This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
© 2021 The New York Times Company
Each weekday at 8:30 am, 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 content 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 am and 3 pm 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.