On Tuesday night, musician Marc Rebillet live-streamed on Twitch, looping layers of piano while crooning over the top to create a jazzy, lo-fi track on the fly. Any other day, this would have been a usual performance for Rebillet, who is known for recording his solo sets. But Rebillet wasn’t supposed to be at home on Tuesday night; he was supposed to be performing in Australia. Like many other musicians, his tour was suddenly canceled as a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Now, he’s stuck at home, hoping Twitch can mitigate the financial damage from canceled shows. “I’m just trying to survive,” he says, “and Twitch has the highest earning potential for livestreams.”
Rebillet is part of a fast-growing community of musicians who are migrating to digital platforms to perform “quaranstreams” during the pandemic. Many larger artists, like Charli XCX, John Legend, and Diplo are choosing Instagram, but indie artists are overwhelmingly flocking to Twitch.
There’s one likely reason: while Instagram is an easy option to reach lots of people en masse, Twitch offers an abundance of ways to make money. “It’s more financially focused,” says musician and longtime Twitch streamer Ducky. “It supports different tiers of subscriptions and donations. People can subscribe to a channel for free with their Amazon Prime account. Fans can tip in micro amounts with things like Cheers. Other platforms usually just pay out on ad revenue or number of plays.”
In other words, Twitch’s flexible moneymaking features are becoming a stopgap necessity for many indie acts as the novel coronavirus has essentially frozen the music industry in recent weeks. Conferences, festivals, and nightclubs are shut down, and the federal government has recommended public gatherings not exceed 10 people. This has effectively cut off a vital artery of income for artists: shows. “There are a ton of artists that are not going to be okay for the next six months without touring who are trying to get into Twitch streaming right now to make an income to survive,” Ducky says.
Although Rebillet makes money from YouTube, merchandise, PayPal donations, and streaming royalties, he says the bulk of his money comes from hard ticket sales. This is the norm for most American musicians. A study by the Music Industry Research Association found that the average US musician has three sources of income, with the lion’s share overwhelmingly derived from live performances. So when months of shows unexpectedly cancel, it can be financially devastating for indie musicians. “The more you can prove you can sell hard tickets, the more you’re worth when you’re booked,” Rebillet says. “I’m sort of scrambling to find a way to keep being able to live the way I want to live.”
Jim Tomaszewski (aka JSTJR) is another artist who has turned to Twitch to supplement his income. Although he’s been building up a YouTube channel over the past year, he recently turned his attention to Twitch as it makes more immediate financial sense. “Over the past year I’ve been living month to month but I haven’t really had to worry,” Tomaszewski says. “I had a full schedule and was booked months in advance. That was kind of new for me. Now, I don’t have any shows for who knows how long. A lot of people perceive that all artists are wealthy, but they don’t really understand. It’s looking pretty grim.”
With no sense of when live shows will resume, artists like Rebillet, Tomaszewski, Ducky, and others have created weekly Twitch live stream schedules. On Mondays, Ducky produces tracks. Tomaszewski DJs on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Indie artist Mija, who was mid-tour when all of her remaining shows were canceled, is now painting on Tuesdays and performing acoustic sets on Wednesdays. Electronic artist Sam Vogel (aka Jauz) hosts “demo roulette” on Mondays where he works on Ableton projects submitted by fans. Vogel was planning to live-stream his “Bite This” radio show on Fridays from a studio, but he doesn’t know “if [traveling there] is viable anymore because everything is changing literally every day.”
In the rush to get set up on Twitch, some musicians are learning about the platform’s rules the hard way. Rebillet received a 24-hour ban during his first live stream for taking his shirt off and “singing about sex.” (His account has since been reinstated.) On the other side, fans appear eager to see artists join Twitch and excitedly fill up chats. “Are you going to start streaming more now?” someone asks on Mija’s first Twitch stream. “Maybe,” she says in response. “Now that my tour is canceled, don’t really have much else to do but make shit. I’ll make music on here, I just have to figure out how to set everything up.”
For now, the musicians say Twitch is only recouping a fraction of lost funds, but they believe it will become more sustainable. And many say they intend to maintain their Twitch presence when things go back to normal. “Could I live off of what I’m making on Twitch right now? Absolutely not,” Vogel says. “But I think live-streaming will be a crucial part of being a musician or an entertainer. It’s something that will inevitably happen in the future.”
Established Twitch musicians like Ducky are watching the influx with cautious optimism. Big artists can bring swaths of new music fans to the platform, but they can also disrupt the communities that many like her, Grimecraft, matphilly, and others have worked to grow on Twitch. In a recent tweet, Ducky expressed concern over the wave of large artists making the jump. “Twitch has etiquette,” Ducky says. “There’s a culture on Twitch that’s worth familiarizing yourself with, especially if you’re going to come into the platform with a built-in audience.”
For those new to the platform, Ducky says there are two things Twitch musicians can do to support each other. The first is raids, which is when streamers send their viewers to another person’s live channel at the end of their stream. The second is setting up auto-hosting lists, which lets a channel broadcast another user’s stream when they’re not live. “If you think about an artist that goes on tour... What do they do?” says Ducky. “They book support acts. That’s how I look at raiding and auto hosting. It’s an opportunity to build up other musicians.”
From a fan’s point of view, it’s exciting to connect with their favorite artists in new and intimate ways amid the chaos of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. And while many musicians are now delving into Twitch to try to find an economic way forward in uncertain times, it also fulfills another need: creating a social and emotional connection to the outside world. “I’ve always felt like I’m one with my fan base instead of someone they should be admiring,” says Tomaszewski. “We’re all in it together.”