8-Bit Music on Twitch: How the Chiptune Scene Thrived During the Pandemic
University of Westminster (United Kingdom)
COVID-19 had a catastrophic impact on the entertainment business, leaving thousands of successful musicians unemployed. In 2020 and 2021, global lockdowns meant that live performances were largely replaced with online live-streaming. This article assesses the state of chiptune live music during the pandemic. The argument is made that the chiptune scene is well equipped to thrive online, as it is a movement closely related to gaming and technological innovation. In order to assess the advantages and disadvantages of streaming gigs for the chiptune genre, an autoethnographic case study is combined with a questionnaire, where performer experiences of streamed events are analysed within Csikszentmihalyi’s “systems model of creativity” (1988, 1999). Section 1 provides more detail of the chiptune genre. Section 2 is an overview over the state of the art of live streaming in general. In section 3, the “systems model of creativity” framework is introduced, and section 4 summarizes the questionnaire and case study. Section 5 concludes.
Chiptune is a lo-fi electronic music style that emerged in the early 70s and 80s. Since existing audio playback formats were not suitable for interactive real-time audio applications, special chips were built that could transform electrical impulses from a computer into analogue sound waves. Musicians and programmers developed code for these chips, allowing arcade machines, early games consoles and personal computers to be transformed into musical instruments. The unique sonic characteristics of these sound chips set the scene for the iconic 8-bit sound, which continues to inspire musicians in the present day (McAlpine 2018). Traditionally, sound chips were controlled with tracker software, a method that some purists still employ in the present day. These musicians enjoy the intellectual challenge and creative restriction of working directly with obsolete technology. Among them, hardware hacking is popular (Farrell 2020), and fosters a strong DIY ethic and mutual curiosity. Non-purists expand the chiptune aesthetic into modern music genres ranging from pop and EDM to rock, using chiptune software emulations within a standard DAW workflow to achieve the typical timbres and arpeggiation found in older 8-bit tunes (Paul 2014).
The COVID-19 pandemic led to worldwide lockdowns from early 2020, resulting in cancelled live performances on a global scale. This led to a rise in live streaming among popular musicians. Lady Gaga, Paul McCartney and Billie Eilish were among 100 artists performing from their living rooms in the globally televised fundraiser concert “Together at Home” in April 2020 (Global Citizen 2020). Performances inside of video games have taken place even before the pandemic, but experienced a surge in popularity once face-to-face gigs were no longer possible.
Live-streamed performances are highly accessible to geographically spread-out viewers, allowing niche scenes to overcome physical barriers (Kleon 2021; Kerrigan 2013). The barriers of entry are low for audiences and practitioners alike. The technology is readily available: a computer or mobile phone is all that is required to put on a show. Most social media platforms allow for live streaming, including Facebook, Instagram, Discord and YouTube. Zoom, Teams and Skype can also be used. Through free screen casting software solutions like OBS, we can simultaneously stream to several platforms and custom servers. Specialist companies help facilitate more challenging and custom applications. For instance, Hopin is an online conference platform, where musicians can perform on a virtual mainstage or chat with audience members in custom breakout rooms.
Musicians can also make a living online. Shows can be offered behind a paywall, or alternatively, donations can be taken during a performance. On Twitch, artists can earn money through paid viewer subscriptions and YouTube has a button for donations. The ‘metaverse’ offers exciting new opportunities through blockchain technologies, and NFTs are a promising potential income stream for creators.
Ongoing research in up-and-coming live streaming technologies further expands the capabilities for remote performance. AR and immersive VR online chat rooms, motion tracking and games engines allow artists to perform live through virtual avatars. Immersive audio can be transmitted over high-speed internet connections, with Dolby Atmos or Sony’s 360-degree Reality Audio being recent examples. Musicians can collaborate remotely over improved high-speed IP networks, thus performing together in real time. Increased 5G capabilities make fast internet easily accessible.
