Can streaming pay? Musicians are pinning fresh hopes on Twitch.

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Can streaming pay? Musicians are pinning fresh hopes on Twitch.
Matthew Heafy, a member of the metal band Trivium, prepares to livestream music on Twitch from his home in Orlando, Fla., June 2, 2021.The gaming platform is becoming increasingly attractive to artists, who can earn money by cultivating fan tribes that express their loyalty through patronage. Matt Grubb/The New York Times.

by Ben Sisario

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Each weekday at 8:30 a.m., after getting his twin 2-year-olds dressed, fed and set up with their nanny, Matthew K. Heafy decamps to an unoccupied bedroom in his home in Orlando, Florida, and flicks on three computers, three cameras and a battery of guitar equipment in preparation for his morning livestream shredfest.

Heafy, guitarist and lead singer of the metal band Trivium, is one of the most dedicated musicians on Twitch, the livestreaming platform that began a decade ago as a gaming haven but has grown into an always-on smorgasbord of entertainment — one that has proved especially attractive to musicians during the pandemic. Twitch, which is owned by Amazon, attracts an average of 30 million visitors a day, and its users watched more than 1 trillion minutes of royalty free music last year, according to the company.

Livestreaming apps are a dime a dozen these days. But what makes Twitch stand out, particularly for music, is how it fosters connections between performers and their audience, and allows those connections to be efficiently monetized. Fan interactions — which pour across the screen in a river of song requests, inside jokes and “emotes” (Twitch-specific emoticons) — are as much a part of the show as the artist onscreen, conveying the sense of a tightly knit, mutually supportive community.

Since January 2018, Heafy, 35, has kept a strict Twitch regimen, streaming nearly every weekday at 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. For up to three hours at a clip, he practices guitar riffs — pedagogically breaking down his technique for student-fans who inquire in the chat — jams with his band and plays first-person shooter games. Heafy has about 220,000 followers on Twitch, and well over 10,000 people may be watching him at any moment; all that attention, he said, keeps him motivated.

“Even if I don’t feel like practicing, I know people are going to be there who want to hear a couple hours of their favorite Trivium songs,” Heafy said. “So I make sure I’m there to make their day good.”

CENTRAL TO TWITCH’s popularity among musicians is its economic model, which is quietly revolutionizing the business by providing an alternative to the winner-take-all system of on-demand services like Spotify, Apple Music and YouTube.

Those platforms have become the default consumption mode by making virtually every song in existence available free or for a small subscription fee. As a technological feat and a consumer offering, they are nearly miraculous. But as revenue-sharing systems, they have come under fire from critics who accuse them of devaluing music to a point where only superstars can make a living wage from recordings. According to Spotify’s own figures, 97% of artists there generated less than $1,000 in payments last year. (Spotify points to the growing number of musicians earning large sums as a sign of its value.)

Twitch, by contrast, is an alternate universe where even niche artists can make thousands of dollars a month by cultivating fan tribes whose loyalty is expressed through patronage. With its interactive chat threads and internal economy of channel subscriptions and “bits” (donations), Twitch would seem to fulfill the long-hyped but elusive promise of creative commerce on the internet. Yet the platform may work well for only some kinds of artists. (It is enormously labor-intensive.) Its relationship with rights holders is strained. And though it got a boost during the pandemic, Twitch may soon face a reckoning once artists and their fans emerge from their cocoons and return to in-person events.

But for those making a living on the platform, it has been a revelation. Its potential was highlighted in a recent report by Will Page, former chief economist of Spotify, which compared musicians’ earnings and audience reach on Twitch versus on-demand audio services like Spotify and Apple Music. The numbers, while anecdotal, are striking.

According to Page’s report, Laura Shigihara, a composer of video game music, last year earned an average of about $700 a month from audio platforms but $8,000 a month on Twitch, where she sings and plays piano in a cozy room filled with anime-style stuffed creatures. In 2019 and 2020, Heafy’s four-man band, Trivium, collected an average of $11,000 a month from the audio services while his own Twitch channel generated nearly as much (just under $10,000) from an audience that was about one-tenth the size. The band Aeseaes, a married couple in Austin, Texas, that specializes in acoustic covers, earned 70% of their income in 2019 and 2020 from Twitch; just 6% came from audio streaming services and Bandcamp, the online indie music store.

