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Record labels have a new target: streamers and gamers

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One way to get around copyright strikes

Photo by Nick Statt / The Verge

On a quiet street in Vancouver, Canada, independent EDM record label Monstercat is carving out a solution to a problem that has plagued gamers and content creators for more than a decade: can streaming culture and the music industry coexist in a world where algorithms are used to track down unlicensed tunes, strip audio from videos, and dole out bans to streamers? Gavin Johnson, head of gaming at Monstercat, believes there can be a middle ground.

“We’re aiming to seamlessly connect two industries: music and gaming,” Johnson tells me from the sprawling Monstercat studio. The office is part streamer paradise — a land of leather beanbag chairs, friendly office dogs, and Twitch streamed live on giant screens — and part music producer haven featuring a large recording studio for a rotating cast of musicians, singers, and electronic artists. Where traditional music labels rely on copyright law to keep licensed tunes out of content creator videos and streams, Monstercat has built a small EDM empire explicitly for them.

Perhaps best known for its work with Marshmello — who made his Monstercat debut in 2016 with the single “Alone,” which led to the studio’s first platinum record the following year — the digital label is a cultivator of new tracks, a producer and distributor of online tunes, but it’s also synonymous with influencer management, video game streaming, and the philosophizing of copyright politics.

Monstercat signs artists on a track-by-track basis, resulting in a discography of over 2,000 songs across 29 genres of music, from drum & bass through to indie dance tunes and happy hardcore. With a $5 monthly subscription, creators can stream these tunes in the background of their content across YouTube, Twitch, and Mixer, while keeping all of the revenue for themselves.

Monstercat’s Vancouver office.
Photo by Brandon Artis

Started in 2011 by Mike Darlington and Ari Paunonen, two university students who began the company in an effort to help distribute music made by their friends, Monstercat has come to represent the era when it was conceived — what Johnson refers to as a time when streaming culture was first coming into its own. “Just as EDM was on the rise, monetization of content was on the rise, e-sports was on the rise, and streaming,” Johnson says. “It was a natural fit.”

Yet, while streaming culture has only grown in the years that have passed since Monstercat’s launch, copyright policies have not evolved alongside it. Today, the average streamer has grown accustomed to the arcane rules of copyright law that can result in muted Twitch channels and temporary YouTube bans. Since 2007, YouTube has relied on an algorithmic system known as Content ID to police copyright on the platform, a system that works by comparing a database of copyrighted video and audio to newly uploaded videos. Livestreams are similarly scanned for third-party content, something that can result in a full copyright strike and the deletion of an account once a user reaches three strikes.

For those attempting to make a living off of streaming platforms, a strike on their account could be disastrous. Penalized with a 90-day streaming ban, the livelihoods of streamers are ultimately controlled by an algorithm. Twitch had once offered a royalty-free music library as a way to combat the problem. The curated collection of 500 songs was first made available in 2015 to use in the background of streams for free. But these, too, were subject to muting as its catalog evolved.

“Can confirm there was a huge list of songs there as recently as late November. Starting around Christmas my VODs started getting muted for playing songs from the list (that I had previously played with no issue),” wrote one user on the official Twitch subreddit earlier this year. The library has since been dismantled as of last year, as has its public TwitchFM Spotify, which no longer features any playlists or music. The Verge reached out to Twitch for comment.

Monstercat’s solution is to twist the standard model of music distribution, creating a strange new form of music label that doubles as a tool for fans to discover music and a platform for artists to get their music heard. “We have what in the music space is rare: the master rights, and the publishing side of the record, which a lot of record labels don’t hold. So it provides us the ability to work creatively with video games and collaborate in new ways,” says Monstercat director of A&R Jonathan Winter.

Best known by his stage name Going Quantum, Winter is an electronic artist and producer as well as a seeker of new tracks to contribute to Monstercat’s growing roster. “If I listen to a song once and it’s stuck in my head hours later, I’m confident it will have the same effect on other people,” he tells me of his process for finding new songs for the digital label. Winter will often seek out artists who are early in their career but ready to take the spotlight. Monstercat has so far launched three artists from nothing: “zero followers,” he says.

