I’ve been talking about live-streaming to anyone within earshot for the last three years, and up to this point, I’ve been the weirdo at the party. I’d mention Twitch and people would ask me to tell them more, sometimes adding an asterisk — that they’ve heard of Twitch and their marketing department is looking into it, but they’re not sure what it is or what to do with it.
It’s an entirely understandable problem. Live-streaming is a different beast from the social content platforms we know. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are known knowns with proven strategies in place, and even newer platforms like TikTok are similar enough at the core that you can apply the same principles to them. The problem with the live features on Facebook, Instagram and other major social platforms is twofold. First, the livestreams are buried deep in the newsfeeds, so there’s no central listing of who’s live. Second, immediacy is a non-issue — the algorithm favors clicks/views over time for maximum advertiser exposure.
Not so with live-streaming, which is above all about immediacy and community. To have the true Twitch experience, you have to either fit in with the community or bring your own. Live-streaming is all about the now.
There have been big splashy successes with live-streaming and Twitch, primarily from e-sports partnerships. Marshmello did a hugely successful 10-minute set in the game Fortnite that was heavily streamed on Twitch. Top Twitch streamer Ninja (since recruited to Microsoft’s live gaming platform Mixer) had Drake, Travis Scott and Juju play Fortnite with him to record viewership (628,000 concurrent viewers vs. Ninja’s usual 72,000) and released an EDM compilation with Astralwerks, which amassed 20 million streams on Spotify in the first three months. And e-sports team and gamer management company Dignitas recently signed RZA as an artist, adding content streamers to their gaming talent roster.
But outside of games, Twitch has a very vibrant and supportive music community that is ripe to explode in the next year. Artists on Twitch are finding that by playing live and talking directly with viewers, they can build a very real and engaged fan base that will subscribe to their channels and tip them for playing covers and originals. Some who were completely unknown before they started even make a full-time living doing nothing but streaming. It’s sort of like Patreon and YouTube rolled together, only in real time and with actual fan-artist relationships taking root.
So how can artists work with Twitch? Unlike other social content platforms, you can’t play the game the same way. You can’t assign a social media manager to post in the voice of the artist; there’s no way around the live element.
To that end, the first rule of live-streaming is to show up: do it consistently and for at least two hours per session. Where that may not be an option for a particularly busy artist, especially if gaming culture is not native for the act, the best bet is to try what Lindsey Stirling recently did to promote her new album “Artemis” and live broadcast to Twitch, Facebook and YouTube, as well as VR platforms Steam and Oculus via a multi-stream content production technology like TheWaveXR.
Panic! at the Disco’s Brendon Urie has jumped on Twitch to chat with fans in a Q&A setting, while Matt Heafy of Trivium has gone one step further by live-streaming his vocal recording sessions, views from the stage during concerts, and general guitar shredding (his schedule permitting). DJ Deadmau5 plays games and streams himself programming his stage props.
For a developing artist, labels and marketers should look at playing live on either an established Twitch channel or consider starting a channel for the act. With an existing fanbase, a live-stream once or twice a week can leverage interactivity to turn casual listeners into superfans and become more visible in the category listing (which is ordered by highest number of concurrent viewers). If an act is starting from zero, stream three to five days per week and actively network with other music streamers to increase their likelihood of being raided (when another user finishes a stream and sends you all their viewers).
Above all, what artists are creating by live-streaming is an intimate fan-artist relationship. It’s what social media promised but under-delivered, and it’s what every good manager knows will keep the artist making music and touring as long as they want. It’s a powerful medium if you fully understand it, and by far the most effective tool I’ve seen for building an artist’s career — and I’ve seen just about every digital music solution created and every trend come and go.
Karen Allen is a digital strategist who advises digital music startups on strategy and business development. Her book and online course, “Twitch for Musicians,” shows indie artists how to produce a channel and make money streaming music on Twitch, where she produces indie artist channel MarinaVMusic and programs emerging artist channel InRotation. Allen also manages Megan Lenius, one of the biggest self-made music streamers.
Editor’s note: Brendon Urie was misidentified as Brandon Flowers in an earlier version of this article.