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With Tours Canceled, Venues Closing, And Futures Uncertain, Musicians Flock To Twitch

Image: Grimecraft
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Popular musician Marc Rebillet’s March 17 Twitch stream—the first in his “Quarantine Livestream Tour”—began just like his other shows: Wearing a silken robe, he improvised a series of songs based on topic suggestions from his audience. People asked for songs about the apocalypse and toilet paper. About an hour and a half in, he announced that it was “hot as shit” and removed his robe, stripping down to his underwear. This, too, is practically a ritual at Rebillet’s concerts. Twitch, however, did not like this one bit. It suspended him shortly after.

That day, Rebillet was supposed to be on an actual concert tour in Australia, but it fell through due to covid-19. No stranger to streaming on platforms like Facebook and YouTube, Rebillet was thrilled when Twitch offered to help him set up his channel so that he could more easily make up for a portion of the tour earnings that’d suddenly gone down the drain. Somewhere along the way, however, left hand and right hand failed to meet and make beautiful, beautiful hand music together. It’s unclear whether Twitch believed Rebillet already knew its strict dress code rules or the person at the company who brought Rebillet into the fold and the person who suspended him didn’t see eye to eye (in response to Kotaku’s inquiries, the company merely pointed to its dress code guidelines page). Regardless, Rebillet got hit with the banhammer, and it left a bitter taste in his mouth.

“To spend hours and hours setting up all this shit, making assets, promoting it—I barely have an audience on there, and it was a lot of work to just get shut down,” Rebillet told Kotaku over the phone. He explained that robe removal became a core part of his tongue-in-cheek shows a while back, because he’d either get hot on stage or audience members would ask him to take them off. These days, people come to his shows in robes to pay tribute. He was dumbfounded when he realized that Twitch hadn’t prepared for this. “I wish they had thought of that before they led me down the fucking Twitch rabbit hole,” he said.

This is just one example of the turbulence musicians have felt as they’ve attempted to navigate Twitch’s deceptively treacherous purple waters. With tours, their biggest source of income, canceled, musicians are heading online. Big label musicians with millions of fans and bottomless bank accounts are mostly sticking to Facebook and Instagram, but in the era of monolithic streaming services and the overarching expectation that music should be free, even many popular artists are far from rich. As a result, they’ve turned to Twitch, which offers a suite of tools deliberately designed with money making in mind. This, they hope, will patch a leak that might otherwise bleed them dry.

But Twitch isn’t just a platform. It’s a community with its own rules, norms, and etiquette. Put another way, you can’t rely on the same few stage banter soundbites when your entire audience is made up of that one guy who incessantly shouts “Play ‘Freebird’” at every concert. Some longtime Twitch musicians, too, are having trouble adjusting to what’s beginning to look like a new status quo. No longer big fish in the relatively small pond that is Twitch’s “Music & Performing Arts” section, they’re dealing with flagging numbers and a lack of attentiveness from Twitch, even as big-name musicians benefit from a section that wouldn’t have become viable without them.

Music was among the first kinds of non-gaming content Twitch allowed and promoted even before it created a dedicated “IRL” section in 2016. In 2018, it did away with the monolithic IRL umbrella and created new sections, including Music & Performing Arts. Music, in other words, has never been the main attraction on Twitch, but over the years, it’s made a loud enough racket that the entirety of Twitch has been forced, on a semi-regular basis, to take notice. For instance, back in 2015, gaming sites (including Kotaku) wrote about pianist Kyle Landry turning into a literal overnight sensation on the platform. The basic realization present in headlines was the same: music on Twitch had arrived. Or perhaps it had been there for a while, but only then did people outside the Twitch bubble really notice.

Now the same thing is happening on a more mainstream stage. Two weeks that feel like two years ago, when the United States finally came to grips with the seriousness of the covid-19 pandemic, hardcore band Code Orange streamed their album release show from an empty venue to thousands of fans, topping out at nearly 13,000 concurrent viewers on Twitch. Headlines from GQ, The Guardian, and Pitchfork followed. For many, this was a heavily distorted, angrily growled proclamation of what others already knew: Twitch isn’t just for video games. It’s for music (and a million other things besides), as well.

