Gabriel & Dresden
Streaming

How Twitch Transformed Gabriel & Dresden’s Career

The trance duo's Club Quarantine delivered salvation during pandemic — and built a path forward.

As the coronavirus outbreak deepened last March, electronic dance duo Gabriel & Dresden scrapped a global tour to promote their third studio album and turned to live streaming to try to stay afloat.

Their first go at streaming -- on Facebook -- ended badly: About 50 minutes into Dave Dresden’s DJ set the platform kicked him off, citing three copyright infringements in one broadcast. In a scramble, Dresden alerted his fans on social media that he was bouncing to another platform he had just learned existed -- Twitch -- where he ended up spinning for six hours.

From the chaos of that first stream sprang opportunity and a new way for the longtime trance duo to engage with their fans. On Friday, Gabriel & Dresden’s “Club Quarantine” will celebrate a year in pandemic with their 179th stream on Twitch, the platform on which Dresden and Josh Gabriel have found financial salvation, rediscovered their DJ roots and built an online business they believe will persist long after live touring resumes. For working-class DJs like G&D, who have enjoyed steady success for the better part of two decades but never achieved pop-star riches, Twitch became a lifeline.

"This was literally like a drug that changed my life," Dresden tells Billboard. “I’m reaching people right now that haven’t been out to a club venue in years.”

Along the way, the duo faced technical challenges, burnout and depression as income ebbed and flowed. And Dresden still worries their nascent business could crumble if labels crack down on copyright violations because of what they view as Twitch’s lack of comprehensive music licenses.

Originally built for -- and still dominated by -- video gamers, Twitch has become an unlikely home for thousands of music creators, who have turned to the platform for its easy-to-use tools for monetizing streams, which include subscriptions, tipping and ads. During the pandemic, established Twitch acts like Krewella continued to stream, while newcomers like EDM duo Sofi Tukker (which streamed for more than 200 straight days) seized the opportunity to get noticed

“I hadn’t felt anything like the rave scene like this since the early '90s,” says Gabriel, 52. “It’s just parties popping up and people going in and seeing what they’re like.”

Though Amazon-owned Twitch declines to provide the number of artists streaming on the platform, it reports significant growth in artists earning more than $25,000 a year over the past 13 months.

Gabriel & Dresden say fewer dance music DJs ended up streaming regularly on Twitch than they expected. “I thought we were ahead of the curve, but I thought there would be thousands of regular DJs there,” says Gabriel. “But the truth is it’s not for the faint of heart.”

To find success, Dresden approached live streaming like a full-time job, and the duo dedicated themselves to learning the ins and outs of running a subscription business -- and to broadening the music they played beyond their usual trance-heavy sets. They also shrewdly benefited from a bit of serendipity when a retired tech entrepreneur and his wife offered to lend a hand and ended up producing the show.

Of Mortgages and Ex-Wives

Like many artists, Gabriel & Dresden faced financial ruin when touring shut down last spring.

Dresden, 51, needed to pay his mortgage in the San Francisco Bay Area and, as a diabetic, says he was particularly afraid to leave his house and catch the virus. Gabriel, who lives in Spokane, Washington, says he had an ex-wife and three kids in Amsterdam to help support. Despite releasing both original and compilation albums, as well as dozens of singles, since partnering up in 2001, recorded music was earning the act very little in the streaming era, says Gabriel, who produces most of the duo’s music while Dresden does most of the DJing. They used Kickstarter campaigns to fund their 2017 and 2020 studio albums.

Against that backdrop, Dresden, at first, attacked Twitch with abandon, streaming 14 straight days, in sets that ran eight to 12 hours each. Gabriel soon intervened, telling his partner that the pace was not sustainable given how much music it would take to keep the shows fresh. Dresden cut it back to four times a week, with sets averaging six to eight hours and frequently including guest DJs.

Dresden transformed his living room into Club Quarantine, decorating a corner space in his Bay Area house with lava lamps and plants, as well as pinecones he'd picked up on his regular hikes. His seven-year-old daughter added some of her stuffed animals. A fan sent a plastic action figure of the DJ Hardwell with his arms outstretched.

Dresden says Twitch allows him to engage with fans in ways that aren’t usually possible at crowded clubs or festivals. He speaks intermittently on the mic throughout the stream, thanking contributors as their donations roll in while unfurling anecdotes and insights about the artists he’s playing and the history behind the music.

“You have to figure out how to be personal with people,” says Gabriel. “The music ends up being a sidebar to the fact that there’s this personal connection between everybody in the audience and Dave.”

The duo has built a strong sense of community. Gabriel and Dresden often invite their girlfriends -- DJ-singer Sub Teal and DJ Karin Bash, respectively -- to spin on the channel, along with a steady flow of Anjunabeats label mates like Jerome Isma-Ae and Seven Lions joining the livestream from their own home bases.

When the energy wanes, Dresden pumps it up by urging his “pinecone community” to “PLAMP!’ (a portmanteau of plant and lava lamp). Last weekend the channel featured Max Graham spinning to trippy outer space images and Dresden donning a furry pink hat to man the decks from an empty San Francisco club.

Initially, Dresden streamed using a crude setup from his laptop and some lights pulled from around the house. He later invested about $10,000 in a dedicated streaming computer, video lights and upgraded CD-Js, he says. He does most of the spinning, while Gabriel (who himself DJs one day a week) helps load up hundreds of tracks for Dresden to use in his sets.

