Rich Medina is one of the most respected DJs in the music industry, spinning hip-hop, house, soul, afrobeat, funk and dance tunes for audiences around the world. He has more than 50,000 followers on Instagram, but these days he is more interested in appealing to his 3,700 followers on Twitch, a platform more known for streaming video games than music. He’s not alone: a growing number of DJs and musicians are also giving the app a shot.
Justin.tv, named after its co-founder Justin Kan, allowed users to broadcast video online. But the site’s gaming channel, called Twitch, usurped the rest of the service’s audience. Days after it rebranded to Twitch in August 2014, Amazon acquired it for $970m. Since then, it’s become the go-to streaming service for gamers, who can partner with Twitch and have viewers pay for subscriptions to access their streams.
These days, the company is looking to make inroads into the music world – Twitch’s head of music, Mike Olson, says that they have got a few years’ head start.
“Even before social distancing began, a vibrant music scene thrived on Twitch. It’s been small but mighty, with a handful of artists growing followings in the community, similar to the way new artists gain traction on SoundCloud,” says Olson. He cites the electro-pop musician HANA using the platform to livestream the making of her latest album Hanadriel, and Grimes debuting her LP Miss Anthropocene with a Q&A with fans. Non-gaming content on Twitch has quadrupled over the past three years, Olson says.
The opportunity has bloomed with the advent of Covid-19. Olson says that in the four weeks since social distancing began, hours watched on Twitch grew more than 50%, compared with the four weeks prior.
Individual artists are now offering at-home performances to their fans. Diplo streams live nightly sets to thousands of viewers (his latest scream for his album premiere had appearances by Blanco Brown, the Jonas Brothers and Noah Cyrus), and just launched a weekly talkshow featuring musical guests. ZEDD has also started a new Twitch channel, and launched it with a 90-minute performance from his Orbit World Tour, along with a few hours streaming the video game Valorant. Music companies are starting their own Twitch channels as well – from major labels like Def Jam and Columbia Records, to indie powerhouses like Brainfeeder and Stones Throw.
Twitch Music’s steepest competition is Instagram Live, which has generally been ground zero for connecting with fans. Some have given digital concerts from their living rooms. DJs who would normally be at clubs will spin sets from their homes. There’s also Verzuz, a new series started by producers Swizz Beatz and Timbaland that pairs songwriters, producers and artists for a battle format where they run through their songs and let fans informally decide the winner. Some of these events draw hundreds of thousands of viewers at a time.
But the platform also comes with its limits. Most IG Live sessions max out at one hour before the participants have to log back on and start over. Sound quality is sketchy, because artists are relying on the speakers in the room instead of being able to connect their audio to Instagram (multiple artists in the Verzuz battles, most notably Teddy Riley, have had technical issues when they try to elevate the sound or integrate live instruments.) Plus, as Greg Battle, a principal for Rich Medina’s Rico Grande LLC, points out, they have static page formats.
“If you’re on Instagram, it all looks and behaves the same. Everything from Facebook is on brand that way. They don’t want you to customize things,” Battle said. “When you come to Instagram, you get the Instagram experience. You have this small little area where you can create and everything else is bland and itself, whether it’s Facebook blue or Instagram red and white. Versus Twitch, they want you to be creative and want to give you as much rope as you can handle to make something that is a compelling experience.”
An illustration of those options is on the Twitch page of Rich Medina: a recent stream, Kung Fu Theatre, shows Medina DJing music over clips from martial arts films, with the audio from both the film and the music crystal clear. Viewers can do more than comment: they can enter into the stream with their own cams, so other viewers can see them dancing along.
Along with a more immersive experience, Twitch also has more options to monetize their pages with their fans. That includes tiered subscription services, and shared revenue from “Bits”, a virtual currency system in Twitch that fans can buy to “Cheer” on their favorite artists. Twitch also has partnerships with SoundCloud and Bandsintown, two key platforms in the music community. While apps like Instagram, Facebook and Twitter may have larger music audiences, Twitch is attempting to create more revenue opportunities for what may start as a smaller base.
Hip-hop producer Samuel “Trox” Troxel hopes that his supporters show loyalty to him, as he announced last week that he was migrating his SHBS TV to Twitch. He said that his manager suggested it as a platform for him to showcase his creative process of making beats. He had previously used Facebook, but he says Twitch is an easier, more efficient option.
“With Facebook, I straight-up just set up a Mevo camera and just used its microphone. Unfortunately the quality wasn’t the best but it was all I knew how to use it … I got mad complaints about the sound clipping because of the camera’s microphone. I couldn’t even figure it out.”
Trox isn’t worried about the smaller music base of Twitch: he’s impressed with their growth, and he says he can still promote his Twitch link on his other social media pages. But most importantly, he says, connecting with fans helps with his creativity.
“At the end of the day, Twitch has helped my productivity because I make beats better while I have an audience watching, whether it’s three or 3,000 people,” he says. “As long as music is being made and I’m happy with it, that’s all that matters to me.”