Twitch’s streaming boom is jolting the music industry
Established DJs like Diplo and Sofi Tukker now post to the site multiple times per week, while a growing number of up-and-coming musicians have embraced Twitch as a way to build up a fan base.
On the morning of May 27, Kenneth Charles Blume III wanted to talk about white privilege. Blume, a 29-year-old DJ from Greenwich, Connecticut, has produced beats for some of the biggest rappers in the game, including Vince Staples, Freddie Gibbs and JPEGMAFIA, under the pseudonym Kenny Beats. Having benefited directly from Black culture, he felt an urge to speak out after the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota days earlier.
To vent, he turned to Twitch, a video site owned by Amazon.com Inc. He began his performance, which would go on for more than two hours, by saying he was in a foul mood. He then responded to a viewer question about the Minnesota Freedom Fund, a nonprofit organization that bails out low-income people from jail. Blume urged his viewers to donate. “A lot of us who grew up poor have white privilege,” he said. “I'm trying to normalize the idea of talking about this.”
Such outpourings, often in response to questions from fans, have earned Blume a large and growing following on Twitch, the most popular service for live streaming in the U.S. Since starting his Twitch channel in March, Blume has amassed more than 100,000 followers. Every time he goes live, thousands of people tune in to hear him talk about his artistic process and to observe how he interacts with musicians and fellow producers.
Long an afterthought to YouTube, Instagram and TikTok, Twitch has emerged recently as an effective way for musicians to interact with fans during the coronavirus pandemic. Established DJs like Diplo and Sofi Tukker now post to the site multiple times per week, while a growing number of up-and-coming musicians have embraced Twitch as a way to build up a fan base.
“I don't think we've ever experienced quite this large of a growth in following as we have in the last 78 days,” said Sophie Hawley-Weld, one-half of electronic duo Sofi Tukker. She and Tucker Halpern have streamed live on Twitch nearly 100 days in a row. During certain streams, Halpern will shout out to the “Plamp Fam” or “Freak Fam,” a group of fans who show up before the music starts. While Sofi Tukker still has a larger following on Instagram, Twitch is where their supporters congregate to make connections and interact with each other. “For some reason, it's built much better for building community,” Halpern said.
What YouTube is for music videos, Instagram is for photos and TikTok is for memes, Twitch is becoming for live performance and conversations. In May, people spent almost 27 million hours watching live music and other performing arts on Twitch, according to StreamElements, more than five times January's total. And music is now one of the top 15 genres on the site.
“Music is growing like crazy right now,” said Mike Olson, Twitch's head of music. “We're seeing a lot of artists who, for all the reasons you're aware of, are in need of a place to connect with fans and a way to make up for revenue they'd normally get on the road.”
Olson joined Twitch in 2018 from Pandora, the online radio service. The following year, he helped to create a music team dedicated to increasing the number of artists who regularly use the site. Since then, Olson has tried to convince artists that they don't need to drastically change their routine in order to attract an audience on Twitch—they can just film themselves getting ready for a show, or practicing at home or playing video games.
At first, musicians were slow to come around. Many associated Twitch with the insular world of hardcore video-game fans, which remains a major constituent on the site. In April, nine of the 10 most popular genres on Twitch were specific video games, led by Valorant. “Before all this hit, 90% of artists didn't even know what Twitch was,” said Karen Allen, a manager who wrote an advice book for musicians on how to use Twitch. “Of the 10% who did, it was 50/50 on whether they knew there was a music category.”
But in recent months, as thousands of artists found themselves stuck at home, many started to try out Twitch. While some social networks are just starting to offer live chats and subscriptions, those options have been built into Twitch from the beginning. “Facebook and YouTube and Instagram are where you put your polished self,” said Allen. “No one going to Twitch to see signed artists in all their perfect glory. They are going there because they like music and a fun creator who is good, or fun to hang out with.”
According to Allen, to make a living off of Twitch, artists need to surpass 100 concurrent viewers and stream multiple days a week. Many acts make more than $100,000 a year from Twitch alone, typically from a mix of ad revenue and donations. That's good money for a musician who can't sell out a club, but it's still pocket change to a major act.
Music is now a key part of Twitch's strategy to broaden its demographic of users in order to pull in more advertising revenue. The site has recently commissioned original video series that will cater to female viewers and nongamers. At the same time, the growing popularity of music on Twitch has convinced the company to speed up plans for new features, including the revival of Twitch Radio, a live radio service. Twitch has talked to music companies about securing rights for a live channel that would play music and include visuals and photo montages, according to people familiar with the talks.
“Twitch is one of the best things to ever happen for artists, particularly for independent artists.”
Such plans are unlikely to flourish until Twitch mollifies the music companies, many of which are tired of watching technology businesses use their songs without paying for the rights. Twitch has yet to license the rights to songs from any of the three major music companies. As a result, infringing videos go up every day. While YouTube and Instagram actively take down such videos, Twitch has so far maintained a more laissez-faire approach. The loose standards are one of the reasons Twitch is so popular among DJs, who often play music from other artists during long sets.
All of which is now attracting increased scrutiny from the music industry's lawyers and lobbyists. “More and more artists are finding their music used in unauthorized ways on Twitch,” said Mitch Glazier, chief executive officer of the Recording Industry Association of America. The organization has sent the website a flurry of takedown notices, requesting the removal of infringing material. “We've learned from history that as a platform emerges, you need to get out there right away and enforce rights,” Glazier said.
In the meantime, to fortify its growing relationship with music fans, Twitch will have to convince artists not to abandon the site once the coronavirus pandemic subsides and they can get back to touring. Some major artists are unlikely to keep live streaming every day when the threat of infection ebbs. There's too much money to be made by getting back on the road.
But Blume, for one, plans to stick around. In recent months, he has refined his strategy on Twitch, adding competitive “battles” in which fans can participate by submitting original beats or album art. The entire team at his creative collective DOTS is working on ways to improve the experience. And Blume has emerged as a kind of cultural recruiter for the platform. In a recent stream, he urged Timbaland, one of the defining producers in the history of hip-hop, to join him on Twitch. He then told him about a “raid,” a practice where one live stream ends and directs all its viewers to another channel.
“Twitch is one of the best things to ever happen for artists, particularly for independent artists,” said Blume's manager Mike Power. “I don't think there's ever been a better way to connect with fans and have fans be in a position to support you.”