Once the domain primarily of gamers, livestreaming platform Twitch has become a refuge for musicians and their fans during the coronavirus crisis, allowing a vast array of artists to perform for – or just hang out with – isolated audiences.
But while the pandemic has unexpectedly accelerated Twitch’s emergence as a music hub, the evolution is the culmination of a years-long strategy by the company, which launched in 2011 and was acquired by Amazon in 2014.
“Music has been a thing on Twitch for quite a while, actually, even before all this COVID-19 mess,” says Michael Olson, head of Twitch Music, who has led the division since its establishment about a year and a half ago.
“Fundamentally, Twitch is built for creators, for that live interactive shared experience,” he says. “Our viewers have told us that they want to see music content livestreamed, and we’ve always believed that our core value, both to creators and to consumers, was bringing communities together around shared interests in that live setting.”
The coronavirus “supercharged everything,” Olson says, but Twitch Music had already been discussing music discovery, technical solutions, monetization strategies and more.
Since many Americans began socially isolating about a month ago, Twitch has hosted album release events by Childish Gambino, Dua Lipa and A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, and a seemingly ceaseless parade of performances, from multi-artist showcases like Luck Reunion’s ‘Til Further Notice to full-concert streams by individual artists such as Code Orange.
The platform’s most crucial use, particularly with physical touring’s temporary disappearance, is how it can buoy struggling artists. Integrated chats connect musicians and audiences, and a three-pronged monetization approach mixing subscriptions, bits (Twitch parlance for tips) and advertising revenue ensures artists get paid.
“If you look at the ethos of Twitch, it’s all about small businesses,” says Olson. “The monetization tools where the community feels like they’re part of the experience, they’re supporting the creator, they’re able to access the creator, it provides a way to monetize that I haven’t seen elsewhere at scale.”
Creators can cash in using the Twitch Affiliate Program, but it requires a verification process that proved burdensome, given the rapid and abrupt onset of the coronavirus crisis.
Concert discovery site Bandsintown, which aggregates live listings and enables artists to message fans, announced a partnership with Twitch Music on March 24 to address the issue. The new initiative expedites Twitch verification for registered Bandsintown artists with more than 2,000 followers, getting money into their hands sooner.
“We immediately identified that artists are going to suffer a lot, as 80% of their revenue, if not all of their revenue, for some of them, is coming from live music,” says Bandsintown managing partner Fabrice Sergent.
Bandsintown set up a hub to track livestreaming across platforms, but partnered specially with Twitch because it quickly identified the threat coronavirus posed to musicians and “offers the best monetization platform” for livestreaming, according to Sergent.
“Independent artists at the club/theater level, they’re the ones that are really hurting the most,” Olson says. “We wanted to quickly provide a solution for them to get up and running.”
Beyond one-to-one tools to get money from fans to artists, Twitch has also hosted more ambitious, multi-faceted charitable efforts. Some, like Twitch Stream Aid, were initiated by the company itself. Held in conjunction with Amazon Music on March 28, the 12-hour marathon benefitted the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 Response Fund and featured a sprawling roster of more than 70 musicians, including Garth Brooks, Diplo, Barry Gibb, Ellie Goulding and Lady Antebellum. Most performed; others, like Joe Jonas, gamed.
“We wanted to Twitchify it, so we did music, we did gaming, we did a variety of different content,” Olson says. “We saw artists signing up for things that I don’t even know if they would’ve signed up for a few weeks ago. Streaming from their living rooms and doing something live and interacting with an audience like that, with that scale of artist across a program like this was pretty remarkable.”
Twitch’s intuitive, customizable service has made it a natural choice for others, too. When Willie Nelson’s Luck Reunion, held annually outside of Austin, Texas, was forced to cancel, organizers threw together a digital iteration – and turned to Twitch, in part because it allowed a seamless integrated digital tip jar to benefit performers.
“We realized it was an interesting, untapped market,” event co-founder Matt Bizer says. “It’s just a little more of a wild west market than some of the other tools out there.”
Pandemic or not, Twitch’s rapid musical growth seems unlikely to abate. As Olson explains, the platform has gathered “highly sought after” youth demographics together, and many “are also massive music fans.”
“There’s a tendency to put these kinds of things in buckets,” he says, rattling off interests including music, gaming and sports. “But particularly with a younger demo, culture is fluid. All of these things are fluid and intertwined and that’s where the magic is.”