Rocket League
Rocket League.

“We are trying to be more innovative with how we are positioning our music within gaming,” Johnson tells me. The company is now working directly with game developers to provide in-game radio soundtracks, songs for the introductory splash screens of games, and music packs. Monstercat developed DLC for the VR rhythm game Beat Saber, and it worked alongside the developers of Rocket League to create volumes of bespoke tracks.

“In the beginning of our partnership, [Rocket League developer Psyonix] wanted to be very careful because they had their own soundtrack that they produced in house for the longest time. So they wanted it to be similar to that, to make sense,” says Winter of this model for distribution. But the game developer could also access statistics showing which songs players skip over most often and which ones are listened to most frequently. From there, it can get an idea of the broader genres and styles that might work for the game. In 2018, the digital label began releasing four compilations for the game every quarter, with each package based on what was happening in the game at that point in time.

“If it was more e-sports-focused, we’d release an Uncaged album, being our bass-heavy, aggressive brand,” says Johnson. “If it was more of a themed content update, like the 2018 Salty Shores update with summer vibes and happy and fun, we did an Instinct album, being our pop melodic vocal side of the brand.” Psyonix would later add a “Listen in Spotify” button in-game, allowing players to find these tracks on the music streaming platform, further blurring the dividing lines between in-game music and mainstream music releases.

Monstercat’s aim is to continue to blur those lines. What was at one point thought of as two distinctive industries can today be better understood as aspects in a Venn diagram of overlapping interests. Music fandom and gamer culture don’t exist independently of one another; usually, they’re one and the same.

This is a concept that record label behemoth Sony Music has just started to dip into. In June, the music label launched its imprint Lost Rings — described to me by Columbia Records’ SVP of content development Shahendra Ohneswere as a label “about gaming culture, for gaming culture, created by gamers.” The Sony imprint is working with musicians and artists who are also gamers, says Ohneswere. “We were able to identify gamers who not only had the talent but also wanted to say something about their world and experiences. This is something we’ve been working on for over a year in terms of building infrastructure and aligning with the right creators. We are a platform that gives gamers who have natural musical talent the resources and support to make their music and art for their audience.”

Its first acts — BunnyMightGameU, BlackKrystel, and SunZi — are artists whose work spans hip-hop and electronic genres while drawing direct inspiration from elements of gaming culture. “Like most artists my music comes from my personal experiences,” BlackKrystel tells me over email. “I draw my inspiration from my life and, believe it or not, I’m one hell of a geek, so, most of my inspiration comes from things like online gaming, anime, Twitch, convention going, and even cosplaying.” All three artists performed during this year’s BET Awards weekend at the BET Experience.

“I think Lost Rings will break the stereotypes we have of people in the gaming and geek space,” BlackKrystel continues. “Lost Rings is exactly the type of representation the gaming and creator communities need. I think the gaming and creator communities have a unique experience that is hardly ever represented and Lost Rings is giving that chance for our communities to be accurately represented by authentic artists, like myself, to create music that speaks directly to us. We are full of talented, passionate people that just want to connect with others over the things they love. Lost Rings is an example of just how large [this] community truly is.”

For Monstercat, the future of these partnerships will only help to dissolve the unnecessary distinction between gamers and music fans — and perhaps even the distinction between a streaming platform and game. This year, the company will release a minimum of 24 singles for Rocket League, with each track launching in online stores globally at the same time it releases in-game as a launch track.

“We are looking to position each of our records within games in some form,” says Johnson. “In Rocket League’s case, we are able to distribute music over live updates to their players just like you would on traditional music platforms. It creates a new stage for our artists to be discovered on release day through their Rocket League Radio feature.”

“These songs appear in-game the same day they come out everywhere else. That’s a new thing for video games.”