Traditional Romantic and Inspirationist assumptions saw the individual at the centre of the creative process, whereby a moment of insight or inspiration led to creativity—but many modern researchers argue against these early Western views (Thompson and McIntyre 2013). Several factors are required for creativity, and cultural and social circumstances seem to be as important as the individual (Csikszentmihalyi 1999, 1988; Sawyer 2012). Brian Eno coined the term “Scenius”, whereby artists are not “lone geniuses”, but form part of a network of creators and consumers that inspire each other, and exchange tools, techniques and ideas through a common language (Eno 2009; Kleon 2012). In this way, creators and consumers blend into one. In his systems model of creativity (1988, 1999), Csikszentmihalyi specified that a creative system needs:
Communication in the “field”, in the form of collaboration and social networking play a crucial role for creativity. Sawyer (2012) asserts that “your own idea won’t be as good as it would have been if it had gone through the collaborative process”. According to Lucy Green (2002), songwriters learn about their domain through formal, semi-formal and informal sources, which includes a field of fellow practitioners. DJs are most successful when they connect with others and learn to read an audience, and the “magic” happens when both DJ and audience experience collective effervescence (Fikentscher 2013). In this sense, the audience are also important for an artist to develop their skills. All these examples show that musical practitioners benefit from a supportive community. Within the “domain” of chiptune, the artists as “individuals” draw on a “field” of hardware hackers, musicians and gamers, who meet online and face to face to exchange ideas, support and feedback.
The chiptune scene (“field”) is firmly embedded within the online gaming community, and its practitioners are generally tech-savvy and open to technical experimentation. This is a useful starting point for the transition from face-to-face performances to online streaming. To investigate the advantages and disadvantages of streaming gigs for chiptune music, I will analyse my own experiences alongside questionnaire responses from six other chiptune artists.
Under the moniker Nyokee, I combine retro games console sounds with analogue synthesizers, DAW production and visuals. My streaming performances have e.g. included the 2021 Women in Games conference, sponsored by Innovate UK, and “Gamechangers”, a fundraiser event organised by UKIE (the trade association for the UK games industry). I will use my performances to reflect on online chiptune shows.
To gain an outside perspective, I also sent a short questionnaire to six other chiptune musicians, asking the following questions:
The interviewees were:
In the following sections, their responses are analysed within the systems model of creativity framework. The respondents’ streaming setups are presented (section 4.1), followed by a discussion of the importance of collaboration in chiptune (“field”, section 4.2). Four additional themes were extracted from the audience responses (thematic content analysis): accessibility and inclusivity (section 4.3), audience engagement (section 4.4), live streaming as a tradition in gaming culture (section 4.5) and control of over the look and sound of the show (section 4.6).
The interviewees’ streaming setups are as diverse as their musical styles and demonstrate a good grasp of technology. Each respondent has an extensive collection of home devices for performance, including games consoles, laptops running DAWs, MIDI controllers, green screens, cameras, DJ decks, musical instruments, and various tools for streaming. I use Ableton and MIDI controllers, with live visuals from the third-party plugin Ebosuite. The consensus appears to be that performers are not afraid to add a high level of complexity to their live rigs. This is in line with the chiptune “domain”, where technical complexity and computer coding play an important role.
Chiptune is a global niche and streaming gigs allow artists to connect with the “field” over a distance. The salience of the community spirit, upheld through nostalgia and technology, was particularly evident from BType’s response, who mentioned “the nostalgia of three different generations”, brought together in a “punk rock meets EDM” (Btype 2022) aesthetic. According to Circuit Bird, “streaming gigs [were] a fantastic way to keep the community together” (Circuit Bird 2022) during lockdowns. R41NB0W TR4$H enjoyed “learning about…communities, exchanging with other performers, reflecting on some of the questions the audience has for you” and “setting up last-minute collaborations” (2022). In this way, online streaming platforms help artists to connect on a global level, and present new opportunities for mutual support and collaboration.
Most of the questionnaire participants commented on the advantage of accessibility, whereby diverse groups could participate in streaming gigs, and bridge geographical distance. According to R41NB0W TR4$H, streaming gigs were “great for community-building” and included “women, non-binary folks, people of colour, disabled folks, and people from neurodivergent backgrounds” (2022). In my experience, many chiptune artists are neurodivergent (I am, too), and performing from home can help mitigate some of the anxiety that more unpredictable face to face shows can bring. Shirobon adds that, “You don't have to worry about travel and accommodation”, which also helped Circuit Bird who works at weekends. Game Genie Sokolov stresses that “Everyone from the world can join” (2022).
