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How Twitch became a lifeline for live gigs

For nearly a decade, Twitch has been a place to watch people play video games, but the pandemic has made it into a hub for music, comedy and conversation.

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When 2020 began, comedian Sooz Kempner was ready for another busy year. Alongside preparing for her eighth Edinburgh Fringe solo run and hosting two podcasts, she was gigging five nights a week. Then, in mid-March, the pandemic hit the UK.

“I suddenly lost every bit of live work I had, in a weekend,” she says. “There was a two-hour period where I literally lost three grand of work, bam bam bam – instantly. Obviously, no gigs equals no money and after almost 15 years as a live performer it was very discombobulating to suddenly have no work for the foreseeable.”

Kempner felt that she was running out of options. She dabbled with Facebook Live, but ran into technical issues. She was aware of Twitch, the livestreaming platform, but had given up on it years earlier, having found it difficult to use. But with a live audience hard to find, she reluctantly rejoined and, to her surprise, became hooked. Now Kempner streams regularly on Twitch and has no plans to stop – even after the pandemic.

Twitch is an app and website for livestreaming – broadcasting and watching live video – that has until recently been used almost exclusively by the gaming community. Streamed from a PlayStation, an Xbox or a desktop computer, a typical video will show what’s happening on the user’s screen, with a smaller inset video of their face, so they can share both what they’re playing and their reactions to the game.  

Watching other people play video games is a lot more popular than anyone outside the gaming community might expect, and it has grown rapidly as a result of the pandemic. Twitch reported 3.64 million unique monthly streamers in 2019, a number that has already almost doubled, rising to 6.2 million monthly streamers so far this year. Viewers watched more than 5 billion hours of Twitch streams between April and June.

Since its launch in 2011, communities have been growing on Twitch. But what was once a space for gaming nerds is now becoming a place for music, comedy and celebrity – a mainstream social network.

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Bijan Stephen works for the American technology website The Verge, as a dedicated Twitch and livestreaming reporter. He joined having already been a Twitch streamer for more than a year. He says that part of what makes Twitch tricky for non-users to understand is that it has, for most of its existence, been siloed from the rest of the internet. It has grown quietly by itself, developing a unique culture that makes it look drastically different to other platforms.

“Twitch is the way it is now because it's been left alone for so long. The mainstream hasn’t paid attention to it.” Stephen says. “The pandemic really accelerated its mainstream visibility […] suddenly, Twitch is on everybody's lips.”

Stephen says Twitch's distinctive culture can be a barrier to understanding. “You have these Twitch-famous people who came up through a less visible system, who have a bunch of fans who are just immersed in the culture of Twitch in a way that's just frankly really hard to understand.”

At the same time, Twitch is more fluid than other platforms. Because everything is livestreamed, small communities form quickly around particular streamers. It’s also more closely moderated than other platforms, being one of the few social media platforms to have banned Donald Trump – temporarily, in June, for violation of its rules. In an interview with Stephen, Twitch CEO Emmett Shear said “it’s very explicitly not a free speech platform.”

It is also a platform on which people are happy to pay for content. Most users pay for at least a couple of channel subscriptions. Stephen compares it to the subscriptions website Patreon: “Streamers give certain rewards to subscribers,” which “creates an incentive to subscribe.”

Twitch takes a hefty cut from these subscriptions – currently 50 per cent. The platform is owned by Amazon, which offers Prime members one free subscription per month, and viewers can also tip streamers they like in “bits”, equivalent to one US cent.

Such returns mean that most streamers don't make a living from Twitch, but – as in many other areas of entertainment – there are a lucky few whose popularity explodes. Deals with Twitch itself can lead to “paydays of millions”, Stephen says, while brand sponsorship is another lucrative sideline for the most popular streamers.

But even the biggest streamers have relatively small audiences on the platform itself. “The common wisdom on Twitch is that you don't grow on Twitch, it's everything else that you do online, like YouTube videos, that drive traffic back to your Twitch page,” Stephen explains.

Twitch has always been home to more than gaming – there are channels for “just chatting”, political discussion, music and comedy. It is also a popular place to raise money for charity – Stephen ran a charity stream on his channel and raised $23,000. In April, the company hired its first head of music, and streams covering, knitting and arts and crafts are becoming more popular.

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Established performers are also beginning to explore Twitch as a space to connect with fans. Scottish actor and comedian Brian Limond, better known as Limmy, is one of the UK’s most successful Twitch streamers, broadcasting live videos covering gaming, music and comedy every weekday to his 242,000 followers. Despite having had multiple TV series (the Bafta-winning Limmy’s Show and Limmy’s Other Stuff on BBC Scotland), in early September Limond told his livestream viewers that he planned on giving up broadcast, publishing and live work to become a full-time streamer.

“I know who I am and this [streaming] is what I want to do… I want to do this for the rest of my days until I drop off this seat with a heart attack,” he said.

When Karen Allen first came across livestreaming, she was "knocked out by it. I had to figure out: what were people paying for? But I got it immediately. It wasn’t really about content; it was about community.”

Allen, who has a background in strategy and business development, is a livestreaming expert and the author of Twitch For Musicians. She works with up-and-coming artists to help them grow their profiles on Twitch and to make an income from livestreaming.