It was a new experience for Code Orange. Since the band couldn’t have a live audience, they decided to dial up their visuals and create a cinematic experience that looked almost like something out of a video game. This took an enormous amount of work.

“It was almost a fun new challenge, and it was nerve-racking in the same way a show is,” Code Orange’s frontman, Jami Morgan, told Kotaku over the phone. “We had to spend a lot of time [on preparation], and we had a lot of people who worked with us. But even us, we were super hands-on running songs, running back, looking at the footage, checking audio, making sure it works, having a backup stream, having a system it would default to if this one went down... We got to the venue at 9 a.m., and we didn’t play until 9 p.m. It takes a lot of effort if you’re gonna do a big multi-cam stream with a lot of production.”

The stream was a success, with Morgan saying that his band had spent years preparing music and visuals for a tour to get their vision across, only to feel like the stream allowed them to mostly accomplish their goal in a single go. But it was also atypical as far as Twitch streams go. Generally, Twitch viewers expect a high degree of interaction from streamers—sincere responses to questions and comments, animated reactions to subscriptions and big donations. Morgan, however, said that his band doesn’t like to break “the fourth wall” of their music’s mystique during performances, preferring instead to keep direct interaction limited to alternative avenues like their Discord.

“It’s more like a fight than a show,” he said of a Code Orange concert’s intensity, noting that the band will likely never sit down in front of a camera and take requests for covers or anything like that.

As a result, the band’s second Twitch stream, which took place earlier this week, was a harder sell. A mashup of one band member playing live industrial tunes overlaid with eerie visuals, it was impressive, but it had neither the bombast of a full concert nor the chat-based intimacy of a standard Twitch stream. It peaked at just over 800 concurrent viewers.

Still, there might be something to be said for musicians trying to do their own thing on Twitch. Stuck in their homes for the foreseeable future, popular musicians and bands are creating channels and quickly coming to the conclusion that streaming on Twitch is much harder than it looks. During his first stream on the platform, one of my favorite musicians, Anthony Green, who is a singer for Circa Survive, Saosin, The Sound Of Animals Fighting, and a thousand other acts, looked like a deer surrounded by an army of headlights as requests and questions from thousands of fans flew at him. When he realized he could scroll up through chat, he did his best to respond to everybody, but even streaming from his own living room, he was clearly uncomfortable. Meanwhile, during a stream of his own, popular producer and songwriter Kenny Beats accidentally yelled at somebody for donating to him. On his second day of Twitch streaming, he expressed bewilderment at the culture he’d stumbled into.

“I don’t know what a bit is,” he said of Twitch’s proprietary currency, which can be used to tip streamers, during his stream. “I don’t know what a pog is. People keep calling me a titty streamer. Yesterday, I kept kicking the cord out and turning my live[stream] off, and they called me Kenny Feets. What the fuck am I supposed to do?”

Granted, he’s been having fun with it, posting clips of his learning process and making jokes at his own expense on Twitter.

For musicians who are used to having a stage and security guards between themselves and fans for the hour or so they perform, ceaselessly interactive Twitch streams have proven overwhelming.

Matt Heafy, frontman of metal band Trivium, is one of a handful of more traditional musicians who established a presence on Twitch years before the recent music boom. These days, he’s known nearly as much for his Twitch channel as he is for his band, but in the early goings, he had to crest a steep learning curve. When he first began three years ago, he was familiar with Twitch, having watched competitive game streamers like Brett “Dakotaz” Hoffman and Michael “Shroud” Grzesiek on a regular basis, but he didn’t really know the ins and outs of streaming himself. He proceeded to play video games on PS4 with a basic webcam and didn’t engage much with chat. He pulled “5-17 people at a time,” he told Kotaku over the phone.

