How much are artists really making on Twitch?
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18 months ago, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Twitch was perfectly poised for hype. The Amazon-owned platform sat at the nexus of several different music/tech trends: The rise of livestreaming amidst the demise of touring, the rise of direct-to-fan engagement models amidst the unsustainability of streaming income and the rise of social gaming as a new interactive canvas for building online communities.
In a matter of just a few months in spring and summer 2020, average weekly concurrent viewership in Twitch’s Music category went up over 4x, leading to major artists like Logic signing seven-figure exclusive deals with the platform. Even with the return of IRL shows, Twitch has stayed busy inking a slate of music deals in an attempt to stay relevant to the industry long-term — most notably through licensing and strategic partnerships with rights holders like Warner Music Group and the NMPA.
But how well is music actually faring on Twitch on the artist level? A year-and-a-half into this hype, do we have comprehensive data on how much the top musicians are making on the platform, and how it might compare to their earnings on other channels like audio streaming services? And generally speaking, how do we move beyond just higher-level strategic conversations about Twitch’s role in the music industry, into a more granular understanding of how Twitch impacts individual artists’ livelihoods?
Well, we’re in “luck,” if you can call it that, because Twitch suffered from a 125GB data leak two weeks ago that exposed not only the platform’s entire source code and user account info (have you changed your password yet?), but also earnings info for hundreds of thousands of the platform’s top streamers — including musicians — from August 1, 2019 to October 1, 2021. All the earnings info was posted on a third-party site called twitchearnings.com that has since been taken down, but I was able to scribble down the names and earnings of the top 50 or so music accounts on the list before it disappeared. Screenshots of earnings for the top 100 streamers overall are still available on Twitter.
This leads us to our data points for this week:
The top 10 music accounts on Twitch by direct earnings make between $50,000 and $400,000 a year from channel subscriptions, ads and Twitch Bit donations. The vast majority of these accounts belong to independent artists, and there is almost no correlation between an artist’s Spotify followers and their Twitch earnings.
– An anonymous, 125GB data leak from Twitch
Here’s a more detailed list of some of the top music accounts on Twitch (which I also laid out in this tweet), with links to their respective profiles:
- The8BitDrummer:$845K from August 1, 2019 to October 1, 2021
- Kenny Beats:$677K
- Tee Grizzley: $209K
- Logic: $193K
- T-Pain: $185K
- aeseaes: $166K
- Insomniac: $100K
- HANA: $97K
- Mike Shinoda: $91K
- Illmind: $86K
- Soulja Boy: $73K
- Disclosure: $26K
As usual, let’s address the asterisks in this data before moving on.
Firstly, this leaked earnings info from Twitch encompasses only earnings derived directly from the platform, which includes channel subscriptions, ads and Twitch Bit donations. While illuminating, this list of income sources ultimately paints an incomplete picture of streamers’ overall businesses, because a large portion of their revenue may come from outside the ecosystem of direct platform payouts. For instance, streamers might receive a large proportion of their revenue from real-time donations outside of Twitch (such as through PayPal, Venmo, Cash App or StreamLabs), from brand sponsorship deals brokered off-platform and/or from on-demand clips of livestreams on other platforms like YouTube that attract their own separate ad and sponsorship income. (Some top game streamers like pokimane have spoken out about this diversification in a helpful way in light of the data leak.)
Sources tell me that in an aggressive bid to build up their music catalog, Twitch will also pay select artists as much as $250/hour in additional incentives on top of tips, subs and ads in exchange for streaming regularly on the platform. These incentive-driven deals are obviously negotiated behind closed doors, and are not factored into the leaked earnings info — which is presumably why artists like Logic can sign “seven-figure” deals but not actually make seven figures in direct platform earnings in a year.
Last but not least, there was no data leaked alongside earnings info on how many times or hours each streamer had broadcast over that time period, which would have given us a more helpful metric of each streamer’s average direct earnings per hour. For instance, maybe one of the top artists on our list made the majority of their revenue over the course of only a few different streams, as opposed to artists like The8BitDrummer or Kenny Beats who are streaming almost every day.
All that said, this data still provides a really productive starting point for a discussion about what it’s really like to make a living as an artist on Twitch, or on any livestreaming platform for that matter. In particular, I want to highlight a duality that might initially feel like a contradiction. The music livestreaming economy undeniably favors independent artists — but it’s really challenging to make a sustainable living from livestreaming, with a power law that still sees the top 1% commanding the majority of revenue.
