Fueling the Algorithm and Finding Community: Music Creators Thrive on Twitch, TikTok, and Instagram
On discoverable platforms, Austin musicians experience encouragement, engagement, and unexpected viral moments
By Rachel Rascoe and Kevin Curtin, Fri., Nov. 26, 2021
In the frenzy of the raging pandemic, livestreams and virtual music content were heralded as the saving grace of an offstage industry. Tunnel vision has largely snapped back with the reemergence of front rows and sweat sharing, leaving content creators yet again underrecognized as viable artists. Austin-based musician Allie, one half of the popular Twitch channel a_couple_streams, suggests her five years of full-time streaming may prove otherwise.
"There's been a lot of writing about [streaming] out of the necessity of the pandemic," she told the Chronicle. "I haven't seen much about it in the sense of it being a different medium, a different thing – not just a substitute for a live show."
That's just what we had in mind: spotlighting creators who don't see online creations as merely a way to route fans to conventional touchstones like tours, albums, and physical sales. Rather, they're utilizing online platforms to lift up their own differently shaped content whether it's performance, video creation, an educational outlet, or a way to connect with people.
Buddies and "Bits" By Request on Twitch
When married duo Travis and Allie (professionally known by first names only) started streaming in 2016, they joined only a handful of other musicians on Twitch. The Austin couple helped pioneer the gaming-oriented service as a stable home for music broadcasts, one soothing, mood-lit song at a time. (Pronounce their band name Aeseaes like "ACS," an abbreviation of their Twitch channel name a_couple_streams.)
"I had been doing the part-time music career for a decade before," explains Travis, former bassist of noted Austin instrumental ensemble Balmorhea. "When we found Twitch, I could immediately see the enormous potential. This is direct access to your audience."
Allie, who met Travis during English studies at UT-Austin, adds: "On the very first day that we streamed, like 15 people showed up. It was wild, because we probably couldn't have gotten that in person anywhere."
With Allie on guitar/vocals and Travis switching between electric and standup bass, the couple now reaches an average of over 5,000 viewers throughout a single broadcast, with around 1,000 watching at any given moment (according to a data report they shared with The New York Times earlier this year). Just months after launching their channel, the twosome quit their 9-to-5s – Travis in a 3M "cubicle zombie graveyard" and Allie freelance writing – to stream full time. Supported by over a thousand paying subscribers, they annually earn more than their old office jobs combined.
The duo streams Wednesdays and Saturdays from 4-7:30pm, still finding new viewers among years-long supporters.
"People browse and find streamers they aren't following," explains Travis. "On other platforms to stream live music, there's no discoverability. Musicians have described Twitch like having your own little stage at this enormous festival, with over a million people coming through every day. Most people aren't looking for you, but [they might] stop and listen for a while."
As early adopters, tech-savvy fans helped Travis and Allie set up a system for tipping and song requests, where volunteer "chat bouncers" help out. Viewers can request from a spreadsheet of over 200 cover songs, with a queue determined by donation amounts. With a minimum donation of just 25 cents, fans can pile on funds to bump a song up in the setlist. While they sometimes offer evenings of originals, the duo says the business relies on their song-request system. With the majority of their income made on Twitch, the Aeseaes umbrella includes Patreon, Travis' handmade microphones, and Allie's illustrations on Etsy. Streaming 52 weeks a year leaves little room for vacation, as they currently prep for a popular Christmas Eve broadcast.
Other hallmarks of the couples' mellow, intimate sets have developed over years. There's minimal chatter, and they always take a shot with finale "The Whiskey Song," an old American folk tune.
"Neither of us really like being on camera, which sounds weird, because that's what we do for a living," says Travis. "Some people expect that flashy, promotional personality from anyone producing a stream, but the success of our channel has shown there is an audience for something more subdued and laid back."
There's also always a separate feed in the corner of their idyllically snoozing cat, Coda.
"That's probably the key to success," says Allie. "She's been there almost every single broadcast, and never gets up until after it's done. Our two other cats also make appearances, Oates and Pudge."
Three times a week, Mandy Prater turns on her lights and camera and sits down in a section of her home dedicated to streaming music. She launches her Twitch broadcast and fans begin entering the stream, greeting her and each other with familiarity. When the singer and guitarist finishes a song, her audience use "emotes" – a Twitch-specific means of response, similar to emojis – to show appreciation, in lieu of clapping.