Around six months into this process, Twitch employees who were fans of his music encouraged him to stream his practices. That, Heafy said, is when he started diving into the complicated world of music streaming. His goal was to create an environment where he could be off the cuff and friendly with viewers but that would also sound as good as a “live DVD.” He purchased four cameras to capture different aspects of his guitar playing and singing. He invested in multiple microphones as well. He also took inspiration from Fortnite streamers running dual-PC setups to optimize their performance and created a powerful rig to cater to the needs of his increasingly high-end operation. It worked. These days, Heafy has over 100,000 followers and both talks to and sings at viewers with the effortless confidence of a pro. He’s also collaborating with Twitch to create a series of how-to videos for the site’s music section, a natural evolution of the aid he’s provided to other bands who’ve gotten into Twitch, like fellow metal mavens DragonForce, who streamed their album recording process in 2018 and played a show at TwitchCon last year.

Heafy’s most important takeaway from Twitch’s school of hard knocks, though, was that community can’t be an afterthought.

“It’s not a platform where you just drop a live video once a month,” he said. “It’s not something where you just play a show once a week. It’s something that does require a schedule in a big way. You want to essentially turn your channel into a place where people can hang out. It then becomes their bar, their coffee shop, their local restaurant, their favorite music venue. You create a community.”

Heafy streams five days a week when he’s not on tour and seven days a week when he is. Trivium streams every live show they play.

“It’s that kind of consistency that I feel is very important to have a successful channel no matter what you’re streaming, whether it’s cooking or music or video games,” Heafy said.

This has allowed Heafy to transform streaming into a second job and a pillar of Trivium’s sustainability. The band had to cancel shows because of covid-19, but while even a metal band of their size doesn’t make money “hand over fist,” they’re going to be OK for the foreseeable future.

“It’s unfortunate that it’s happening, but I’ve already had the infrastructure in place and I’ve already been doing this for two and a half years,” he said. “It is a good extra source of income, and it’s crazy that I’m essentially doing what I have to do to stay in shape for my main gig. I need to practice, and I want to play video games. I’d be doing these things regardless.”

Heafy recognizes that he’s fortunate, and he’s trying to use his channel not only to perform, but also to responsibly discuss what’s happening in these unprecedented times: “I don’t believe it’s the end of the world, but I also don’t think it’s something that should be brushed off. When people say, ‘Oh, it’s just as bad as the flu,’ it’s like, no, it’s much worse... I think it’s the responsibility of people who have a platform to provide a researched, good answer. Our country needs to be putting human lives over everything else.”

Other musicians eyeing Twitch as an alternative income stream aren’t in the same boat as Heafy. Shows are, for many musicians, the only reason they’re sustainable at all. In the era of Spotify and Apple Music, direct album sales have increasingly become a thing of the past, and individual song plays net artists a fraction of a cent. Worse, storied smaller venues that host small and mid-sized acts are closing their doors permanently as a result of lost business due to the virus (RIP Slim’s in San Francisco). This could signal a landscape far less hospitable to all except the biggest and most famous even once covid-19's horrifying spread abates. Musicians need new ways to make money, both as a band-aid for the now and a full-body cast for the future.

Rebillet, who is “desperately” searching for ways to supplement his income, said that the ease with which it’s possible to monetize streaming on Twitch compared to other platforms motivated him to give it a go.

“I’m looking six to seven months out and wondering what the fuck I’m going to do... It was sort of a mutual masturbation thing: I bring my viewers to Twitch, and Twitch helps me monetize in a different way, in a better way,” he said, acknowledging that despite looming precarity, he’s still fortunate compared to others.

But ultimately, even if his relationship with Twitch hadn’t gone south in a hurry, streaming on the platform wouldn’t have filled the tour-sized hole in his bank account. Clarke “Grimecraft” Nordhauser, a DJ who was among the first musical artists on Twitch but who has also toured extensively, concurs.