Twitch is still a gamer’s world — and the tail is looooong
It’s pretty incredible that virtually no major-label artists are on the list of thousands of streamers whose Twitch earnings were leaked. Just like with other areas of music/tech like music NFTs, artist market share in livestreaming is the literal reverse of what we see in recorded music, with independent artists taking up the majority of revenue.
That said, just because indie artists dominate Twitch’s music charts doesn’t mean the playing field is necessarily more level or equitable. The Wall Street Journal found that the top 1% of paid Twitch streamers command over 50% of all direct platform revenue, and that only 5% of streamers have made over $1,000 from direct platform earnings so far in 2021. This may be partially because of livestreaming’s overall discoverability problem, where there’s an increasing amount of noise but little to no infrastructure to help audiences sift through it.
This is actually a slightly friendlier power-law dynamic than that in music streaming, where the top 1% of artists command 90% of all streams, according to Alpha Data. But it’s important to remember that financially, Twitch is still a gamer’s world: According to the data leak, the top gamer on the platform makes ~10x more money from direct payouts per year than the top music artist on the platform. Moreover, the top artist on Twitch makes 8–10x more money from direct earnings per year than the artist just 10 slots down. Music is buried deep inside Twitch’s long tail, making upward mobility even more difficult for the sector.
Twitch is not just a superfan business — it’s a consistency business
In April 2021, veteran music economist Will Page published a longform report called Twitch Rockonomics, which provides a lot of helpful context regarding what differentiates Twitch from other music platforms. Page points out that unlike, say, on Spotify or Apple Music, the unit of artist/fan engagement on Twitch tends to be longer-form content (i.e. livestreams spanning several hours long), with laptops rather than mobile devices as the primary consumption vehicles. Moreover, the weekly average user on Twitch spends almost 16 hours on the platform every week, versus around six hours each for the average weekly user on YouTube and Spotify.
And some of the most active music streamers on Twitch earn as much as $0.40 per hour watched by fans, more than double the roughly $0.20 that an artist would earn from a fan streaming their catalog on Spotify for an hour straight (and this is assuming zero middlemen like distributors or labels taking a cut). If you think about ideas like the more efficient monetization of fandom — i.e. being able to realize the whole spectrum of value that fans might see in an artist or might be willing to pay for music — the case for livestreaming versus other forms of digital income becomes clear.
What Page did not dive that deeply into, and what I want to close with today, is the importance of consistency for success and growth into the top rankings on Twitch.
Because livestreaming arguably monetizes superfandom, you might think that music celebrities with thriving superfan businesses elsewhere (e.g. Cameo videos, tour merch booths) would do equally well on Twitch. But in reality, there’s almost no correlation between an artist’s social following and their Twitch earnings. For instance, as of publishing this article, The8BitDrummer, the top earning artist on Twitch, has literally zero monthly Spotify listeners. And according to the data leak, several seemingly random cover artists, DJs and improvisational artists with little to no Spotify audience — such as Jonathan Ong, Sereda, Johnny and Heidi, SympulsMusic and Miss Shelton — earn more money from direct Twitch earnings per year than Insomniac, one of the world’s most established electronic brands.
From a revenue perspective, success is much less about an artist capitalizing on their existing audience size elsewhere, and more about an artist engaging consistently over a long period of time.
All of the above-mentioned smaller artists — along with commercially better-known artists who earn a lot from Twitch, like Kenny Beats, HANA, knxwledge and Illmind — stream on the platform at least three to four times a week on average. And especially for the likes of The8BitDrummer and Kenny Beats, it would be reductive to categorize their Twitch content solely as just “music streams.” They’re full-on variety shows that showcase the artists’ personalities, social networks and adjacent interests far beyond just recording or performing music alone.
This is a level of consistency and openness that artists who are gearing up for the return of in-person shows probably will not be able to achieve, especially at the major-label level. It’s not like bigger artists and their teams don’t understand the importance of consistency; just ask any marketer about “best practices” for social media and digital advertising, and they’ll tell you consistency over time is the name of the game. The issue is that livestreaming is highly vulnerable, labor-intensive work; just like with in-person touring, the artist really needs to be directly, fully present and engaged over the duration of a Twitch stream in order for the experience to be worth it for fans.
At the risk of sounding a bit cliché, from the artist’s standpoint, livestreaming as a business mandates livestreaming as a lifestyle. In the context of Twitch, livestreaming at its most productive is not just a stand-in for live shows, but rather an entirely new form of social media that requires nurturing for the long term.
Independent artists, ever the nimble early adopters, are coming out on top for now. But the data leak also suggests that as a proven business model for the independent music sector at scale, Twitch has yet to prove itself.