The proprietary emote used on her channel is a recognizable silver full-face helmet – this is because her followers call themselves "Mandylorians." Prater, who recently completed her 200th stream since joining Twitch 15 months ago, is still blown away by the dedicated community of far-flung supporters who are not only now familiar characters in her life, but in each other's lives.
"Some of them meet up on road trips – and they met through my channel," Prater exclaims. "There's even a couple that's found a love connection through my stream, which is really heartwarming to me."
Prater's online performances – which include her lyrically perseverant original material, covers by acts like Adele and the Beatles, live loops, and even a feature called a "Meowmix" where song lyrics get replaced with cat sounds – are far different from a typical concert format. Like with Aeseaes, viewers click in requests from a song list.
Prater, who's played locally solo and with the Mrs and Fingerpistol, had been casually streaming on Facebook and posting short clips of those performances to Instagram. When pandemic prompted longer streams, fans encouraged her to get on Twitch. She found users on that platform to be particularly encouraging, but also discerning of production quality – telling her she "deserved better" than her iPhone setup.
They helped her raise money to buy a new computer, camera, and microphone.
Prater says Twitch streaming's helped sustain her financially throughout a historically rough year on live performers. She receives tips through PayPal, but also via "bits," a currency you buy and spend through Twitch (the exchange rate on a bit is 1 cent). She also has multi-tiered monthly subscribers – $4.99, $9.99, or $24.99 – whose perks include not having to watch ads for popcorn shrimp and H&M, plus song requests bumped to the top of the list.
"I've probably made the most money I've ever made on one show through Twitch, but it varies greatly," she says. "One day it could be $40, the next day it could be $3,000. The average stream's not quite as good of money as when I play solo at a wine bar, but it's pretty close and I don't have to drive anywhere, I don't have to haul my equipment, and I don't have to put shoes on."
Prater's often asked if she'll continue Twitch-ing now that regular live gigs have resumed. She tells them the platform and her friends on it have become a part of her life that she can't imagine quitting.
"There are dedicated music fans on Twitch," she says. "They really appreciate the music – almost more than audiences at my live shows do."
Gooning and Grooving on the Gram
Observing the spins, high kicks, and hair flips on Mikayla Geier's Instagram feed, you might assume the "I make indie music in ATX" bio came after seriously viral dance videos. Rather, Geier's popularity kicked off musically with 2019 debut single "Deja You." The singer composed the sweet, melancholic song in college with two guitar chords and wound up "hitting the Spotify algorithm" – as she puts it.
She's held a similar methodology for her handful of singles in the pop realm, which live on Spotify-official playlists like Bedroom Pop.
"I don't come from a musical background, but my limitations have actually been really helpful to focus on the songwriting," says the artist. "I'm not trying to make this big, elaborate, complicated thing. I can really focus on: 'What am I trying to say?'"
Her widest reach – on Instagram Reels – arrived in an amorphous year after finishing business school at Indiana University. Living in a mouse-infested home in Bloomington, her tech entrepreneur boyfriend encouraged her on then-newly launched feature Instagram Reels, the photo app's TikTok-competing effort to host short videos. A trained dancer who dropped off the professional ballet track as a teenager while suffering from anorexia, Instagram allows her to move again in a creative, often comedic context.
"My 12th Reel got like 5 million views," she recalls. "Before, I would grow really fast and then lose followers and then grow. I didn't understand that's a normal trajectory."
"I'm super excited about getting where I want to go, but I try not to treat it like a big thing. That's the thing about social media – I don't feel, like, special. It's just what I do for a living: goon around."
Geier now packs 519,000 followers on Instagram and says her most popular video to date racked up a whopping 70 million views. She moved to Austin with her boyfriend in July, attracted by the city's tech and music reputation. Her emoji and effects-fueled videos often feature the parking garage or kitchen of her Austin apartment as backdrop.
Geier's newest musical release, "Second Place," collaborates with Dallas production duo Loyalties. The artists linked via shared distributor Ditto Music. Geier also recently signed an acting contract in Vancouver, and plans to continue back and forth between Austin and Canada, where her family lives.
Rather than music streams, Geier says her largest source of income lies with Instagram brand deals. A full-time creator, also on YouTube, she consults companies on Instagram trends and engagement. For one, she recommends snarky captions to stir up commenters, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Poking fun at classical training, a recent video read "proving to my mom all the dance classes were worth it" while Geier hopped wildly to "Crazy Frog."