On Twitch, it’s not purely about the performance: “You can’t just go up there, do your show and expect people are gonna stumble across you,” Allen says. “You have to go and be a part of the music community, be a fan of the other streamers, and become part of the fabric of the music community.”

“When you feel that you’re getting something of value, the natural human response is to want to give something of value,” Allen adds. Compared to the impersonal and often awkward way in which an artist may share a PayPal link during an Instagram or Facebook livestream, payment is built into the architecture of Twitch, and the small amounts involved help to make it part of the experience.

A Twitch user who pays to subscribe to a channel can use that channel’s custom set of emojis – “emotes” on Twitch – which, like a pin badge on a jacket, pledge allegiance to the fandom. “It's not nameless, faceless fans throwing money into the dark. When you buy the subscription, something goes up on the screen and it’s acknowledged and it’s fun. You’re adding to the show,” says Allen.

[see also: Imogen Heap: “I’m so frustrated with the music industry”]

The Twitch music community is “small”, she says, but it has expanded noticeably over the past six months as gigs and concerts have been cancelled. Musicians in all genres have turned to livestreaming to offer their fans respite and promote new material. While John Legend and Charli XCX have used Instagram Live, other musicians, including respected DJs Rich Medina and Diplo, have chosen Twitch for regular performances, and brought their audiences with them. The company sees a big opportunity in this.

"While music has been growing in popularity over the past few years, in recent months we have seen incredible growth,” Tracy Chan, Twitch’s head of music, told the New Statesman. “In fact, the music category has increased 550 per cent year-over-year, as more and more musicians are building their communities.”

“All of these efforts have resulted in an increase in viewership for musicians like us,” say Travis and Allie, a married Texan couple who have been performing countryfied covers on Twitch as a_couple_streams since January 2016. Travis (the pair prefer to keep their surnames off the internet) pursued a career in a popular band between 2008 and 2015, “but never achieved the level of success and independence that we rapidly earned on Twitch”. Neither Travis nor Allie have second jobs. They upload music on Spotify and iTunes as aeseaes, but their live broadcasts remain responsible for the majority of their income. “We definitely could not have reached the same success pursuing a traditional path,” they add.  

The numbers for musicians on Twitch – even those for whom it is a full-time job – remain relatively low, but an audience of subscribers is worth more. Travis and Allie will average around 700 people watching them perform at once, with each video receiving 5,000-10,000 views in total. On a music streaming service such as Spotify, which pays artists about a third of a penny per stream, this wouldn’t add up to much. On Twitch, it can be enough to make a career. “If you’re looking at time in equals money out, you’re gonna go a lot better on a livestreaming service like Twitch than anywhere else,” says Karen Allen.  

[see also: The music press isn’t dead]

For others, the platform remains a supplement to other work. Marina Verenikina, a Russian-American singer and pianist living in Los Angeles, started streaming on Twitch as Marina V in March 2019, when she was seven months pregnant and gearing up for at least a year without being able to tour. Having worked in music for 20 years and released 12 albums, Verenikina has an international fan base. Yet she says she has been unable to convince many of her original fans to join her on Twitch, and so is building “almost from the ground up online”. Marina performs twice a week and has a small following of 1,600, averaging 45 concurrent viewers per stream. At the moment, she says she’s not making very much on the platform compared to previous gigs, but Twitch has become one of the many parts of her job, and she’s happy to be there. She would however like a “better discovery method of artists”, and describes Twitch’s 50 per cent cut of streamers’ earnings as “crazy”: “It’s way too much and I think it is rather unfair.”

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Is Twitch leading the way for livestreaming to become the future of the music industry? While gigs and festivals are impossible, it’s certainly helping some musicians earn a living. But there are issues. The upfront costs for streaming are large – subscribers expect high-quality audio and video, multiple camera angles and professional lighting, which require expensive gear and expertise. It can be hard to find artists, especially emerging artists, and while performers may feel close to their fans, as Allen points out, Twitch doesn’t tell performers much about who is watching them. If a popular Twitch artist wanted to plan a live tour in the future, it would be difficult to know where, in the real world, to find their new base.

But, Chan says, as the pandemic has created a huge spike in interest in music, Twitch now has “major plans”, including investments “in additional ways to support artists and the content our community loves”.

It also remains to be seen if livestreaming, however profitable, will ever come close to the experience of a real live show. “There are lots of musicians who live for that feeling of being onstage with the blinding lights and the crowd murmur and applause,” Travis and Allie say. For fans, too, being part of a crowd is something that cannot be replicated on screen.

But Kempner says Twitch can be something new. “It isn't a synthetic substitute for gigs – it's something entirely different, and allows me to perform live for people all over the world who would never normally be able to see me gig.”

“It's also now, five months in, providing a regular income,” she adds, “and to have achieved that when the industry largely shut down feels awesome.” Twitch may be no more than a helpful supplement for some performers, but for others it isn’t temporary: it’s the future.

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. Sign up to her free weekly newsletter the Dress Down for the latest film, TV, art, theatre and book reviews.

Ellen Peirson-Hagger is the New Statesman’s culture assistant.