During the pandemic, Twitch, the streaming platform owned by Amazon, saw exponential growth as viewers and new streamers flocked to the site. It had already enjoyed rapid growth in recent years; a year before the pandemic there was a slight dip, but the growth accelerated when people were forced to stay home last year.
Now, however, with vaccine rollouts and creative industries tentatively reopening, the question for those who began streaming during the pandemic is whether they will return to “normal” life again.
Australian comedian John Robertson has been performing for 17 years, living in London since 2013, and like many comedians before the pandemic, he was doing shows for audiences up and down the UK. “I was doing everything that you can imagine. You would go to Hammersmith and do 10 minutes after Harry Hill had been on. I would go and do my show The Dark Room at sci-fi conventions and gaming expos and theaters and art centers, then you’d be back at somebody’s hen do in Plymouth. You just do everything on the planet.” This is a fairly typical snapshot of life as a jobbing comedian. Robertson’s offbeat, weirdly wild and energetic style translated perfectly to a Twitch community, which he calls “diverse, perverse, wholesome, yet awful.”
He had returned to the UK, and with gaps in his schedule, and in the middle of a breakdown, he threw himself into streaming under the name Robbotron. Unlike many who turned to Twitch when the work dried up, Robertson had found success on the platform some months before, and when the work did disappear, he already had a bustling schedule on the platform.
Robertson’s channel consists of high-octane chat and shows like The Dark Room and Sunday Lunch With Your Dad. Talking fervently about the community and togetherness, he notes that “the most important stuff we’ve done is the charity stuff,” raising nearly £50,000 via the stream for charities like Mind, Black Minds Matter, Women’s Trust, and End the Virus of Racism.
With the UK slowly coming out from lockdown, Robertson’s schedule doesn’t look to be changing much. Instead he intends to do more, saying, “We’re going to start streaming the live shows. There are some venues that have kitted themselves out beautifully,” which makes his shows more accessible to those who either don’t want to attend live performances or just can’t because of circumstances like health or location.
You can find parallels here between comedy and music. Neo new-wave band the Fantastic Plastics have been together for eight years, technically a three-piece composed of Tyson, Miranda, and Dillon. Tyson and Miranda are on camera, with Dylan (aka Chicken Burger Disco) writing with the band and doing video production in the background. Like Robertson, they took to Twitch before the pandemic, in an effort to build an audience and figure out where their fans were located to make touring easier. What they didn’t realize is that Twitch would make playing live irrelevant for them. Tyson says, “We realized the capability of Twitch as an expression of art beyond the music, which worked well for us because we had all these visual elements.”
Although the band has experience playing all kinds of live shows, including the Vans Warped Tour in 2017, they’ve seen a decline in the indie-music live scene over a number of years. For a band their size, it was hard to keep connected with live audiences and for their passion to be economically sustainable. “The problem with touring is, we just won over a room full of people, and now we’ll be lucky to get back there in a year or two. It was hard to really foster and build that fan base,” says Tyson.
Although the pair miss the “palpable energy” of a live audience, as they put it, they like the immediate feedback they get on Twitch. The band has been growing creatively on the platform, adding a chat show to their schedule that features an array of guests, and cross-pollinating their audiences with other communities and streamers. “We really enjoyed talking to people,” Miranda recalls. “We had some of our hardcore fans on there, telling us what songs they wanted to hear, and that immediateness was really cool.”