will be more relieved than anyone when it is completed successfully. Soon.