How musicians used gaming tech to adapt to a gig-less future

Table of Contents Lacuna Coil’s Cristina Scabbia on the power of Twitch and spreading positivitySvalbard…

As if musicians’ lives weren’t already challenging enough, last March the music industry found itself facing a heart-stopping question: how do we survive without live music? Grabbing a pint in Walthamstow, I was surprised to see it being poured by The Skints’ Josh Waters Rudge. Facing a gig-less future and a calendar littered with cancelled festival dates, like many of his musical peers, local ska-punk legend Josh was left scrambling for work.

Yet, if the last decade of streaming has proved anything, it’s that artists always find a way. And adapt they did. While many bands repeatedly slapped themselves until they were finally ready to accept their new reality, some of our nerdier idols discovered a financial lifeline lurking in the unlikeliest of places – their video games.

While I spent lockdown flogging turnips to mates on Animal Crossing, for bored musicians, these polygonal playgrounds offered exciting new career opportunities. Whether it was using Twitch to reconnect with fans, channelling lockdown gaming into solo album inspiration, or harnessing game engines for ambitious A/V livestreams, for a surprising number of artists, games offered a lifejacket to an industry struggling to stay afloat.

Now, with the UK poised to resume music events and as business gets ready to return to a modicum of normality, I spoke to Lacuna Coil, Anthony Green, And So I Watch You From Afar, Refused, Twelve Foot Ninja, Youth Sector, and Svalbard’s Serena Cherry about how they overcame the most difficult year of their lives.

Lacuna Coil’s Cristina Scabbia on the power of Twitch and spreading positivity

Cristina Scabbia Credit: Getty Images/ Francesco Prandoni

“I first thought about using Twitch, around the end of April 2020,” Lacuna Coil singer Cristina Scabbia tells NME. “We’d just got back from a Latin American tour and were about to jump onto another tour and then lockdown hit – and I didn’t know what to do. My boyfriend suggested Twitch, and now people who weren’t connected to video games started to open a channel, so it was like, ‘Okay, this is something that could definitely ease my mind. I’m not a streamer, but I can try!’

“I wanted to keep my streams detached from music,” she continues, “ because I don’t feel comfortable singing if I’m not with Lacuna Coil. I thought that I might as well stream games, as I would just be at home playing games anyway, but at least with Twitch, I could interact with our fans. I loved the idea of staying in touch when we’re far away from each other.

“I started streaming with a cell phone and a laptop, and… it was very raw, but I loved it! The point was being connected with people, not being a pro streamer. But streaming excited me because it transported me into a world that I didn’t really know. I started to watch other streamers and developed my channel step by step, buying a new camera, creating new graphics, getting in touch with other streamers for advice – I made so many amazing new friends! I wouldn’t expect it to be something that’s lasted so long; it’s been 13 months and my streams are still going!“

As much as it offered a welcome distraction for Scabbia, the thing that really kept her logging onto Twitch was the powerful connection she felt with her fans: “I love the little community that we created all together because it is very intimate. I can really show Christina as she is, off stage and at home – and It is a really nice atmosphere. I think that we have such a huge power as artists – and we don’t always use it for the better. I like to talk with our fans just to find out how they are doing and if they’re struggling, to cheer them up.”

If anything, Scabbia hopes that by streaming, she can inspire her fans to pursue their dreams.

“I love to show fans that behind any musician, there is a normal person. They should get used to seeing the normality behind their idols. I have learned that there are so many people out there that are feeling alone and lost… and they just need a kind word and to be recognised. A lot of people out there are just like, ‘oh my god, I will never be like this person, so I suck!’ I don’t want our fans to think that. Yes, we are blessed that we can create music, we’ve been so lucky to make a job out of our biggest passion. But we are just like you! So if we made it, you can do it, too – you just have to find your passion and work on it!”

