As evidenced by many of the performers in last weekend’s “One World: Together at Home” benefit, the livestreamed-from-home concert concept is showing its limitations. The show saw Elton John performing from his driveway, complete with a basketball hoop in the background, and Paul McCartney singing straight into his iPhone, using the device’s vertical mode. More ambitiously, Rita Ora delivered a smartly edited (if clearly lip-synched) multi-angle video for “I Will Never Let You Down,” and the Rolling Stones spawned their biggest mystery in decades with an impressive split-screened “are-they-actually-playing-or-aren’t-they?” take on “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”
After six weeks of artists wrestling with the paradoxical concept of touring from home, it seems there has to be something more — and indeed, there is. Singers Erykah Badu and Angel Olsen and the rock band Real Estate are three artists who have each found different ways to push the creative and business boundaries that coronavirus-induced sheltering at home has imposed on the performing world.
Perhaps most remarkable is Badu’s “Quarantine Concert Series,” an interactive livestream featuring the singer and her band performing live from her Dallas home, playing a different set each time. For the series, Badu essentially built her own livestream company for the series in just 10 days, charging viewers directly ($1 for the first concert, $2 for the second, $3 for the third), rather than using Instagram Live, YouTube or other conventional platforms.
“I was preparing to do a weekend of shows, and on March 13, they were all [postponed] indefinitely,” she tells Variety. “I’ve toured eight months out of the year for the past 22 years, and it’s how I make my living. I had to figure out a way to keep morale up for all [my] musicians, techs and engineers and keep all of us employed, and like every other artist in the industry, we thought of livestreaming.”
But the more traditional platforms couldn’t provide the kind of “interactive” show Badu envisioned — one where the audience could vote on which songs the group would play, or which room it would perform in — so she found an interactive livestreaming company (Maestro, which handled the first two events) and a paywall provider, boosted the broadband in her home, cleared her music for broadcast with her label and publisher, and off she went. The first show (pictured above) was a three-hour performance where the fans picked which setlist the group performed; the second they voted which room in Badu’s home they would perform; for the third, which aired Sunday night (pictured below), featured an elaborate set in which the musicians wore hazmat suits and performed inside large plastic bubbles, giving a deep-space vibe.
The first two livestreams together drew more than 100,000 viewers, according to Badu’s rep. While further details were not disclosed, a paying audience of that size would put her gross in the low- to lower-middle six figures, although with fees from livestream and paywall companies (which total nearly $1 per viewer), not to mention musicians, crew and significant production costs, her overhead is high. A source tells Variety the singer is speaking with investors about the series.
“I didn’t make any [profit] the first time,” Badu says. “But I think the most important thing was that artists, labels and the audiences saw that this was possible — that I could directly communicate with the audience and give them exactly what I wanted, on my own terms and on my own platform.” (Head here for Variety’s extensive interview with Badu about the series.)
Olsen, meanwhile, delivered conceptually the same thing many performers are doing — a solo set from home to benefit her band and touring crew as well as a charity, MusiCares’ COVID-19 relief fund. But her approach was different in that it had a mandatory $12 fee ($15 on the day of the show), which inches livestream pricing closer to the business model of a live concert.
For that price, even for a charity event, viewers may expect something special. “If you’re asking your fans to stare at a screen for an hour or more, the experience should be nice,” her manager, Christian Stavros, tells Variety. “The challenge is making these interesting when the artist is working within the confines of their home.”
Her set was filled with rarities and debuted some new material, and was delivered via the ticketed livestream platform Veeps. “It looks good and sounds decent,” Stavros says. “Fans need to create an account to buy a ticket, but it’s no different than entering your info on any other ticketing site. We take 100% of sales; Veeps charges a ticketing fee.”
While Olsen and her team consider the event a success (her publicist declined to share numbers), Stavros is clear-eyed about the limitations of the format. “I am well aware that a livestream is no substitute for the live experience,” he says. “But it’s the best alternative in a time when artists are having to stay home but still want or need to work. This was the weekend Angel’s tour was supposed to kick off, so it seemed right to offer fans an intimate performance.
“We’re not planning to do more concerts like this,” he concludes, “but it is good to know it’s there as an option.”
For its part, Real Estate turned the entire concept of a live performance on its head by launching “Quarantour,” an “augmented-reality experience” delivered by a mobile web app fans can watch on their phones. The app features a seven-song performance by the quintet from their recent album, “The Main Thing,” with full lighting and sound rigs and between-song banter. There’s even the option for viewers to wander virtually around the venue. Using footage recorded before the lockdown, the experience shows a miniature band performing inside the outlines of a tiny stage — wherever the viewer sets down their phone.
“You’re like a giant walking around the stage and the venue,” says Craig Allen, founder of the creative agency Callen, which produced “Quarantour” in partnership with the band. “We had fun with it — you can get closer or further away, you can even go backstage, and when you do, the music is muted and the lights are reflected.”
Like the other acts, Real Estate had been scheduled to launch a tour in support of “The Main Thing,” its first album in three years, on April 9. “The band was so bummed about the tour being postponed,” Allen says, “but we had wanted to do something in AR for a while and we’d already shot the footage, so we said, ‘Maybe we can bring the tour to the people.’”
And although the group isn’t charging anything for the AR concert, like Badu and Olsen’s approaches, it’s an attempt to find a new way to create — and potentially make money from — a live performance that is not conventionally “live.”
“Sadly, we’re all stuck indoors right now,” Real Estate says in the intro of their “Quarantour” set. “We hope this brings good times into your homes, wherever they are.”