In the early weeks, technical difficulties plagued Club Quarantine. In June, the duo struggled to pull Gabriel onto the stream for the first time from his Washington home. But the fumble led to an early turning point. Up in Seattle, Eric Lindvall, a wealthy tech entrepreneur and Kickstarter supporter of G&D, was watching and reached out to Dresden to offer technical support.

Soon Lindvall and his wife Irene took on more behind the scenes production responsibility. Eric has set up a separate video server and remote tools -- so he can control the cameras from Seattle -- while Irene handles set design changes and spends hours monitoring the stream’s hyperactive chat room for feedback. They've also solved issues like stabilizing camera shake when Dresden turns up the bass too high.

By the late summer, Club Quarantine had hit its stride. To celebrate the duo’s 100th stream in August, Dresden drove up to Spokane and spun with Gabriel on the deck of a friend’s home as the sunset blazed in the background. Then in September, London trio (and Anjunabeats label mates) Above & Beyond invited Club Quarantine to be the official afterparty for their Group Therapy 400 broadcast from a boat ride on the River Thames -- delivering 10,000 viewers to the Twitch stream (Club Quarantine averages about 800).

But by the late fall, Dresden was experiencing burnout and sinking into depression over flagging income. “I felt like nobody was subscribing and nobody was paying any money,” he says. The Lindvalls urged him to take a break and the channel went dark for the month of November. Dresden decompressed by driving to national parks.

Courtesy of Twitch
Dave Dresden hosts "Gabriel & Dresden, Club Quarantine 172: Legends Series" Twitch livestream.

Bits, Subs And Legends

Music streamers on Twitch earn income in a variety of ways. Streamers receive at least 50% of revenue from subscriptions (which range from $4.99 to $24.99). Viewers contribute “Bits” — basically online tips — to “cheer” for the artists. Each Bit is worth one cent, with Twitch charging the contributor — not the streamer — an initial fee. Twitch also pays streamers at least $3.50 per 1,000 views of ads, a revenue stream Gabriel and Dresden has purposely not taken much advantage of.

After an initial few months of ups and downs, G&D’s livestream income has proved to be more consistent than touring. Overall, Club Quarantine pulls in more than $10,000 a month on average, Dresden says, which is about what the duo earned doing live shows. It has not been enough, though, to allow Gabriel to drop his other job doing music production for a video game company.

After initially volunteering their time, the Lindvalls now draw a commission of 10% of the stream’s revenues, which “is not as much as they are worth,” Dresden says. “They are putting in full-time hours on this thing.”

While Club Quarantine averages about 800 signed-in viewers a night, that number does not directly translate to financial success. As of late October, the median viewership for Twitch creators making at least $25,000 a year was 128 -- “meaning the majority of those musicians meaningfully monetizing on Twitch are doing so with an average audience of just a few hundred,” says Tracy Chan, Twitch’s head of music.

More important, Gabriel & Dresden have found, is striving to retain subscribers, which requires both consistency and a willingness to experiment with different content. Over the winter, Club Quarantine launched a “legends” series on Saturdays where Dresden paid tribute to Tiësto, Eric Prydz, Ferry Corsten and Deadmau5. Viewership jumped by about a third over their normal streams. The team realized that fans looked forward to themed nights, including “Techno Tuesday.”

Lindvall is eager to understand even more about the audience. He laments that Twitch doesn’t provide more detailed tools and data to help artists understand, for example, how many days a week subscribers tune in on average. “We can look at the viewer counts, and that is helpful,” Lindvall says, “but we can’t necessarily correlate that to what our core paying audience is interested in.”

In assessing G&D’s year on Twitch, Dresden says one downside has been that the duo’s music production has suffered due to a lack of time. And the DJ remains nervous about Twitch’s music licenses. “If the major labels wanted, they could stop this tomorrow,” says Dresden.

David Israelite, president of the National Music Publishers’ Association, and Mitch Glazier, the CEO of the Recording Industry Association of America, have both criticized Twitch for a lack of broad music licensing agreements. Currently, when users stream music videos Twitch has no liability for copyright infringement, since the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) protects content-hosting websites from copyright infringement by users. The RIAA has sent thousands of DMCA takedown notices on behalf of labels to Twitch, in an effort to pressure the company into negotiating licenses.

A Twitch spokesperson, noting that about 95% of the platform’s content is live, says it has licenses in place through PROs like ASCAP, BMI and SESAC for artists to perform music live to their communities. She would not say, however, if the streamer has mechanical licenses in place for video replays of the streams, where many takedown adjustments are occurring. “For additional [licensing] agreements, we are in active discussions with labels,” she says.

The Post-Pandemic Path

As the pandemic lurches to its conclusion, G&D is looking ahead to how they can leverage the 38,000 Twitch followers they amassed during the pandemic.

Dresden hopes to stream the Twitch show from festivals, maybe even build a Club Quarantine tent. The duo also is planning to do live music production with viewers online, and to sell merchandise, sample packs and synth presets.

Gabriel is convinced that Twitch has allowed the act to reach fans who either cannot or do not want to go to a club to see them live. “There’s just this huge untapped world,” he says.

Thinking back to that first night in March, Dresden says re-inventing himself on Twitch has likely extended his career. “I was seizing the moment out of fear,” he says. “And I inadvertently made myself way more valuable in the music industry than before."