Svalbard and Noctule’s Serena Cherry on how lockdown gaming habits inspired a Skyrim-themed solo album

Serena Cherry Credit: John Ashby

Like many of us over lockdown, Svalbard’s Serena Cherry found herself returning to the virtual comfort blanket that is Bethesda’s sprawling RPG, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Yet unlike most lockdown gaming, Cherry’s dragon-slaying spawned a critically acclaimed new album.…

“I wrote and recorded a Skyrim-inspired black metal album,” laughs Cherry. “I was playing the game during lockdown, and the two things just sort of coincided at exactly the same time. I never sat there and thought ‘I’m going to write an album about an RPG!’

“I wrote three songs instrumentally, just for fun. Then I thought ‘Oh, I might write one song about my favourite weapon…’ And then, ‘maybe I should write about my favourite dungeon’… And it snowballed from there! It felt like such a natural pairing that it would have been mad not to just run with it.”

“Throughout my life, I never stop playing Skyrim – I just take extended breaks! I was really inspired by the shouts in the game vocally. [In Skyrim], your voice is a source of power and a thing that can physically knock someone back. And that’s why I didn’t print the lyrics for the album because a lot of it is just kind of me making powerful shouting noises *laughs*. The Skyrim soundtrack, it’s one of my favourite pieces of music. And I was searching for that similar feeling that is evoked there – something super epic, but also quite melancholic.”

Despite receiving a rapturous response online, Cherry’s Skyrim record was never meant to be shared with the world.

“It was initially, just something for me, recorded in my bedroom. I wasn’t thinking about anyone else hearing these tracks – apart from my poor housemates! Then Sammy Irwin, who runs Church Road Records was like ‘have you thought about releasing this?’”

Now, as gig offers have come flooding in, she’s even enlisted her once bemused flatmates to play in Noctule’s live band.

“It’s just been so much more than I ever could have expected!” reflects Cherry. “I didn’t really look any further beyond just making this album and now we’ve got our first live show booked for next year – Incineration Fest with Emperor – which is a crazy first show! There are going to be outfits, there’s gonna be smoke machines… It’ll be so over the top – and I’m really, really excited about it!”

Circa Survive and Saosin’s Anthony Green on the joys and woes of becoming a livestreaming busker

Anthony Green Credit: Getty Images/ Timothy Norris

Like Cristina Scabbia, Circa Survive frontman Anthony Green turned to Twitch once national and international touring ground to a halt. Yet unlike Scabbia’s intimate gaming hangouts, Green transformed his bedroom into a makeshift stage.

“I joined Twitch a couple of days into the pandemic,” explains Green. “I was freaking out about trying to find some way to stream concerts when a buddy of mine – this guy Trainwreck who is very famous on Twitch – hit me up saying ‘I love your music and I think you should get involved with Twitch’. He got me linked up to somebody at Twitch who then sent me some equipment and taught me how to do it.

“Streaming was really, really big for me for a while, you know? What’s cool about Twitch is you can jam with people. That’s what I love most about this stuff, where you have somebody halfway across the world from somebody else singing to their track, you know? Making music together! That’s the type of shit I really like.”

Regularly playing acoustic shows to thousands of viewers, Green would suddenly find a huge influx of people coming back to his sets. He reveals that he was humbled and grateful, yet, with a feedback loop from the fans always visible on stream, the negative comments he usually avoids slowly became impossible to ignore.

“It started to get a little weird though. I don’t usually really go into the comment section very much, but it’s right there on Twitch. There’s a tendency I have where if there’s like 100 people saying that the show was great, and one person says like ‘You didn’t play the song I wanted!’ I tend to hyper-focus on that one negative person. And so in that respect, it became difficult as an artist to be like, ‘wait, why are you nit-picking me right now?’

“While Twitch was very helpful for me this last year, I got to a point where I needed to spend a lot more time on this to figure out a balance on how I can do it and not feel like I’m Handsome Pete dancing for nickels down at the dock, you know? Towards the end, it started to feel like it was like a job almost.“

The one thing he relished from his time on Twitch, however, was being able to continue to show his fans a glimpse of the real Anthony.

