UPDATED: Amid the many ways artists are finding to cope with the coronavirus-imposed shutdown of the live-entertainment industry, it’s safe to say that Erykah Badu has found one of the more innovative solutions with her elaborate “Quarantine Concert Series,” which is streamed live from her home in Dallas.
Launched late last month, what makes Badu’s series unusual in a business sense is she’s essentially built her own livestream company, charging viewers a minimal $1-$3 fee, rather than using Instagram Live or YouTube or other conventional avenues. Within ten days after her tour was postponed, she’d hired a “back-end” livestream company and a paywall service; figured out how to broadcast from her home; gathered musicians, engineers and technicians, and beamed out to the world. The series began with a three-hour concert dubbed “Apocalypse One” on March 23, continued with a special show commemorating the tenth anniversary of her “New Amerykah Part II” album on April 5, and will air a third on Sunday. She charged $1 for the first, $2 for the second and will charge $3 for the third. (More info is available on her website.)
The at-home vibe extends to the performances — sometimes Badu sings while sitting on her bed, at one point she said she had to take a bathroom break — but there are plenty of memorable musical moments. The shows — which combined drew over 100,000 viewers, her rep says — are interactive, in that for the first, the audience voted on which setlist they wanted Badu and her musicians to play, and for the second (dubbed “Apocalypse Two: The Rooms”), they voted on which of the differently decorated rooms the group would perform in during the show. Badu is keeping mum on what’s in store for Sunday night.
Variety caught up with Badu over the phone from her Dallas home earlier this week, and filled in a few gaps during a Zoom conference with journalists Thursday afternoon.
How did this all start?
On March 13, I was preparing to do a weekend of shows — I’ve toured eight months out of the year for the past 22 years, and it’s how I make my living and support my band and my techs and my crew. And on March 13, the announcement came in that all live shows will be [postponed] indefinitely. I’d never seen a world where I couldn’t perform.
I had to quickly think of something, and like every other artist in the industry, we thought of livestreaming. But I couldn’t just put a phone up on a tripod and do a livestream on one of the social platforms, because that would just feed me: I had to figure out a way to keep morale up for all [my] musicians and techs and engineers and keep all of us employed.
I wanted to create a livestreamed interactive experience that had the same integrity, ingenuity, creativity and technical aspects of my live shows, because I had to charge something: This was gonna be pretty expensive to bring in techs and engineers and musicians to my house, and I found out I didn’t have enough broadband — I learned so many things in five days! But I had already committed to putting on a livestream and charging a dollar.
I [spoke with] a lot of streaming companies, including the main ones, and they didn’t have what I thought was adequate for what I wanted to present to the audience. But I found one — and then I found out the livestream company charged 50 cents per person, and the paywall company charged 35 or 45 cents, and I thought, “There goes that dollar!”
Then I had to clear all of [the publishing and the masters for] my music — and it took until 10 p.m. on the evening of the show. The engineers and techs had been in my house for two days wearing gloves and masks, and they’re all looking at me, wondering what’s going on. So I had to decide at 10 p.m. whether to spend another day of expenses or just bite the bullet and go at midnight — and I made the decision to go. I only promoted it on my platforms for two hours, and all these people [tuned in].
Why was it so down to the wire with the clearances?
[Universal Music Publishing] and my label [also Universal] did everything they could to help and support me, but it was very last-minute. And, it’s a business: YouTube and Instagram and places like that already had [infrastructure], but because I was doing it alone there was a lot more involved in order to become legitimate for this medium. I had to do a lot of paperwork and production myself, but if I was going to do it, I was going to play fair.
Ordinarily people would pay $40 to $200 for this [kind of show], but we’re in a climate where so many people have lost their jobs, so we only charged $1. I didn’t make any [profit] the first time, but it was a learning experience and I figured I’d take one for the team. 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.
But is it sustainable to charge so little?
It’s not sustainable, but I’m going out into the wilderness to walk a path that has not been created yet. I didn’t know what I was doing at first and I was petrified, and when it was finished, we all exhaled — but not too deep, in this climate! (laughter)
Are you going to be charging more?
“Apocalypse Two” was $2, and “Apocalypse Three” this Sunday will be $3, and as I progress my productions will get more elaborate as well. I go by what the people want — they want to support me and they want me to charge more because they say it’s worth more.
How do the requests work? Do you just see them in the comments?
Well, for the first one we had [two] sets of 10 songs come up on the screen, and the audience would choose one or the other in the polling system we created. For “Apocalypse Two,” we chose to do the “New Amerykah Part 2” album because it’s the 10-year anniversary, so it’s a little cross-pollination, making sure that that album — which is one of my children, all of my albums are my children — gets its birthday gift! (laughing) So instead of them choosing the songs, they got to choose the world that we performed the songs in. It wasn’t easy!
Which streaming company did you partner with?
It’s a white-label streaming company, but we just used the tech. There are a lot of companies who do what they do — you’re creating the experience. (A rep for the interactive livestream company Maestro confirmed to Variety that it worked with the singer on the initial broadcasts, although a rep for Badu says she is no longer working with them.)
It feels like this process has broken down some barriers between artists and the audience.
That’s why it’s so important to have that interactive experience. When you’re in the studio, you’re perfecting a moment — you get to go back and fix it. But when you’re doing something live, you’re creating a moment, and I wanted the audience to feel like their dollar not only got them into the show, but they also got to help create the moment by choosing what song I did next. It was so very important to me that that was a part of the experience.
Are you going to change up the show every time? Will there be an “Apocalypse 20”?
The “Quarantine Concert Series” only has a few “Apocalypses,” then I’ll go on to the next series. But I never do the same thing in my live sets — I don’t even have a setlist. Improvisation is our way. I don’t know if I’ll do an “Apocalypse Four,” but I’ll move onto the next thing, and will it include music, drama, comedy? I do a lot of things, mister, and you ain’t really seen nothing yet!
Have a lot of artists asked to be on the show?
Yes, I get about five or six calls a day from bands, solo artists, MCs, comedians, asking “How did you do that?” And I answer simply, “Let me perfect this and figure it out and make these mistakes and be the guinea pig, and then I’ll bring you in.” I think my next feat will be starting a livestreaming company for music and for art.
Clips from the shows are on YouTube, does that bother you?
It’s the same thing that happens with my live shows, there’s no way to control that. Sometimes I’ll see the show up while I’m doing it! We could work to take some of these things down, but the magic of it isn’t the exclusivity — it’s seeing it in real time for the first time.
What do you feel you still need to fix or change?
The understanding of the expenses (laughs), and my overhead — I had to cut down a little on a few things. But in terms of the art and creativity, I wouldn’t change a thing. It’s like in 1997 when I created my touring company, I had to learn from scratch what everybody did, and I have to learn all over again. I’m really enjoying the ride and the education.
Do you think you might do some kind of tutorial for other artists?
It’s going to become that by default. I’m the accidental Harriet Tubman in the streets, because they’re asking me and I’ll share it and maybe it becomes some other kind of [thing]. I move from being Erykah Badu the product to quickly becoming BaduWorld the business.
So it’s really just another form of art?
Exactly, it’s another form of art, all of it. My streaming company will provide a turnkey solution for artists, a means of learning how to merge the creative platform with the tech platform. It’s all creativity — even creating the business model was creative for me. Becoming a tech entrepreneur is a little different from what I’ve done in the past, but I can do it. And I have proof of concept.