Magazine

Why musicians have begun streaming video games

Montaigne Roy Molloy Woodes video game streaming
Collage by Kubi Vasak

Streaming is attracting celebrities well outside of gaming, from actors to musicians. Where does this new medium fit into the puzzle of being a creator in our times?

When you’re a musician who suddenly can’t tour, how do you fill the time? When COVID-19 smothered live music in March 2020, artists reacted in a myriad of ways. Some, like Charli XCX or Paul Kelly, returned to their DIY roots and self-produced entire albums. Some devoted energy into live streaming concerts. Some simply bided their time and wrote music, enjoying a rare moment of calm amidst a career that can be taxing to say the least.

A small cohort began playing video games while their fans watched.

Video game streaming has become one of the most-viewed content mediums in the world. Twitch, the market leader, receives more than seven million visits per day, making it one of the most valuable websites ever conceived. But where do musicians fit into the mix?

This article appears in print in Happy Mag Issue 15. Grab your copy here

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Montaigne at Groovin The Moo 2017. Photo: Brooke Tunbridge

ARIA-winning, Sydney-based musician Montaigne (real name Jess Cerro) uses Twitch not just as a platform to play video games like Demon’s Souls or Fall Guys, but also as a means to share her artistic process. Screen-sharing Ableton production sessions and gaming marathons alike, it’s a rare place where two of Montaigne’s loves – games and songwriting – are married.

“Video games were really formative for me”, Montaigne shared, “and it’s nice to be able to creatively engage with them in front of fans, and to use the platform to expand my fanbase too. All I want is for big nerds to be my fans and share my nerdy interests with me.”

Elle Graham, going by her artist name Woodes, took this union a step further. Based in Melbourne, the Australian city which imposed the strictest coronavirus lockdowns of them all, Woodes launched her 2020 album Crystal Ball entirely within Minecraft – a hugely popular sandbox game with 126 million monthly active users.

Minecraft allows players to build their own worlds using simple blocks, giving utter freedom to the user. Woodes’ Crystal Ball server was accessible to anyone who pre-ordered the album, a fantasy world where different areas helped tell the stories of each song. Players were free to roam, build, and interact with Woodes and her other fans in this stunning virtual space.

It was originally through other musicians streaming their production sessions – like Montaigne does – that Woodes discovered Twitch.

“I’d watched a lot of the streams of LA artist/producer Hana creating a live album on Twitch, which sparked my interest. I liked that it’s quite a transparent think-tank between the artist and the dedicated community… You can learn and watch as ideas form and are completed.”

“When the pandemic and the L4 lockdown hit Melbourne, it became something that I was really drawn to, as I launched my album/Minecraft project.”

Meanwhile, Roy Molloy – business partner, saxophonist, and best mate to musician Alex Cameron – took to Twitch because playing alone was never for him.

“It was gaming that brought me to it. My business partner and I finished our third record and convinced ourselves we’d earned the right to purchase a PS4. We bought it, set it up at my place in Queens, and played Rugby League Live for hours.”

“But then Al’s getting texts and he’s off to his girl’s house, see? And suddenly I’m sittin’ there solo-style in the living room in front a the screen – and gaming for me had always been at a friend’s house or a net cafe, or with housemates – but I’m livin’ alone at this point, and what if I did something awesome in the game and no one saw it?”

“Instead of feeling awesome I’d be made to feel double alone by my reflection in the screen smiling dumbly back at me. Forget that. So I started streaming to get that feeling of being in the living room with my friends just having a god damn blast while I game. And it worked. I love it so much.”

Molloy assured us that he’s “always doing awesome shit” when he games, which is exactly why people tune into streams. The idea of watching somebody play games may sound profoundly uninteresting to anyone outside that world, but think of it like watching an athlete dominating the field, or a comedian stealing a talk show.

Some viewers turn to Twitch to see games played at the highest level by professional esports athletes or speedrunners – a community who compete to finish certain games in world record times. It’s similar to why you’d watch Montaigne, Woodes, or Molloy stream their process. Whenever you watch a professional in their stride, you learn something, and it doesn’t hurt if you think they’re entertaining on a personal level.

