A background of background music in video game videos

A gaming subculture, video game streaming, has emerged that involves a fluid interaction between games, people, and music. It has been made possible through advancements in computing power and streaming technology, the development of games that can be played through the internet, and readily accessible music. If you’re from an older generation, you might think it’s loopy to watch other people play video games for fun. People of Generation Y (roughly born 1980-2000) – my generation – still mainly play conventional computer games in conventional social settings. Some are engaged in localised gaming communities, usually amongst a group of friends. Others get involved in amateur and professional societies and competitions, such as Super Smash Bros-playing groups, popular throughout the UK. More often, early-Generation Y-ers are less willing to broadcast our interactions with others. Only a select few feel confident enough in this artform to build on online subculture around it.

The subculture of video game streaming has emerged in the last ten years or so, spawning mainly from the Generation Y-ers and (early) Z-ers (born 2000+). This consists of streaming videos, or video-on-demand (VOD), which feature players playing games, sometimes with others, providing social interaction and with accompanying background music. These activities have huge numbers of viewers and followers on video-sharing and VOD websites. Perhaps the most significant niche of this subculture is that dedicated to highly experienced professional  “streamers”, who exhibit their talents and provide mentoring, mixed with conversation and engagement from their ‘following’ community. Such can be found on Twitch.tv (a video streaming platform, subsidiary of Amazon) and YouTube (a video-sharing platform – you might have heard of it).

In this post, I’m going to look at a particular aspect of the professional streamer subculture: the use of background music in video game live streams and VODs. A recent, important issue is the use of copyrighted songs. I’ll unpack this from Twitch users’ perspectives and examine the genres of music that popular streamers use. In the next post, I’ll go into more detail on the economic and philosophical implications of these activities, and raise possible solutions.

Let’s talk about streaming, music, and rights

Platforms such as Twitch are absolutely mega for streamers that want to monetise their gameplay. The advantage of Twitch over YouTube is that streamers can get better profits for their work. YouTube is primarily a video-sharing platform, and while it has a wide sphere of influence, it’s not a good earner. While a few top-end YouTube stars are earning a fortune – such as Pewdiepie, who earns around 12-15 million bucks a year according to Forbes – most YouTubers can’t earn a great deal from their content.

But a major issue for professional gamers that want to provide background music in their videos is that it’s under copyright and therefore not legally allowed to be publicly broadcast. If Twitchers or YouTubers use music they must either have paid for the broadcast rights or have music that is royalty-free or globally-cleared (where all necessary financial commitments have been previously settled).

So, how do content providers go about negotiating this landscape? Approaches must be sensitive to nuances in the delivery of content. The legal implications seem to be somewhat different depending on whether the content is a live stream or VOD. While technically there should be no legal difference, in practice it’s presently much harder to investigate live content, and so VODs are under more scrutiny.

To deal with the issue of copyright, Twitch initiated (in 2014) a limited catalogue of royalty-free and industry-cleared music, in the Twitch Music Library, which is available for streamers (live streams and VODs). However, the content is actually quite limited – 1760 songs at the time of writing, with many of these entries by a single artist. Indeed, sometimes there may be as many as 30-40 tracks by a single artist. They range in quality, as you might expect, with a somewhat slender choice of musical genres, content, and moods. It comprises mostly up-and-coming Indie artists, and those not-so-well-known too. But all the music tends to be pigeonholed in a way that does not permit variability and interactivity with the user. So, all in all, this music solution might be considered below par for some streamers.


Are there any ways out of these difficulties, I hear you ask? Well, not really. If you’re a streamer and you want your favourite ditty in the background, such as Despacito, expect to pay a pretty penny for the privilege. Some trendy Indie artists might allow you to stream their content (which is good for their exposure) as long as they’re credited somewhere in your work. But before you use any of their music, make sure that you link a page that says anyone can use their music, or there might be some contention. There are various online music library services that allow you to stream their collections for free, and others that require a subscription. Pretzel provides good free streamable music for live streamers. Monstercat have specific copyright music that you can use for a small charge. On the higher end, there’s Audiomicro and Epidemic Sound, which demand more wedge for copyrighted music. Also, not only is it difficult to acquire musical content for streamers, this is complicated further when having to find music that has the right style and emotion.

What about using Twitch with Spotify?