"Don't be afraid of a little controversy," she says. "People love to get angry, but it also fuels your algorithm. I don't want to deal with the backlash of a funny caption, but it actually is really good for your page in a weird, twisted way."
The 23-year-old also recommends consistency over hairsplitting when creating Reels, even though she does sometimes spend six hours editing a 15-second clip.
"I'm a ballerina, so I'm very much a perfectionist," she says. "I might want it to cut right at this second, but honestly, with short form content, most of the things that I stress about don't even matter. It's just about putting it out."
Flobama's one of the most vibey drummers in Austin – though we've never seen him play an actual kit. Watching the beatmaker go to work on a pair of Roland SP-404s, fluidly finger-drumming with one hand while conducting samples with the other is to witness an exercise in coordination and craft, not unlike a concert pianist.
His recurring beat videos like Bump Day and Synth Sundaze are a head-nod inducing delight to scroll upon on Instagram. The well-produced clips find the local creating in real time – mostly live, without loops – in a variety of settings with various instrumental tools. Tight grooves, nasty breakbeats, and highly melodic sections can all come into play in a minutelong bop.
Flobama's been enlivening Insta feeds since early 2018, after realizing the limited opportunity for discovery in posting music-creation videos on Facebook. Early on, one of his Insta clips cracked off with outsized engagement, which he took as a sign.
"I had one Synth Sundaze post that, out of nowhere, got 2,000 likes in a couple days – this is back when I only had like 1,000 or 2,000 followers," he recalls. "So I said, 'Okay this shit hits, let's stick with this for a while."
Right around the time he released the eventually sold out (iN)Sect Records-issued cassette Warp Mode – melding boom bap, airy lo-fi beats, synth-fusion, and soul – the pandemic gave him more time to go ultra in-depth on his video creations. He began cooking up remarkable tutorials on the range of techniques he employs to produce instrumental music. Obvious from the jump: Flobama's an excellent teacher.
"Teaching was always something I was interested to try," he offers. "Coming up as a musician and learning all the different things for producing beats, I had spent tons and tons of time on YouTube watching things like Point Blank [Music School] or Andrew Huang – creators who did tutorials. My dad's an educator at SMU and my day job is as a substitute teacher so teaching's something that's more or less innate."
The beat lessons involved a vast array of styles and micro-genres with clip titles like "Lush Lofi Slaps in 30 Seconds" and "Ultra Grimy Boombap Played on an MPC" and eventually grew so meta that he was producing beatmaking tutorial videos on how to make beatmaking tutorial videos. By then, he'd funneled his Instagram presence into subscribers on Patreon where he'd post full-length lessons with downloadable stems and sample chops for his online apprentices paying $5 a month.
"The end goal is to make music for a living," he reasoned. "It was more about 'Okay, let's try to get some money from this thing finally,' more than an idealistic thing where I want to teach people – which I do as well."
Flobama says he was honored when people would tell him that his lessons unlocked something for them or sparked inspiration, but this summer he stepped back from his professorship at Patreon beats university.
"It was kind of stressing me out to make a new topic for a tutorial every week – I felt like I was running out of things to teach," he admits, noting he still uses the platform to provide subscribers with his track stems. "But making a new song every week? That's something I'll never run out of the ability to do."
He's now reined in his online music creation to solely Instagram where just last week he did a collaborative video with gear company Roland. Interestingly, Flobama compartmentalizes the music he creates online from that of his actual catalog or live show. Still, he admits it helps sharpen his skills.
"When I'm making beats online I don't think of it as part of the Flobama canon – I think of it as practice."
Takeoff Trends on TikTok
Wired headphones, tennis skirts, and #softgrunge fueled the ongoing resurgence of the 2014 Tumblr aesthetic on TikTok.
Over the summer, users of the video-sharing app found a perfect soundtrack in Austin artist Pastel Ghost's 2013 "Dark Beach," a semi-vintage artifact in today's accelerated trend cycle. The dark electronic track combines a driving Eighties beat with the singer's ethereal vocals, rhythmically repeating "Talk to me as I am sleeping/ Hold me while I'm dreaming." It matched with anime compilations and glitchy lyric videos.
"Something about that song just resonates with a young TikTok audience," says the producer, originally from California. "A lot of the videos are cute, alternative e-girls, and purple and anime. It's stuff that resonates with me and my music anyways. That aesthetic and vibe, people are just catching on to it in a more mainstream sense now."