All participants commented on the fact that it is more difficult to connect with audiences online than face to face. According to Circuit Bird, “live music in a club gives us much higher energy, you can join with groups of friends and dance together” (2022). Similarly, R41NB0W TR4$H prefers live gigs to streaming gigs, as the latter can feel isolating, and “the party is missing…” (2022). BType misses being in “a physical space with an audience and playing with their reactions and feelings”, which is why he “fell in love with the art of performance” (2022). RobKTA agrees: since chiptune gigs are “incredibly energetic for the audience, there's the lack of it that can [impact] a bit on the overall experience” (2022).
“Collective effervescence” or “reading the audience” are more difficult to achieve remotely, as we cannot see or hear the audience and there is a delay between the performance and the stream. Performers usually require a separate device for reading audience comments, which adds further complexity. Audience members can also not see or hear each other, and also be more easily distracted from the show. Still, real-life-performances rarely allow artists to find out what audiences’ members think at specific points in time, an opportunity afforded by the chat function of most available streaming platforms: comments can be saved and archived, and reflected on later.
While it is more difficult to connect with audience members in streaming gigs than in real life, the chiptune genre’s roots do lie in gaming culture, where live streaming is a long-standing tradition. Technically savvy gamers, hackers and fellow musicians have used the internet for collaboration, competition and learning for decades. This has helped the chiptune scene transition to a virtual streaming format during the pandemic. As BType states,
With chiptune being so rooted in the history of video games, it's so serendipitous (and on brand for chiptune!) that the online performance platforms popping up are also a part of that same root system. I feel chiptune acts benefit from an online audience that is a bit more savvy, even passively, with media tech and art being used as performance tools (2022).
Audience members depend on visual information to judge the skill of the performer (Tsay 2013; Vuoskoski et al 2016), and to understand the overall emotion. Gesture is a fundamental element of successful performances as it helps to communicate liveness to an audience (Joaquim and Barbosa 2013). Therefore, it can be empowering for artists to be able to control exactly what the audience see. As tech-savvy gamers and fellow musicians, chiptune audience members often enjoy seeing performance setups up close, so they can try to reverse-engineer them. The modern reincarnation of the 8-bit era is not just a musical phenomenon, but includes visual, social, political and performative aspects through artists’ playful congregation around retro-gaming symbols (Marquez 1994). During the pandemic, I was able to start working with my partner, who dressed up as a saxophone playing alien. I could also surround myself with DIY 8-bit art and show visuals on a screen. Being able to experiment with this shift in my visual image, from the comfort of my own home, was exhilarating.
“Having so much more control over your presentation and aesthetic is a delight. Without the constraints that come with using a venue's space, or sharing one with other performers, you can go to town framing your performance however you like” (BType 2022). According to Game Genie Sokolov, “you can play whatever you like, you can control what you look like, you can ensure perfect audio quality… [and decide] how to use the space” (2022).
Still, performing online can also mean additional technical difficulties, “to the point where most ‘live’ sets have to be pre-recorded to try and avoid these” (Shirobon 2022). Personally, I did not face many technical difficulties online, apart from one time, when an event organiser used the wrong sample rate, making my music sound fast and high-pitched. The audience enjoyed this effect, comparing it to the Nightcore genre, which is in line with the scene’s appreciation of errors and limitations in technology as an artistic theme.
Community (the “field”) is an important ingredient in music making. For the close-knit, yet geographically scattered chiptune community, virtual concerts help bridge physical distance and provide a new platform for mutual support and collaboration. Due to the close relationship with gaming culture, where live streaming has been popular even before the pandemic, the transition to a virtual streaming format feels natural. Chiptune music making is a “domain” characterised by technical complexity and overlaps with electronics and computer science. As a tech-savvy breed of musicians that are eager to learn and “tinker”, chiptune artists use streaming technology confidently and enjoy customising the look at sound of their shows online. They also enjoy helping each other and learning from the community. Streaming shows are accessible, which can help neurodivergent artists feel more in control, and bridge physical distance. Being able to read chat comments, long after a show, is a useful starting point for reflection. Still, chiptune music is a high-energy dance affair which still works best on a real stage, with an audience that can see and hear each other, and the performer, in an immersive way.
Dr. Kirsten Hermes is an interdisciplinary researcher, book author (Hermes 2021), senior lecturer, singer, violinist and audio-visual artist, bridging scientific and creative domains in her work. Kirsten holds a PhD in sound perception from the University of Surrey (UK), which was funded by the British Engineering and Physical Sciences Council. She also works as a freelance sound designer and video creator.
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