What about something like Spotify? Can’t streamers use this service since they’ve paid for it through subscription? Well no, because they have clauses that restrict playing to personal use. Generally, Spotify doesn’t allow users to play their tracks on platforms like Twitch, but if they do, these tracks must be okay-ed with both Spotify and Twitch beforehand. Recently there have been a number of DMCA (Digital Millenium Copyright Act, 1998) takedown notices directed at live channels, although takedown notices are generally directed at VODs.

A VOD uploaded to YouTube can be muted or taken down if you play copyrighted content. Twitch can mute up to 30 mins of a vid if they detect copyright music violations. Little by little, it seems the music industry might be getting wise to the new subculture. And while copyright violations don’t often affect live streaming, they are becoming more common. Sometimes the copyright owner might see a live stream and take action against you, which could result in your channel being shut down.

Major Twitch Streamers

It would be good to look at the major Twitch streamers to provide a broad view of their activities and to see how they approach the background music problem. Game streaming involves a three-way relationship, from gameplay, to narration/dialogue, and background music. The prime interaction of course is between the players and the game (with their commentary dialogue), while the background music also provides an important additional aspect, since it creates atmosphere.

What are the main games featured? In professional gaming, there is a trend to use games with huge coverage and popularity, generally from AAA production houses, with smaller games companies often not getting a look in. Fortnite, an online game by Epic Games, is perhaps the top contender right now for overall popularity in streaming. It is a survival game, released in 2017. Overwatch and Grand Theft Auto V are also very popular choices.

What about the music? Streamers and the listening community often suggest that they prefer more ‘chilled’ musical settings for streams, but it also depends on the streamer and the game. There seems to be some variety of music played by streamers, although usually pop, EDM, or rap, of varying descriptions. No matter what type of musical style, the emphasis is always on cool. Ultra cool. In general, the music tends not to be too foregrounded, i.e., ‘in your face’, up-front, or poppy, which is not ideal for streaming purposes since the viewers’ attention is taken away from the game and dialogue; although, occasionally there seems to be some big pop tracks featured.

So who are the major streamers? Ninja is perhaps the biggest, with around 3.8 million viewers. Shroud, and TSM_Myth are next to him with roughly 1.7 million viewers each week, each. Ninja’s musical tastes feature a lot of hip-hop styles, but also light electronic music and various types of EDM. For example, God’s Plan by Drake, is a hip-hop classic used by Ninja. Also used is Post Malone’s, I Fall Apart and Silence by Marshmellow, which are both EDM.

Ninja, dexerto.com

TSM_Myth is a major Twitch streamer, with 4.5 million followers, and makes about $5 million a year. Many viewers admire his choice in music, and so he has acquired a sort of DJ or MC status, in addition to being majorly popular as a streaming personality. A typical example of the type of music he plays is When I Get There by Big Wild, which is uber-cool EDM. Actin Up by Kill The Clowns is another of this type of EDM. A bit more heavy, but very likeable. It seems not ideal for streaming because it’s quite ear-catching, in my humble opinion – but I’m sure he knows what he’s doing. TSM_Myth also uses Tessa Voilet’s Bad Ideas, which is a nice, sweet pop track, and could capture a lazy-feel background.

Tfue is another very prominent streamer. Tfue’s musical tastes are more easy-listening, pop, as well as a highly emotional genre of rap called emo rap. It’s a cross between Indie and Rap, and I’m not sure what the genre really amounts to. It’s slow and melodramatic, and has a large deep bass, with whining electronicised vocals. Tfue uses Lil Peep’s Better Off Dying, which is a melodramatic emo rap ditty. The same sort of sound with Lil Skies’ Creeping.

In short, rap, hip-hop, and EDM are important genres for streamers. Emo rap is openly materialistic and can be used in clubs, radios, and films alike. It’s highly commercially orientated – probably providing high revenue. This could be even more of an issue then for streamers, since they are more likely to get in hot water over playing it, especially when copyright licensing in streaming tightens up.

The Future of Streaming Music

This blog gave a brief overview of video game streaming, primarily with respect to copyright and the developing subculture on platforms like Twitch. The background music used by streamers is often very popular and prominent in popular culture, and is likely to have the potential to gain income for its producers. So, using this material might become highly contentious in the next few years and so the use of music deserves some serious consideration.

The second part of the blog series will look more closely at the implications of background music usage in streams, such as automatic filtering of content and removal of videos, and examines possible solutions.