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Musicians on Twitch Struggle with Going Back to In-Person Gigs


Ryan Slatko sits at an electric keyboard. He has a shock of blue hair in the middle of his head. His hands are in the middle of playing notes, and his feet rest next to organ pedals. Mic stands and wires cut across the image in front of speakers and computers.
Ryan Slatko in his Harlem office. Photo by David Newtown.

CLARA-SOPHIA DALY, HOST:


When COVID closed the world down, some musicians pivoted to making music on live-streaming platforms like Twitch. Now, musicians are wondering how much of their business should stay online. David Newtown profiles the dilemma of one jazz musician.


DAVID NEWTOWN, BYLINE: Before the pandemic, you would have seen 28-year-old Ryan Slatko playing electric piano at jazz clubs around the city, grooving with his bright blue hair. But for the past two years, his most consistent gig has been in his Harlem apartment. In his office, Slatko has a live streaming setup. There’s a big electric keyboard with organ pedals below. Next to it? Cameras and screens.


RYAN SLATKO: This keyboard here talks to the laptop and then gets the notes out. So for example—um, I have a few other sounds.


NEWTOWN: Slatko built up this collection of equipment during COVID.


SLATKO: I knew that I wanted to get into live streaming and just—if nothing else—just be able to play for people in some capacity. ‘Cause that's what I really missed: just playing for people.


NEWTOWN: What you’re hearing is one of Slatko’s performances on Twitch, a live streaming platform that’s most well known for its video game enthusiasts. Slatko jams out while covering Miles Davis’s “Milestones.” His eyes are flashing back and forth from the piano keys to his computer screen to read chat. The screen switches between a wide shot of his face to an overhead shot of his fingers.


As Slatko plays, viewers chat with each other, cheer him on, and send emojis flying across the screen. Whenever a new viewer subscribes, a black and white GIF appears of people applauding.


SLATKO: They make supporting a creator feel fun and engaging and not like this annoying, boring chore you have to do, like, “Ugh, got to support this guy; got to donate.”


NEWTOWN: But sometimes they don’t really donate enough. Over the three and a half hour stream, Slatko makes $45 in tips and gets $20 from new monthly subscriptions. He says that’s far below what he would normally expect at a live show.


SLATKO: If I'm taking a gig in New York these days, I typically want a minimum of $100 for three hours or whatever, which is not a lot.


NEWTOWN: Though making money through Twitch can be volatile, Slatko says it is nice to be able to perform and play the music he wants to play. Many other musicians have also found refuge in Twitch streams.


Dr. William O’Hara is a professor of Music at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. He studies music-making on the Internet. Dr. O’Hara says Twitch allows the audience to feel like they’re in the room with the streamer.


WILLIAM O’HARA: It's almost this sort of salon environment where the artist, you know, the artist is the center of it, and the artist is making music. But really the point of the live stream is to interact with people.


NEWTOWN: O’Hara says that, with the rise of Twitch and live streaming, it’s an extra area that musicians are almost required to dip their toes into.


O’HARA: I mean I think that if you're a freelance musician, these days, you sort of can't afford to leave that opportunity on the table. And I think a lot of people try to make a stab at it to some degree.


NEWTOWN: Twitch’s average user base doubled in size from January 2020 to April 2020 because of all the people who had to stay home. It wasn’t just video game streams—music channels saw a viewership increase as well. Doug Perry is a Twitch streamer who uses the screenname “DrumUltimA.” He plays percussion instruments like marimba and vibraphone and covers video game music. Maybe you recognize this famous tune?


It’s from the Legend of Zelda. Perry says he had a Twitch channel before COVID hit, but he really started to focus on it early on in the pandemic. He says his monthly income from Twitch tripled during those first few months.


DOUG PERRY: I saw my profits increase dramatically as a result of the newfound attention and focus on my stream, probably combined with the fact that I had more of an audience because everybody else was staying inside. And that's what kept me afloat through the pandemic was my streaming as a result.


NEWTOWN: Though Perry was thankful for that attention and support, he’s having to step back a bit from Twitch due to worries about burnout. He still signs on for Marimba Mondays, though.


PERRY: It has been and will continue to be auxiliary to the gigs and the facets of my career that are beginning to come back, which simply provide more stability both monetarily and psychologically to me as a result.


NEWTOWN: As COVID restrictions have lifted, viewership is going down. For Slatko, the blue-haired jazz pianist, his audience has decreased about half since the end of 2020, when it was at its highest.


SLATKO: I've been talking to a lot of streamers who have seen dips in their numbers, probably because people are going outside again, living their lives. Yeah, it's just how it is, I guess.


NEWTOWN: And so Slatko must leave his Twitch setup and also head outside. Tonight’s show is at the Cutting Room, on East 32nd Street. He’s on his synths and in his element.


This is more lucrative than his Twitch session, but not by much; he made 80 bucks. Slatko had hoped he could live a life where he was doing both Twitch and live gigs. But he says the numbers just aren’t adding up. So, here’s his plan: he’s stepping back from streaming. He’s being picky with gigs. And he’s looking into teaching, coding, or video editing opportunities.


SLATKO: I’ve just kind of accepted that, you know, this is a hard profession. And it's not—it's not my fault. Like I didn't fail as a musician because I'm not able to make a living for it. It’s just the economy failed me.


NEWTOWN: Slatko thinks this is a long-term plan. Music won’t be out of his life—he wants to save up money to make an album—but living expenses mean he can’t keep only doing what he loves. David Newtown, Columbia Radio News.


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