“I think that as an artist, you’re afraid that people aren’t going to like your personality. In this age now where everybody’s a YouTube star – all of that comes along with it. For me, the internet makes it easier to let everyone know that I’m dealing with lots of shit all the time and that I make lots of mistakes. I’m not always a perfect partner, dad, or person. So if I mess up at a show, I just start over.

“I have a hard centre for gratitude right now. It’s easy to see shit around us right now and get overwhelmed, but what helps keep me from being overwhelmed is expressing my gratitude for the people who are in my life and for the people who are patient with my music. Every little listen, every casual listener – every fucking stream – keeps me alive. I feel like my fans give me the opportunity to grow and change. And that’s the best thing you could ever hope for from your audience.”

Youth Sector’s Nick Tompkins talks about the Brighton indie group’s new side hustle – making music packs for League of Legends

“We were scouted by Five Vectors, who offered us the opportunity to make our own League Of Legends song pack,” says Nick Tompkins. “It was great fun and a new experience; instead of writing about what you know and feel personally, you’re trying to evoke the emotion of losing a kill streak or destroying a turret, which is, er, quite a niche feeling to put across within a few bars.”

Despite it being a world away from Youth Sector’s usual heart-on-sleeve indie bangers, Nick and co-songwriter Josh relished the chance to contribute to one of the world’s largest esports:

“We’d love to do more of this kind of thing, it’s a nice change of pace for us. Obviously performing, writing, and recording for Youth Sector is our main passion and focus so when gigs re-emerge we are going to be right there! But any opportunity to write music and try out different approaches – we’re all for it. I now work as a freelance songwriter, which does play a large part in keeping me alive and freeing me up to put my hours into Youth Sector.”

“I’m not sure how many songs we’ll need to write about killing 100 enemy minions in the future but if we do I’ll know exactly where to dig down within myself to reach those emotions.”

Refused’s Dennis Lyxzén on why more bands need to collaborate on video games

Dennix Lyxzen credit: Getty Images / David Wolff

Refused’s Dennis Lyxen didn’t pick up a controller during the pandemic, but he reflects on how much he enjoyed penning the songs for Cyberpunk 2077’s fictional band Samurai, and why he believes that working on games is the smart choice for modern bands.

“It’s interesting because, in reality, where you don’t really make money selling records and you don’t really make money from streaming, I like the idea that bands write music for video games. We as a band talked about how cool it would be to actually write music for video games, not just songs, which is a bit different. It’s a world that’s so popular, and so many people are into it. It’s an interesting prospect for a lot of musicians to sort of do that crossover, you know?”

“Being in a hardcore-esque band, you’re never going to get rich. The reality is that 20 plus years ago, I took the decision that I wanted to make a living off of playing music. And, you know, sometimes you got to have a song in a movie, that’s the functioning reality for a lot of people. With the same people that sort of criticise Refused for selling out, I mean, my reality is that I have to pay rent at the end of the month.

“And, you know, this offer came up from CDProjekt Red… and the money was fine – but the idea to create something like this was amazing and something that excited us. As a creative, you grab these opportunities!”

Twelve Foot Ninja’s Stevic talks making the game he’d always dreamed about

“When lockdown hit, I sort of went, ‘well, gigs aren’t gonna pop up, so I’m going to tackle something that I’ve always wanted to do, which is make a video game,’” Steve Mackay, better known as Stevic, 12 Foot Ninja’s guitarist tells NME.

“I think I grossly underestimated how difficult it is to make a video game, but by the time I was in, it was too late! I think I made 1500 unique graphic assets. I mean you just wouldn’t tackle that! If someone’s like, ‘Can you make me 1500 little pieces of graphics?’ You’d be like, get fucked!”

