Erykah Badu Is Blazing a New Trail (From Badubotron)

By Melena Ryzik

Erykah Badu has always been a boss, but now she’s closer to a CEO. When the Covid-19 pandemic halted concerts and the music industry scrambled to adapt, the iconoclastic neo-soul singer and songwriter created a new artistic and business model, creating her own interactive streaming network less than two weeks after the country began shutting down this spring.

“I’ve been touring for eight months out of the year for 22 years. This is the way that I had made my money,” Badu said. She had family to take care of, and crew that have been part of her team for two decades. So she created a high-production, interactive live show from her home (The Quarantine Concert Series: Apocalypse, Live From Badubotron), charging fans $1 to watch. And then she did it twice more, charging a little more each time — three increasingly elaborate livestreamed performances in the space of a month, with costume and lighting changes, and fans voting on the set list and even what room she would perform in. In the last concert, she and her musicians appeared to be inside clear giant bubbles.

“Every day and night, I was working and moving and experimenting and learning from mistakes quickly and fixing them,” she said. According to a spokeswoman, over 100,000 people tuned in. And now she doesn’t even miss being on the road: “A little piece of me dies every time I have to leave my home.”

The process energized Badu, 49, a mother of three who lives in Dallas, where she’s also a doula. “All of a sudden, I’ve been resurrected in some kind of way with new ideas and thoughts and releases of things that I didn’t even know I was holding onto,” she said. She had already started to branch out, in February, with her website Badu World Market, which offers merchandise — the Badu vagina-scented incense immediately sold out — and female-centered community. She plans to launch an apothecary line there next, and she’s taking classes to learn how to code.

Badu’s third quarantine concert appeared to wrap the musicians in colorful orbs.

Badu’s third quarantine concert appeared to wrap the musicians in colorful orbs.

Badu’s quarantine concerts have featured elaborate outfits.

Badu’s quarantine concerts have featured elaborate outfits.

Badu has performed in front of a photo of Yoko Ono, one of her inspirations.

Badu has performed in front of a photo of Yoko Ono, one of her inspirations.

In a recent video interview from her living room (thronelike chair from India, D.J. setup, a Nefertiti sculpture wearing sunglasses and headphones, a fireplace with an eternal flame), Badu described her vision for a new livestream company. She ate dinner during the conversation, which started with dessert, a homemade lemon-lime-agave Popsicle. And she showed off the notebooks that she uses to catalog her ideas: a black Moleskin, and another, replete with color-coded tabs, that was a vintage spelling book. “Because what I’m doing is, I’m casting spells, girl.”

These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

How did you come up with this idea?

First thing we had to figure out was what am I, besides this touring artist? And I quickly found out that I was many more things. It all came simple to me really quickly, as if I had been downloading the program through the Matrix.

Take me through the technical setup.

I didn’t want to just put a phone on a tripod. I had to keep up my team’s morale and keep them employed. I wanted the user to be able to interactively choose which songs we sing. 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 delivering it at once, and I wanted the audience to feel like their money not only got them into the show, but they also got to help create the moment.

I had to get a truck to broaden the bandwidth of my house. All the neighbors had high-speed internet for a couple of weeks because of it. I was the director, the producer, the music director, co-technical director, and I was also the switcher. I had a little iPad on the side switching camera angles as I went. We had four cameras. [Camera] A was right in front of me. B was behind me on a tripod that could swivel left and right. C was right above the whole group, like a good bubble-eyed viewpoint, and then there was one on the musicians and singers.

I can tell you like directing.

I’ve been directing since I was 3. First it was the teddy bears. Then it was the neighbor kids. Then it was the kids in the church.

What’s the status of your plan to start a livestream company?

My livestream company project is very much underway. It’s ambitious, but I think I can do it. I think I can help artists build a platform very similar to mine where everything lives there. We are driving all the traffic to our socials, to our chat rooms, to our merchandise, and to our art, whether it’s performance art or comedy or visual art or fashion. We don’t have to abandon our other social media outlets, but we can incorporate them into our worlds and in ways that make it very easy for the user.

I’m also trying to convince the user or the audience that it’s OK to pay the artist directly. Because they’re so used to using the streaming services to do that, and we only get pennies [from the services]. But we’re also living in an era where capitalism is one of the enemies. So you have to be very careful to not become something that you didn’t intend to become.

You’ve said that the minimal fee you were initially charging is not sustainable. Have you landed on a better way to price this?

I’m coming up with that, and I’m coming up also with the energy to be comfortable with that. Maybe a monthly fee is better than a one-time fee. It’s very important for us to be focused and organized right now, and also having places to release feelings of guilt and the feelings of suppression and pain and distance. And a lot of those things are released through music. Just creating the right vibration around the market will help people understand why it’s valuable to us at all.

“We are performing a two- to three-hour live music video, and everything has to be on cue,” Badu said.

Credit…Rahim Fortune for The New York Times

Did you make any money from your streamed shows?

I made a little bit more each time. Basically, I just wanted to be able to keep those [staff] people paid, to break even and make sure that I didn’t, you know, make any foolish purchases. And I also wanted to make sure that this model could actually work. Now that I know it can actually work, I know what I need to do to be profitable with it.

Read the full article at New York Times

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