by Gabrielle Bohrman
On a recent November evening, Marina Verenikina played the last few minor-key notes of “I Can See Clearly Now” on the piano in her Los Angeles home. Pausing to check in with the 313 Twitch users viewing her livestream, she noted a new song request from kbooboo88 and a $20 donation from zulumika. Before calling her husband to accompany her on the guitar, the singer/songwriter directly addressed her fans through the camera.
“With all of us stuck at home during the pandemic, there aren’t many distractions and it feels so good just being here and seeing all your names,” she says, gesturing to the busy live chat next to her video on the computer screen. “You guys are the best. Thank you, seriously.”
Verenikina, along with dozens of artists, bands, DJs, producers and concert promoters, have turned to Twitch as an alternative platform to stream live performances. Though primarily a gaming platform, the Amazon-owned site is now attracting music-industry veterans and hopefuls hoping to reach audiences, hone their craft, and earn money during the pandemic.
“Twitch has given me the ability and the tools to continue ‘touring’ from home. It has an amazing community of fans and artists who support each other,” Verenikina says.
Unlike most social media platforms, Twitch is specifically designed for live-streaming. The nine-year-old site’s built-in and third-party features, including its unique chat functions and reward-system, create a more engaging environment for fans. It is not uncommon for Verenikina, whose 1,600 followers are affectionately known as “Marinawood,” to have personal conversations with viewers between songs on her streams.
“Community actually outpaces the content on Twitch,” says Karen Allen, tech-consultant and author of “Twitch for Musicians.” “Whereas with Facebook and YouTube, the content is first, and the community is second.”
In 2018, Twitch created a separate music division, hiring industry leaders like Tracy Chan, who built the Spotify for Artists platform. Since then, the site focused its strategy on fostering relationships with record labels and promoters.
Insomniac Events first used Twitch in 2018 to live stream their annual Electric Daisy Festival, and rapper Drake made headlines when he streamed himself playing Fortnite on e-sport legend Tyler “Ninja” Blevin’s channel.
“Post-pandemic everybody was looking for a place to live stream, and Twitch had the staff to reach out to people saying, ‘Hey do it here,’” Allen says.
In somewhat of a perfect storm, Twitch partnered with major promoters seeking a platform to reschedule their canceled 2020 events. Rolling Loud programmed their annual summer hip-hop festival exclusively on Twitch, bringing in high-profile artists like Trippie Redd and Swae Lee (and their audiences) to the site.
Rather than one-off performances, the festival combined concert footage with other media forms, such as the hip-hop news podcast “The Rotation” and a freestyle competition, “Got Bars.” Other promoters have utilized Twitch’s ability to handle recurring events, such as Move Forward Music’s “The Board Room,” a weekly show featuring conversations between producers.
“Twitch really likes serialization and consistent streams, and that’s the way you build audiences there,” says Alfred Darlington, a founding faculty member of Berklee College of Music’s electronic digital instrument program.
Darlington, who’s worked with Diplo, Death Cab for Cutie and Flying Lotus as the DJ Daedelus, regularly streams Twitch solo sets and co-branded content with his record label Brainfeeder.
“You’ll see artists giving the editorial on top of their music, even just checking in and saying hi,” he says. “Those small personal touches can go a long way in a virtual environment where people want more than just a singing head.” Allen, who manages several Twitch artists, says major acts can make more than $100,000 a year from ad revenue and donations. Unlike Instagram and Facebook, Twitch allows “superfans” to directly compensate an artist by subscribing to their channel and tipping them with virtual currency.
This is lucrative for top-tier users like rap producer Kenny Beats, whose 5,351 subscribers pay up to $25 a month to stream his production tutorials, free-style studio sessions, and “beat battles.” Known for projects with Rico Nasty and Vince Staples among others, Beats has seen his channel top the music viewership charts since he partnered with Twitch in March and earns up to $250 per individual tip.
While unable to fully compensate for her canceled DJ gigs, Josephine Cruz feels fortunate that she can pay her bills with Twitch profits. Known as Jayemkayem, the Toronto-based DJ and radio-host streams three programs a week regularly, in addition to opening sets for artists including 99 Neighbors and Deante' Hitchcock on Move Forward Music’s Twitch channel.
“I think Twitch has a culture of support built into it where people seem to understand that if they really like what someone’s doing, it’s worth it to make an investment in their career,” she says.
After passing certain criteria regarding followers and broadcast hours, Cruz earned the affiliate status needed to monetize her streams. With individual fans tipping upwards of $250, she feels a responsibility to show up consistently and deliver fresh content every stream.
“These are people who are so down for me, they’re willing to pay for something that they could get for free. But they want to pay for it so that I can keep doing it” she says.
Twitch viewership grew the most out of any livestream platform, with a 50 percent increase between March and April, according to a StreamElements report.
“We're not only seeing this huge boom in how big streamers’ audiences are and how much money they can make, but we're also seeing the expansion of non-gaming categories,” says Kellen Browning, New York Times tech-reporter who covers Twitch, noting that Twitch has figured in everything from Black Lives Matter protests to the presidential debates.
For musicians, Twitch’s migration into mainstream culture has allowed them to expand their audience by collaborating with artists from other genres. Terrace Martin, Denzel Curry and other artists performed alongside Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors in a June charity livestream. Willie Nelson’s “Come and Toke It” festival virtually celebrated cannabis on March April, 20. 2020.
The event, which featured a lineup including Matthew McConaughey, Beto O’Rourke, and Bill Maher, encouraged like-minded fans to “pass a joint” to Willie during the livestream.
In the era of social distancing, immediate audience interaction is scarce – so, for newer bands such as Boyfriend Machine, Twitch offers an opportunity to introduce themselves to fans. Joseph Distasio and Eliza Young formed the psychedelic rock band during quarantine and debuted their music on University of Massachusetts student radio’s Twitch channel. Distasio’s favorite part of the experience was checking the constant stream of encouraging comments and funny memes from viewers in the live chat between songs.
“There were 30 people who watched our whole set, which doesn’t seem like a lot,” Distasio said.
“But if 30 people were at a small show and responded like that, I’d feel pretty good.”
Young agreed: “It didn’t feel like we were just performing into the void,” he said. “It felt like we were performing with and for other people.”
Major-league DJs, who normally play sold-out clubs, can still communicate directly with fans on their personalized Twitch channels. In Rich Medina’s weekly show, “Bangers! A Discussion on Diggin’,” the Afrobeat DJ asks his 6,100 followers to message him their favorite records. Carl Cox, dance music pioneer and former resident DJ at Space Ibiza, takes fan requests during his show “Cabin Fever: The Vinyl Session.”
Turntablist Jayson Braun, 20, says Twitch has transformed the DJ-fan relationship. Braun, who streams shows every Thursday night from his bedroom in Long Island, used to DJ in clubs four times a week -- but recently purchased his first microphone, to interact with his on-line audience in real-time.
“When you're DJ’ing in a booth at the club, your almost untouchable to people,” Braun said. “On Twitch, it’s encouraged to talk in the chat. The DJ answers you during the stream so its more personal.”
Though a vaccine may reduce pandemic fear and get people back into clubs, Braun thinks the DJ community will continue streaming even when venues reopen. For those with families, it is more appealing to DJ from home on a Friday night than isolated in a bar’s DJ booth. Allen believes that Twitch will find a place in artists’ promotional arsenal, along with marketing tools such as social media and merchandise.
“I think people are just seeing Twitch’s fan- and community-building power,” Allen says. “And it’s just fun for artists to hang out with people who are really into their content.”