“I would need 2,000 subscriptions on Twitch to make up for one show,” he told Kotaku in a Discord voice call, factoring in Twitch’s standard 50-percent cut of streamers’ subscription earnings. “You want donations or something where you keep all the income instead, but that’s hard. Twitch culture is: you subscribe. It’s five bucks, and you get emotes. That’s what you’re selling. The digital good is emotes.”

Right now, though, professional musicians need something, anything to partially fill the gap. A platform that lets them perform in front of fans is about as good as it’s gonna get, for the moment. But while big names attempt to adapt to Twitch, longtime Twitch musicians are left to scramble for viewers in a section that, to hear many tell it, was already teetering on the brink of oversaturation before a global pandemic transformed their scene.

“I totally understand the oversaturation concerns,” Raym, a multi-instrumentalist and singer who regularly streams to about 6,000 followers on Twitch, told Kotaku in a Discord message. “Honestly this was happening before, way before covid-19. I found that my numbers weren’t growing and there were new music streamers all the time popping up. I think the rate of growth in terms of the number of streamers was much higher in proportion compared to the growth in viewers in the music category.”

For the past couple weeks, it’s been common to see a handful of well-known musicians occupying the top of Twitch’s Music & Performing Arts section at any given moment. Where many of Twitch’s best-known endemic musicians tend to pull 1,000 or fewer concurrent viewers, even semi-famous mainstream artists break 3,000 without too much trouble. Some, like Kenny Beats and Dropkick Murphys, have made it all the way up to 20,000. That’s to say nothing of streaming events hosted by major brands like Amazon Music and Bandsintown, as well as companies like Beatport. These entities have reached even higher echelons by bringing together big-name bands and DJs for multi-hour (or multi-day) live music marathons.

Last weekend, Twitch itself hosted the biggest marathon of all: Stream Aid, a day-long covid-19 benefit show featuring the sorts of musicians who probably won’t soon be hurting even if they can’t tour for months: John Legend, Joe Jonas, Steve Aoki, Diplo, Kaskade, OneRepublic, Machine Gun Kelly, members of bands like Mumford & Sons and Cage The Elephant, and many more. These musicians played from their homes as part of a schedule that also included celebrity and athlete appearances, as well as esports tournaments featuring popular video game streamers. Smaller streamers were also able to earn the chance to participate by applying a special tag to their streams, but they had to put their fates in the hands of good fortune (and whoever was tugging the reins at Twitch’s hopefully social distance-friendly HQ). Some, like longtime Twitch music streamer The8BitDrummer, got a chance to shine and received nice viewership bumps for their troubles. In the end, the event topped out at 135,000 concurrent viewers and raised $2.8 million for the World Health Organization’s Covid-19 Solidarity Response Fund.

Doubtless, Stream Aid contributed to an incredibly important cause, and a sudden influx of popular musicians to Twitch has drawn attention to the platform—especially its music section. The question now for many longtime music streamers is what this means in the long run. Some, like Raym, are optimistic.

“It is quite exciting that more celebrities are streaming online, not even just on Twitch but on other media platforms as well, and I think it’s a great opportunity for smaller artists like myself to have more people realize that online live music performances are available for everyone to enjoy for free,” she said. “Of course I wish people would be paying more attention to lesser-known artists, but the fact that bigger-name musicians are streaming can only be a good thing, in my opinion.”

Others, like widely-adored video game music pianist Lara6683, agree.

“I absolutely see this as a positive force for discoverability,” Lara6683 said to Kotaku in an email. “Musicians with established fan bases will come over to Twitch, bring their community with them, and then their fans will most likely explore other Twitch streams, meaning that everyone could potentially grow and benefit from this.”

But will new viewers trickle down to smaller streamers? Discovering new music on Twitch requires more manual effort than Spotify or YouTube, which use algorithms to make recommendations. And while Heafy optimistically pointed to the rise of Fortnite mega-streamers like Tyler “Ninja” Blevins helping raise the possibility ceiling for Twitch viewership numbers in general, it’s worth noting that the Fortnite era has led to a version of Twitch that’s more stratified than ever, with the top 1,000 channels accounting for more than half the platform’s total number of hours watched.