Almost a year later though, his game did find a way. Called Brusnik’s Long Way Home, this tongue-in-cheek platformer ties into 12 Foot Ninja’s forthcoming album ‘Vengeance’.

“I used to play this game called Cosmo’s Cosmic Adventure, and I only had the shareware,” he tells us. “And I just played the shit out of it. I think it did something to my brain; now I’ve just got this affinity for 2D platformers. I made a South Park-esque game because it’s a comedy that will save the world. The game’s pointing out how ridiculous things are, in a light-hearted, funny way without the vitriol. Hopefully, we can zoom out and realise that we all have more in common with each other than we think.”

And So I Watch You Afar’s Rory Friers and artist Sam Wiehl talk about using Unreal Engine to create the future of live music experiences

Rory Friers credit: Getty Images / Carrie Davenport

In perhaps one of the more symbiotic fusions of music and 3D worlds, the Belfast post-rockers opted to combine their love of epic film scores with a trippy Unreal Engine creation. The result? The awe-inspiring audiovisual show, ‘Jettison’. While this ambitious A/V set got a trial run via a handful of pre-lockdown shows over the last twelve months of being stuck indoors, this ambitious new 3D project has morphed into a world of its own.

“I’d just finished composing a soundtrack of a film, And I really loved the alchemy of sound and visuals – that unexpected magic that happens when those two are combined,” And So I Watch You From Afar’s Rory Friers recalls about ‘Jettison’s’ genesis. “My idea was to write this long, flowing EP, and I wanted to find someone that would almost reverse engineer a score into something else – something bigger. A few months later, we discovered Sam.”

Making a name for himself creating trippy 3D and traditional film-shot visuals for bands, Sam Wiehl has worked with everyone from Mogwai to Forest Swords. The second he heard the beginnings of this ambitious record, he knew that they were onto something special.

“I was cycling home listening to it on headphones, going ‘Holy shit!’ The strings and everything… it was real hair on the back of your neck type stuff,” recalls Sam. “The first conversations we had were really about why they made the audio, and it was to do with lots of things that are quite conceptual. So I began building these abstract themes about memory and space using game software – Unreal Engine. We didn’t really know what the story was back then, but we started to make up these vignettes. Then the more the band and I discussed, the more things joined up and before we knew it, these levels began growing with the music into this… world.”

Over time, Friers would start to write to Wiehl’s creations and before long, the initially static project had morphed into its own unique piece of art. “It’s weird, but now ‘Jettison’ feels almost like a place that actually exists,” reflects Friers. “It’s not like watching a film – just a printed journey from A to B – it’s a place that you can kind of visit.”

Will fans be able to jet off to ‘Jettison’ anytime soon, then?

“We have the in-person shows in October, but we have discussed there being a playable version online which would be audio soundtracked,” suggests Wiehl. “The past year has certainly kind-of expedited what we want do with ‘Jettison’, and how we use tech going forward. We would have played upwards of 100 shows in these 12 months. It makes you kind of rethink how you can make music connect with people in the absence of that. I don’t want to get too carried away, but I think a lot of fairly exciting stuff will be happening off the back of this.”

The nature of the project and the pandemic has also made Friers and Wiehl think about how they want people to be able to enjoy live music and art projects in the future.

“Streams are a great way of accessing these things. I know everyone’s a bit bored of them now, but I still think there’s some merit to them. There’s something kind of democratic about people who can’t physically get to a show, tuning in. I certainly think that not having to pay for some of these things is really good, too. Certain venues, once they’d sold a set amount of tickets to ‘Jettison’ put up the stream for free. There’s something kind of nice there.”

In a world where musicians are being forced off the road and onto the internet to survive, it’s reassuring to see so many different talents adapt so well to a post-coronavirus society. Though international lockdowns have been oppressive, claustrophobic, and even downright depressing for some, a small silver lining lies in the innovative and creative new projects musicians have had the time to create and serve to an audience that’s hungrier than ever for a taste of live music.