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THE SOUND OF SILENCE

Livestream platforms are a home for the world we’ve lost under quarantine

Luck Reunion
Musicians Margo Price and Jeremy Ivey play from their homes during the Til’ Further Notice livestream.
  • Amrita Khalid
By Amrita Khalid

Tech reporter

Twitch, the world’s largest livestream platform, looks very different in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Normally a haven for gamers, the Amazon-owned site is now flooded with streams from entire industries cast off from their normal source of income.

Yoga and Zumba instructors, blocked from their gyms, are flooding Twitch’s sports and fitness channel with at-home workouts. Some college professors are streaming live Q&A sessions on the platform. NFL players including Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward of the Cleveland Browns last weekend held a 12-hour Fortnite charity streams, fielding $1.2 million in donations to the World Health Organization. And Atlanta’s Dad’s Garage Theatre Company is streaming improv performances.

But outnumbering all these industries are musicians, who, now unable to tour, are flocking to Twitch at an unprecedented rate, according to data provided to Quartz by livestreaming services firm StreamElements. On March 8, viewers watched over 92,000 hours of content in the music and performing arts category on Twitch. By March 22, that number had skyrocketed to over 574,000 hours, largely due to both individual performers and major concerts that migrated to Twitch.

“One of the biggest trends in livestreaming during this month of social distancing has been the massive influx of musicians and other performing artists who have been leveraging the medium to connect with their fans,” wrote Doron Nir, CEO of  StreamElements.

As many states and major cities in the US shut down most non-essential places of business and imposed stay at home orders, viewership of Twitch’s music and performing arts categories spiked. Viewership across all of Twitch’s categories has surged by 31% in the period between March 8 to March 22, according to data from StreamElements and their livestreaming analytics partner Arsenal.gg.

It’s not just Twitch; the entire internet is experiencing a pandemic-related streaming surge. With nearly 2 billion of the world’s population under quarantine, livestream platforms like Twitch, Facebook Live, Instagram Live, and others provide a source of connection to the outside world. In Italy, livestream viewership grew by 66% after the nation imposed a country-wide quarantine on March 9, says StreamElements. Italian viewers watched millions of hours of content on Twitch, Facebook, YouTube, and Mixer.

Meanwhile, industries that flock to these platforms are facing an existential threat. The music industry alone is anticipated to lose an estimated $5 billion this year due to the virus. And currently, livestream platforms still don’t offer a clear path to monetization for industries isolated by the virus.

Artists who are hosting sessions on Instagram Live—like DJ D-Nice, who has hosted multiple “Club Quarantine” marathon DJ sessions from his Los Angeles apartment—are doing it for free, or for charity. (The likes of Michelle Obama, Norman Lear, Tiffany Haddish, Joe Biden, and others have tuned in.) Kali Uchis, a Colombian artist, took requests for covers on Instagram Live, and later donated $10,000 to the CDC.

That is changing, but slowly. Bandsintown last week announced a partnership with Twitch that allows artists to earn fast-track Twitch affiliate status, which allows creators to gain access to monetization tools. Fans can pay to subscribe to premium artist channels, as well as give tips.

Still, it’s unlikely that artists will be able to recoup more than a fraction of the revenue they’ve lost from concert tickets, which is the leading source of income for most artists. And relying on the good will of fans isn’t sustainable in the long-term, especially in the likelihood of a global recession. So musicians and event planners are working quickly to develop more sustainable fixes.

Streaming solutions

Willie Nelson’s annual music festival held at his ranch in Luck, Texas, was one of the countless events forced to cancel this year in light of the coronavirus pandemic. The day-long event, scheduled for the week of SXSW, had artists like Lucinda Williams, Orville Peck, and the Black Lips slated to perform.

For the staff behind the 4,000-person Luck Reunion 2020, the shuttering was tough to grapple with. “It took the wind out of everyone’s sails to look at a company with no projects for the remainder of the year and no future strategy,” said Matt Bizer, the festival’s executive producer.

But over the course of a weekend, Bizer and his team came up with a solution. Luck Reunion would still go on, but as a livestream event on Twitch and Facebook Live, with musicians broadcasting from their homes around the world.

There was skepticism at first: To respect social distancing rules, musicians wouldn’t have access to their normal production crews, and they had to work with engineers to turn live feeds into standard broadcasts. But slowly but surely, musicians came on board: Neil Young, Paul Simon, Edie Brickell. The end-result, Til’ Further Notice, drew more than 2.5 million viewers across all platforms when it streamed live on March 19. It raised more than $200,000, which will go to charities of each artist’s choosing.

According to Bizer, most of the event’s viewers tuned in through Twitch. He said Luck Productions is currently in talks with Amazon and Twitch to potentially create a destination for more live music events.

Such events provide a sense of connection for musicians and their fans who are stuck in quarantine.“I think more than anything right now, everyone is feeling a little confused and lost,” said Bizer, “including myself. There is a lot of uncertainty. Where there’s a lot of uncertainty and insecurity, it’s very easy to feel alone very quickly. Anything that allows people to come together and embrace a sense of community is very important.”

But for artists without Willie Nelson’s name recognition, it’s unclear how livestreaming platforms like Twitch could be a reliable source of income. Earning money on Twitch is still a relatively new phenomenon, and the vast majority of streamers still struggle to gain the following needed to earn a living on the platform. With much of the world stuck at home in the coming weeks, platforms like Twitch could be part of the solution—both for artists and their fans.

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