In the short term, streamers are reporting mixed results. Raym said her viewership is slightly up, which to her seems in line with that of other music streamers she follows. Another music streamer, multi-instrumentalist, singer, and occasional Grand Theft Auto RP concert performer MikeTheBard, told Kotaku in an email that he has seen a slight dip in his numbers recently, which he chalks up to Covid-19. He’s not the only one. Nordhauser said that his numbers over the past few weeks have dropped, too.

“I’ve seen a downward curve in my viewership because there’s so much saturation in Twitch Music right now,” he said. “We’re creating a market now where it’s just like the real music industry, where only the big artists are going to get all the viewers and money.”

Twitch exercises a fair amount of direct control over that ecosystem, but while the company still gives front page spotlights to endemic music streamers, Nordhauser has witnessed a trend that favors bigger names in recent times.

“Twitch is really doing a lot to help all those big names—actually, to a point where they’re not helping me anymore,” he said. “I hit them up about front-paging my Animal Crossing stream, and they just kind of ignored me. I looked at what was on the front page, and it was [Diplo’s record label] Mad Decent, and they were just doing a one-camera DJ stream.”

Nordhauser, by contrast, was spinning video-game-themed remixes to a virtual audience inside Animal Crossing: New Horizons. He was performing mashups in multiple senses, blending beloved songs and blurring the line between Twitch’s music and video game sections. In the interest of disclosure, I’ve known Nordhauser for years, and we’ve ended up inebriated together at multiple events and Coheed and Cambria concerts. That said, his Animal Crossing rave this week—the second in what he hopes will be an ongoing series—was one of the most uniquely joyful things I’ve experienced in a multiplayer video game. Players, myself included, strung together dances from in-game reactions, mirroring each others’ moves as songs shifted and swayed. We also ganged up on a computer-controlled villager, the swole penguin Roald, and shoved him onto the dance floor. Then we dug holes around him so he couldn’t escape and formed a mosh pit on top of him. The whole in-game scene was broadcast on stream, as was Nordhauser’s corresponding IRL DJ set. The stream peaked at 115 concurrent viewers—a respectable number compared to Nordhauser’s other recent streams, but merely a drop in the vast Animal Crossing ocean that is Twitch.

For its part, Twitch says it’s making a deliberate effort to bring more musicians onto Twitch.

“We’ve received inquiries from a number of organizations about streaming on Twitch as large-scale events and experiences continue to be canceled in light of concerns around Covid-19,” Twitch COO Sara Clemens said to Kotaku in an emailed statement. “Where possible, we are working with these groups to help bring those experiences to life.”

In response to inquiries about what the platform will do to support smaller music streamers in this time of obvious change, however, a Twitch representative pointed once again to large organizations. “By partnering with SoundCloud and Bandsintown, we expect the music scene on Twitch to grow further, and we will continue to support musicians and community members with the tools they need to thrive,” the rep said.

Nearly every music streamer I spoke to agreed that, ideally, bigger-name musicians will learn their way around Twitch and use the platform’s built-in tools—as well as their own platforms as people with gargantuan audiences—to foster growth in the Twitch music community at large. Heafy, who regularly promotes other streamers during his own streams and on his Twitter account, beat this drum relentlessly. He encouraged bigger acts to use Twitch’s raid functionality, which allows them to send their viewers into another streamer’s channel.

“Herman Li of DragonForce, before he ever streamed on Twitch, texted me and was like ‘Can you help me out with this? Can you give me a breakdown of what’s important?’” said Heafy. “And after I explained a little bit about a beginner-level rig, I said, ‘Raid a channel after every single stream. Find someone, get to know these communities.’ I’ve been able to meet some amazing, amazing music streamers over the last three years. There are people who’ve been streaming much longer than us band guys who are coming in now. It’s very important to support that.”

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