Mikey Lion didn’t know much about Twitch prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Once parties and festivals were canceled, though, he and his three partners in the Southern California event brand Desert Hearts quickly learned the ropes. Each of them took to the live streaming platform one night a week, DJing for hours at a time. In less than a year, their audience grew from 0 to 128,900 Twitch followers. “It ended up being something that saved our business,” Lion says by phone from San Diego.
In the early days of the pandemic, virtual nightlife exploded. DJs and performers were on multiple platforms in so many time zones that the online party seemed to be going 24/7. As the weeks at home dragged on, though, the novelty waned; you can only watch a DJ get booted from an Instagram Live feed so many times before you give up on it. For some who made a home on Twitch, and stuck with it, the live streams have turned into more than just a placeholder until the IRL clubs open again.
Prior to the pandemic, long-running, multi-city mashup party Bootie Mashup had two monthly nights in Los Angeles, one at El Cid and one at Resident. Now, you can catch Bootie’s DJs multiple nights a week on Twitch. Online, the party’s former in-person audience helped build a new one. Early on, Bootie got a boost from L.A.-based Twitch hit Critical Role; some of the Dungeons and Dragons-playing voice actors from the series were fans of the party. “They gave us a huge signal boost,” says Adriana Roberts, Bootie Mashup’s founder, by phone from San Francisco. “Not only was it their whole L.A. crew tuning in…but they brought us a whole new audience, which extended beyond L.A.”
In a club setting, a DJ might gauge reactions based on how people are moving. On Twitch, people are sharing their thoughts in the chat.
There’s a learning curve that comes with broadcasting on Twitch. For DJs, it necessitates gear that they might not have had on hand prior to the pandemic, like ring lights and audio interfaces. It has also challenged DJs to rethink how they play music and connect with the audience. “There’s a real interaction that’s going on between the DJ and the fans,” says Lion. In a club setting, a DJ might gauge reactions based on how people are moving. On Twitch, Lion notes, people are sharing their thoughts in the chat. “You’re interacting with them and giving them love and then they’re giving you love back. It’s this really crazy thing.”
For drag performers, Twitch has reshaped performance. “Before the pandemic, you would just show up to the club and perform. You didn’t have to set up the club before,” says L.A.-based DemenCha, who launched Drag Queen TV on Twitch last year. “Now, we’re having to throw on another hat. In addition to wig, stylist, makeup artist, costume designer, we’re having to edit and produce our own segments and music video-type performances instead.”
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Twitch has also expanded networks of performers. Before the pandemic, DemenCha primarily performed in L.A. and Reno. When she launched Drag Queen TV, she invited mainly performers in those cities to collaborate. These days, her lineups are global. “Local is such a weird word now,” she says.
There are challenges, of course. Due to Twitch’s community guidelines, drag performances may not be as risqué as one might see in the club. Another issue for both drag artists and DJs is with the music, which can be muted for rebroadcasts if copyrighted audio is detected.
The big change for both DJs and performers on Twitch is payment. “It has been difficult to making money,” says DemenCha. “You were used to just showing up to a gig, performing, you got your base fee. Now you really don’t have that, that base fee is now completely gone. You’re literally just working off of tips.”
In the drag world, tipping performers is a common practice. That’s not the case for DJs, or at least, it wasn’t before the clubs closed.
“Everyone at this point in the pandemic knows that DJs are playing for tips,” says Lion. “We don’t have the money to pay other DJs to come on and play on our channel, unfortunately.”
Over at Bootie Mashup, which also runs a Patreon, Roberts was excited to see extra money in the club’s account at the end of the year. It meant that she could send bonuses to her DJs.
Meanwhile, DemenCha leveraged Drag Queen TV’s growing audience to help out Redline, the downtown L.A. bar, with a recent fundraiser on Twitch.
With their own large following, Desert Hearts has invited other crews and record labels to use their channel for guest streams. Says Lion, “We wanted to share that good fortune we had.”
Space Yacht, the L.A. party that gained a reputation for breaking new artists in recent years, stopped by Desert Hearts’ channel on a recent Saturday night as part of their virtual tour, which also included takeovers of Insomniac and Dirtybird’s Twitch channels. The tour promoted their new compilation, Tech My House.
While Space Yacht was on Twitch prior to the pandemic and has continued developing and broadcasting shows on their own channel, the virtual tour was a chance to bring their roster to a wider audience. “We’re really cross-promoting across the board, from all these dance and house and electronic brands,” says Henry Lu, cofounder of Space Yacht. It’s the sort of collaboration that might ordinarily happen during festival season.
Twitch nightlife hasn’t necessarily been an easy transition, but it’s one that these promoters intend on taking into the future on some level. “I’m honestly pretty excited to apply this back to our live shows,” says Lu. “I think our live streams then are going to look even more epic and even more beautiful and well-executed than before.”
DemenCha sees it as part of the future of drag. “I don’t necessarily see drag coming back the same way it was before,” she says, noting that shows with larger rosters might not be feasible with social distancing regulations. A possible alternative: shows with an in-person host and video performances, where people in the venue can tip the artists on screen as they would on Twitch.
For DJs, Lion sees Twitch as part of a post-pandemic business model—similar to how comedians use podcasts—as a way of promoting upcoming gigs and releases.
Meanwhile, Roberts and the Bootie Mashup fam are already thinking about how they can live stream club gigs once those are back in place. It might help them retain older Bootie fans who returned to the club once it went virtual.
She says, “Twitch has been great for them, because the party now comes to them in their living room.”
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