Which is the other side of the coin – the classic notion of personality. Players could watch streamers simply because they’re funny, charismatic, or entertaining. In that way, streaming is no different to reality TV, podcasts, or any personality-centric media.

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Roy Molly and Alex Cameron, 2020. Photo: Charlie Hardy

In any of these cases – musician, streamer, entertainer – fandom is part of the career. And the kind of fan interaction Twitch can facilitate is utterly unique.

“I think Twitch is amazing for fan interaction”, Woodes shared. “I’ve gotten to know the people that join each time, and everyone checks in with each other in the chat as I stream.”

“I’ve met people from all over the world either through their love of Minecraft or music. Some had seen me at festivals or shows and then you get to discuss things in a really open and at times, vulnerable way. Not as much as ‘Woodes’ but as Elle.”

Molloy was particularly candid about this part of the process, explaining that “this wonderful group of people got me through dark and lonely times. They enriched my life.”

“I want to keep the explanation brief here but I’ll struggle to capture the magnitude of what I experienced.”

“There’s a mix of viewers: Those who are fans of the music, those who came across the feed organically and like the way I game, and those who I met ‘In Game’, mostly on the prairie in Red Dead Redemption 2 Online.”

“On our last tour, in every town, I had the pleasure of meeting people who I had spoken to nearly every night for the months leading up. In Chicago there was a group of guys and girls who had made matching ROYAL CMA POSSE shirts, and one for me.”

“I believe that your online world is like a garden, and me and these people built a truly beautiful and diverse one. And then that garden overgrew into my real life. Again, I haven’t captured the half of it here. But it’s a garden, a beautiful garden that I love and that I can walk in with my online friends any time I want to fire up a stream.”

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Roy Molloy, 2020. Photo: Charlie Hardy

The transparency streaming affords is thanks in part to the medium itself – streamers are often seen in their own rooms where the mystery of the stage is left far behind. The costumes, the bravado, and the lights in a concert setting are all made to elevate an artist into something bigger than the audience. When you’re streaming, that’s not the case.

The other factor is the platform. Twitch has a variety of tools that allow direct communication between streamer and viewer, from live chat, to personalised donation messages, and more.

“It’s a live dialogue that includes not just chatting but interactables on screen”, explains Montaigne, “which allows the viewer to feel like they’re involved in the process of making content.”

“I get to moderate what happens too so when a fan has shown they’re trustworthy enough I really feel a sense of connection that I haven’t really felt with fans before.”

And, unlike many other creator platforms such as Spotify, TikTok, or Facebook, sending a little cash to your favourite streamer is stupidly easy on Twitch. Woodes explains:

“I like that on Twitch you can add to your favourite creator’s pockets in real time. You can subscribe to artists, donate, or cheer with smaller change.”

“You can gift [subscriptions] or buy merch and everyone in the chat is happy to see it or celebrate it too.That’s quite unique compared to other platforms. Sometimes it feels a bit like a mix between a patreon and a busker.”

Woodes, Montaigne, and Roy Molloy are all artists with substantial followings – they’re not Pharrell Williams, but their days of playing gigs to single-digit crowds are long behind them. So what does a streaming income look like to someone with a platform? During a time such as COVID-19 or even between albums, can it help alleviate the out-of-cycle financial stress so many musicians face?

To Woodes, it’s just another piece in the puzzle of making money as an artist in this day and age.

“It’s currently great additional income through subscriptions and donations. I’m very inspired by the streamers who have converted it into their main business. For now, I’ve found that as an artist, having as many different income streams as possible is always a good thing.”

“I’m going to be now fusing it a lot with my music production and songwriting work. This, in turn, will convert into royalties, performances, collaborations, and partnerships in the future. They all intersect and play off one another.”

Montaigne was less optimistic about the viability of it becoming a larger income source, making the point that it’s often the partnerships found in your chosen spaces that keep you doing what you do.