“There’s just something about being able to directly support an artist that you are enjoying, and being able to see that support accepted by that artist and get an immediate thanks,” said Travis of Aeseaes, who plays bass and makes the microphones that he and his wife, Allie, who sings and plays guitar, use for their streams. (Both are in their early 30s, and use only their first names professionally.)

Tracy Patrick Chan, Twitch’s head of music, said that of the musicians who can earn $50,000 a year there, their median viewership — the number of people watching their streams at any given time — is only 183. By comparison, it may take 5 million to 10 million streams to yield the same payout from major audio streaming platforms, according to most estimates of those services’ per-stream rates.

“What the artists on Twitch are showing you is that you just need a passionate audience and they will be there to support you,” Chan said. The commerce comes in the form of subscriptions — at $5, $10 or $25 a month — as well as bits and links to third-party donation and fundraising sites like Patreon.

As it grows, Twitch appears increasingly capable of supporting a broad middle class of musicians, a concept that has been a PR talking point for digital services for years. Twitch is able to do it by gamifying the artist-fan relationship and by channeling audience payments directly to musicians. (Twitch takes a cut of 50% or less from subscriptions, and shares revenue from bits with streamers.) This contrasts with the so-called pro rata method of royalty distribution used by most on-demand audio services, where all the money contributed to a platform is divided by the total number of clicks. That system equalizes rates but also means that users subsidize a lot of music they never listen to, and the high-yield “head” of the distribution curve — superstars like Drake and Dua Lipa — benefits most.

“Twitch’s focus isn’t the head or tail, it’s growing the torso — the body of middle class artists in between,” Page said. “It’s a pivot away from the traditional hit-or-miss blockbuster model where hits hit big time and misses miss out badly.”

Li Jin, a venture capitalist who specializes in the world of social media influencers, sees Twitch as a pioneer in what has become a quickly spreading trend in the broader “creator economy” online. Content creators of all kinds are finding ways to monetize small but devoted audiences, and platforms are competing to serve them — like Substack newsletters, Twitter’s new Super Follows feature and Apple’s podcast subscriptions.

“You can’t just offer one way for creators to monetize, because their fans are heterogeneous; they all have different degrees of intensity of fandom,” Jin said. Creators need “a range of different ways to monetize different subsets of their audience.”

BEING A SUCCESSFUL music livestreamer, however, is hard work.

Travis and Allie of Aeseaes (pronounced “A.C.S.,” an abbreviation of their channel name: a_couple_streams) quit their office jobs five years ago to focus on Twitch. Unlike many who use it for behind-the-scenes glimpses of their creative process, Travis and Allie put on the equivalent of an intimate stage show, with mood lighting and a dedicated camera on one of their snuggling cats; the only chatter is their effusive thank yous to contributors.

Aeseaes gets more than 5,000 viewers for each broadcast, with close to 1,000 tuning in at any given moment, and their channel has maintained well over 1,000 paying subscribers each month for the last two years, according to a data report the couple shared with The New York Times. That success allows Travis and Allie to devote themselves full-time to making music at home.

But to keep their business going, and to maintain engagement, they must churn out content regularly, going online three times a week for about three hours at a time. “Since the beginning, we’ve known that streaming on Twitch is kind of an endurance run,” Allie said.

Page compares running a Twitch account to operating a taxi: It only makes money if the meter is running. And long rides are the most lucrative.

The vastness of Twitch’s audience means that streamers must seize every opportunity for broader reach. This month, Danielle Allard, a 31-year-old musician and professor in Ottawa, Ontario, who began experimenting with livestreaming a year ago, learned that a planned 6 a.m. set would be featured on Twitch’s home page — the equivalent of prime-time TV promotion.

Allard awoke at 4, got her equipment ready, brewed some tea and went online — for nearly seven hours, playing originals, Cranberries and Chris Isaak covers, and some wailing kazoo solos. By the end, she was tearful and seemed nearly delirious with joy. Her stream, which usually gets a few hundred watchers at a time, brought in 408 new subscribers and 1,659 followers, sending her over the 10,000 mark. (Top gaming accounts have well over 5 million followers.)

Speaking about an hour after her stream ended — and still not having eaten — Allard praised the generosity of her fans, whom she calls “dinos.” Their contributions, she said, net her a few thousand dollars a month.

She has an album and an EP on audio streaming platforms. Do they bring in any money? “Oh, goodness no,” she said.