Inspired by contemporaries like Crystal Castles, "Dark Beach" was the first-ever song under Pastel Ghost, borrowing from her Tumblr handle. After posting to SoundCloud in 2013, the song made its way on streaming platforms with 2015's Abyss, her Cleopatra Records debut. In July, messages from fans alerted the Austinite to the song's TikTok moment.
Like many viral sounds, users posted versions unaccredited to Pastel Ghost, making it difficult to track total TikTok plays. Multiple accompanying clips boast over 1 million views, and the song has been used in at least 22,000 separate videos. Many commenters pondered over the hypnotic track's genre (which Pastel Ghost deems "dreamrave") and asked for the artist's name.
"Different versions of the song have gone viral, but still people found me," says the singer. "People seem to like the song enough to do research, even if it's mislabeled. It's not just getting lost on TikTok."
With fans clearly making the jump, "Dark Beach" has risen to over 10 million plays on Spotify, compared to some 200,000 before its summer shine. That's helped by placement on various Spotify-curated playlists, including the extremely popular Gen Z-oriented collection Lorem. Pastel Ghost has also seen expanded attention to the rest of her catalog.
"Every day I would see all the Spotify plays keep climbing and be like, 'Yeah it's gonna plateau,'" she says. "But, it's still going fairly consistently. So far it's not necessarily one viral song. Which is cool because, up until this point, music has just been something I loved, it's not something I ever considered to be lucrative."
With new momentum, the artist works on an eight-years-later music video for "Dark Beach" and her third LP. She plans for her first post-COVID performance to be at South by Southwest 2022, and until then, sometimes chats with fans while gaming on her Twitch channel (twitch.tv/pastelghostx). She's also joined her new fan base on TikTok with a few violet-lit clips.
"During COVID, I felt a general lack of motivation," says Pastel Ghost. "I'd kind of accepted myself as a pretty underground artist. But now I'm like 'Wow, this old song – people vibe with it.' It's making me look at myself and my music in a fresh way. It's been really reviving."
Nay Wilkins' guitar work, a mesmerizing flurry of math rock precision and folk impressionism, is meant for up-close viewing. Known locally as bandleader of Hikes and solo project Adobo, the virtuosic player found friendly audiences on TikTok after emerging on the app last December. Many of the player's followers, now at 11K, ask for tabs, tunings, and guitar lessons.
Demand for virtual classes actually inspired an upcoming career change for the Texas musician, currently on the road as a backline technician for Parquet Courts.
"After this tour, I'm going to be shifting my career around to just be playing guitar full time," says Wilkins, who plans to teach and tour tech. "It's terrifying, but TikTok absolutely empowered me to do it. After one of the videos did well, I put out some feelers that I was doing lessons. I immediately had a full roster and was like 'Oh, wait a second. I could actually do this if I would just do this.'"
Wilkins finds the TikTok algorithm, which pushes your videos to people who aren't following you, to be more conducive to positive interactions than other platforms like Instagram. They've found fans with hashtags like #nonbinarymusician and #Filipinx. The artist also showcases their inline rollerblading tricks, and got recognized from the app at a recent competition in California.
"I don't just post music, and that feels really liberating," explains Wilkins. "I can just do whatever I want to. I always wanted to have my own personality, on a platform, that showcased all the different things I'm in and do. I never really felt like I could do that freely before."
In Wilkins' most popular video so far, the player artfully accompanies a viral piano part posted by the artist Kilgore Doubtfire. Based on another virtual duet with the musician Freya Lily, the two actually plan on making a song together. The Austinite says their popular TikTok posts have had a "tangible" impact on Hikes' Spotify.
"Our streams went way up after one of my earlier posts went around," remembers Wilkins. "We started getting messages on the Hikes Instagram like, 'Hey, I found you from TikTok,' asking about merch and things. One of our songs just went over a million [Spotify plays] and it was like 'Whoa, what the hell just happened?'"
In addition to offering virtual lessons, Wilkins plans to launch a Patreon in their full-time pivot to music. They plan to create guitar-oriented videos for a few different platforms, and mentions one idea of spinning a globe to explore the music wherever their finger lands.
"I'm planning on basically having a release schedule,'" explains Wilkins. "A short bit on TikTok says: 'Hey go check out my Patreon.' The Patreon has a full episode, exclusively. Two weeks after that, it's released on my YouTube, where I can monetize from. It's a trip."