“I think maybe not? But possibly! It just depends. If I want to be an artist who tours a bunch and does a bunch of non-digital work still (which I do somewhat), that reduces the amount of time I can spend streaming which I think is detrimental to really building it to the point where it’s raking in a lot of dollars. At this point I see it as mostly being supplementary, but who knows really.”

“I’d love to do more things in the games industry, not necessarily to do with actualmontaigne streaming, and maybe those things will be as substantial as touring and royalties.”

For Molloy, it’s all about the love of the game, man. And big pasta dinners.

“I earn about $200 a month and I stream a fair bit. Every night sometimes. So it’s not quite there with the music yet. That’s good cash to sit and hang out, and it means once a month I can go do a ‘big’ shop. Pad the pantry out with olive oil and herbs and a big thing of nice coffee, which rules. But the fact is I’d do it for zero dollars.”

“I just want what anyone wants: for people to watch me game, and pace around my flat talking to myself. To hang out on the internet and watch me cook and work out and sing into the camera. I want people to watch me and think ‘this is a man who indulges his passions without limits, and is always polite online’.”

But Twitch isn’t without problems. Like Youtube it’s plagued by an automatic copyright infringement system that seems to miss more often that it hits. A recent high profile case saw Herman Li – guitarist in Grammy-nominated power metal band DragonForce – outright lose his Twitch channel for a week. The audio that flagged the copyright strike? He was playing DragonForce music on his stream.

Streaming has a lot to learn, but perhaps other networks have a lot to learn from streaming. The relationship between creator and viewer can feel personal on a level other platforms simply don’t allow for, and the ways artists can earn money from their viewers puts Spotify to shame.

“The more advanced tech gets”, Montaigne foresees, “the more people are gonna want to indulge in digital/virtual experiences. I think that’s inevitable.”

“There is however a distinctly precious human feeling in sharing a room with a bunch of people physically including your favourite artist that I don’t think will lose its appeal to many.”

No matter how intimate streaming may be, the feeling of being at a gig has yet to be replicated by any live stream. Live music and live streaming are flirting, yes, but a fork in the road is more likely than a total blurring of the lines.

“I definitely miss live music, and live music discovery”, Woodes shared. “I have seen some pretty remarkable reimaginings of large online shows by Glass Animals, Billie Eilish, and Delivered Live here in Australia.”

“Integrating those kinds of ideas into music venues for when venue allocation is exhausted but there is still online interest would be a great addition to performances. I grew up in a regional part of Australia and it was very rare to have live music visit home.”

The audience is an essential part of any show, something Montaigne, Woodes, and Molloy know intimately. The star and the crowd – one needs the other.

“There’ll be crossover for sure”, Molloy says, “but I think more likely it’ll be that gaming, which is normally watched by streaming, will be watched live and in person. In terms of live music… I don’t think a streamed concert will be able to achieve what a live one does for the majority of folks.”

“People don’t just go for the music and to watch the band playing it. They go to dance and blow off steam outside of their house. Or for social reasons, to meet other fans. To see friends or cause a girl they matched on Tinder is taking them. They go to heckle you and buy merch off your tour manager and get frigged up off beers and drugs.”

“They go to be ‘seen’, not sit in their house watching a screen. They come to the show to support you ‘cause you flown all the way from sunny Sydney to be there with them. I’d love it if live music streaming became a big deal, but I think it’ll need some tinkering before it’ll happen.”

Streaming is an in-between space, a moment to interact with the celebs on a human level. A peer behind the curtain, a glimpse beyond the fourth wall. It can be a touching way for your fans to learn about their idols. In turn, you may learn a few things about them.

Sure, it won’t replace touring anytime soon, but for a side-gig? You could do a lot worse than starting a Twitch channel.

 

This article appears in print in Happy Mag Issue 15. Grab your copy here

Follow these artists on Twitch:
Woodes | MontaigneRoy Molloy

Words by Tom Cameron
Collage by Kubi Vasak