For both musicians and Twitch executives, it is no coincidence that such an artist-friendly system was developed far from the reach of the music industry.

In the gaming world, the line between performer and fan is blurred, and all contact and communication can be monetized through the sale of virtual goods. Gamers’ devotion can be staggering. According to Midia Research, which studies online media, the average Twitch user spends nearly 16 hours a week on the platform, compared to about six hours each for users of YouTube and Spotify, and two for TikTok.

Sara Clemens, Twitch’s chief operating officer and a former top executive at Pandora — a company that took severe criticism from artists over its payout rates — said that the transition to digital music platforms stripped fandom of most of its visual emblems of tribal belonging, and paradoxically ended up separating fans from the artists they love, even as their music became more accessible than ever. Twitch, Clemens said, restores that connection.

“Emotes and subscriber badges on Twitch are about membership,” Clemens said. “They’re the new T-shirt, they’re the new tattoo.”

ONE SIGN OF Twitch’s success in challenging the status quo is that it is now in the music industry’s legal crosshairs.

Last year, as the pandemic sent musicians to Twitch in droves, the site was served with thousands of copyright infringement notices from record companies. Twitch has licenses that allow its users to perform songs live, but it generally does not have permission for the music contained in saved on-demand videos.

After receiving takedown notices, Twitch removed clips that contained unlicensed music, as required by law. But the company also responded with a surprising blog post in November in which it apologized — not to the complaining copyright holders, but to its armies of streamers. “We could have developed more sophisticated, user-friendly tools awhile ago. That we didn’t is on us,” the company wrote.

Music industry lawyers have kept up the pressure. This month, at the same time that it announced a copyright infringement lawsuit against the gaming platform Roblox, the National Music Publishers’ Association said it would continue serving takedown notices to Twitch.

“It’s inexcusable that they don’t just license their music platform, as other companies like YouTube, Facebook and TikTok do,” said David Israelite, CEO of the music publishers’ group.

A spokesperson for Twitch said it is in discussions with music rights holders, and added that “we continue to work with them to establish potential approaches that would be appropriate for the Twitch service and our entire community.”

For many musicians, however, Twitch’s status as an industry outlier is exactly the point.

RAC, the producer and performer whose real name is André Allen Anjos, began using Twitch after his touring plans were scuttled by the pandemic. (He announced a new album and tour on March 11, 2020.) He streams from his home studio in Portland, Oregon, and keeps a lively dialogue going with his viewer chat, joking and answering questions and shouting out friends and supporters by their alphanumeric handles.

That is standard Twitch etiquette. But RAC, 36, who has been outspoken in his opposition to the traditional music business, views Twitch as part of an evolving new model in which artists maintain control, have direct contact with their audiences and can experiment freely with pricing. As he sees it, Patreon, cryptocurrencies and NFTs are all key parts in music’s future, with his own career as example.

“The old model is just dead for me at this point,” RAC said. “I feel like we’re entering a new phase, and I see Twitch as being an integral part of that.”

TWITCH’S MUSIC STREAMS exploded during the pandemic. According to the company, music viewership has grown by 550% over the last year. Part of its branding outreach has been through deals with shuttered music venues, hosting streams by indie bands at clubs like Brooklyn Steel in New York. Those have helped keep the live infrastructure working when it was otherwise dead, said Jim Glancy of The Bowery Presents, the company behind Brooklyn Steel and other venues throughout the Northeast.

But while Glancy is positive about Twitch, he expressed a skepticism common among music insiders about livestreaming’s continuing role in the concert world, where in-the-flesh contact is everything.

“If you have an artist on tour playing 30 venues, and 18 of them are wired and trying to sell a stream but the artist is doing the same set every night, is that a business?” Glancy asked.

Still, Glancy expects livestreaming to be integrated with concerts, somehow, and other players are making the same bet. Live Nation is equipping more than 60 venues to allow streaming, and new players like Flymachine are planning concert-livestream hybrids whose social interactivity owes something to Twitch.

And the musicians? Heafy, of Trivium, said he expects viewership to go down a little as fans stay at home less. But he has already integrated Twitch into his working life to a degree that seems compulsive, and he is not ready to stop.

“I’m going to keep it to the same exact thing — 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., Monday through Friday,” he said. “Every show, every soundcheck, every vocal warm-up; every day off, me playing games in the hotel room.”

“I look at it as part of my life now,” he added. “And I want to keep doing this for as long as I can.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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