Lara de Wit describes her inaugural Twitch stream in 2017 as “deeply awkward” and an experience that felt like “flying a spaceship.” Equipped with her $100 webcam, a rudimentary broadcast setup, and as much knowledge as she could Google about how to manage it all, de Wit went live from her home in Sydney, Australia, for the first time. Only she wasn’t playing Fortnite or Overwatch; she was playing the piano.
“The first stream only had about 25 viewers because I didn’t post it anywhere,” de Wit tells Inverse. “I thought I was going to have all sorts of technical issues so I didn’t publicize it, and the toughest part was talking to myself, because I was the only one talking. It was very awkward.”
Today, de Wit — better known as lara6683 — attracts up to 900 concurrent users who watch her stream on an average day, and she’s amassed more than 300,000 subscribers on YouTube. Her Twitch subscribers can request she play a song from a pre-selected tracklist or ask her to learn something new on the fly for an additional fee. If you drop in on her stream, you’ll most likely catch her playing covers of music from video games, films, TV, and anime, with some contemporary tunes sprinkled in.
“All of a sudden I was entertaining thousands of people at 2 a.m. in my bedroom on a Sunday night.”
De Wit’s most-viewed video on YouTube has 2.3 million views and is a mind-boggling hour-and-a-half-long marathon mashup of everything from classic Legend of Zelda songs to Blink 182 anthems. In total, she plays snippets of 152 different songs, all from memory. She uploaded that video only months into her Twitch venture after she received her first “raid” — Twitch speak for when a streamer sends their audience to another channel.
“I got a big raid from a streamer called AdmiralBulldog,” de Wit says. “He had about 5,000 viewers, which then to me was astronomical. All of a sudden I was entertaining thousands of people at 2 a.m. in my bedroom on a Sunday night.”
It was her first big break on a platform typically dominated by gamers, and she wasn’t about to let it slip away. De Wit took as many requests as possible over the course of two and a half hours and played until the sun came up at 6 a.m.
After that night, she decided to post what’s now known as her “Mega Medley” on YouTube, even though she thought it was far too lengthy. She woke up the next day with 13,000 new followers. Her video had gone viral on Reddit, and her career as a full-time Twitch musician began to blossom. She might have only been on Twitch for a few months at the time, but her success that night had been years in the making.
An 8-bit origin story
De Wit began playing the piano when she was 6 years old. Her instructors made her practice classical tunes, but it was the 8-bit melodies from Nintendo Entertainment System games like Metroid (1986) and The Legend of Zelda (1986) that truly sparked her love for music.
When de Wit was 9, her parents bought her an NES and she became fascinated with how Nintendo composed its earworm-themed songs. But the year was 1992, and she had no easy way to find the sheet music for her favorite geeky jams without internet access. So she decided to learn songs like Zelda’s Overworld theme and the Super Mario Bros. theme on her own.
“Video game music forced me to work out a whole lot of things by ear.”
“Video game music forced me to work out a whole lot of things by ear,” she says. “If you watch me on Twitch, that is precisely the skill I now monetize on my stream — working things out on the spot.”
De Wit has perfect pitch, an uncommon skill that allows her to put a name (C, A, E, etc.) on musical notes instantly without any other tones for reference. Studies have shown that everyone is born with the ability to develop perfect pitch, but few people retain it for their entire lives. At least four percent of music students were found to have the ability, according to an international study published in the peer-review journal Psychology of Music. More research reveals that certain adults can learn the skill, but it requires considerable time and constant practice.
Developing and maintaining perfect pitch was a lot easier for de Wit because of another uncommon trait. Her brain associates specific notes with colors — a phenomenon known as synesthesia. Every note de Wit hears is accompanied by a hue, which makes it much simpler for her to identify what’s being played. A study by the University of Edinburgh, Scotland proposed that synesthesia occurs in two to four percent of people worldwide. Other investigations suggest it could be hereditary, but scientists haven’t been able to pinpoint the genes that are thought to be responsible.
De Wit realized she had synesthesia when she was around 10 or 11 years old. She recalls telling a friend she saw “grass green” when she heard an E note and “rose pink” for G. She’ll admit that the condition made her the envy of her classmates growing up and that it has helped her Twitch career, but she hates it when people think she was born with a musical superpower.
“I don't think it's all that special. I haven't worked for it. But it does help me work out notes that much faster on stream,” she says. “It's like when you look at a sign and you can't help but read the words on it. I hear orange, and I can't help but go, That's what key that is, or That's what note that is.”
But it’s not without its disadvantages. Since de Wit has long relied on the association her mind makes between sounds and colors to identify notes, when her brain draws a blank, she’s caught off guard.
Tones that are off-key or out of tune don’t conform with a color in de Wit’s head, and it’s not uncommon for video game music to purposefully detune notes to create unique sounds. In these situations, she needs to rely on other notes to contextualize what’s being played — a skill known as relative pitch — which she’s mastered over the course of her musical career. But the process still throws her for a loop.
“It's like I get a massive mental block and I just can't figure it out because my security blanket has been taken away,” says de Wit. “I'm hearing this new sound that doesn't conform with any color or sound that I know, and my point of reference is lost and I don't know what to do with it… So relative pitch is by far the more useful and broadly applicable skill.”
A master of impromptu performance
De Wit has learned to artfully overcome this hurdle and can recreate songs that she’s never even heard before just by listening to them once.
Early in 2019, de Wit’s stream was raided again, this time by Herman Li, a guitarist from the English power metal band DragonForce who’s also carved out a niche for himself on Twitch. Her viewers clamored for her to play “Through the Fire and Flames,” the band’s most popular song that she had never listened to.
“The funny thing about going viral is you don't choose when it happens.”
So de Wit pulled up the track on YouTube, listened to a minute of the seven-minute song, and began playing it as if she’d known it all her life.
“This song was not made for human beings to perform,” she said seconds before rapidly tapping her keyboard to its melody and bobbing her head like an internet-era Mozart. Her viewers were gobsmacked.
They immediately spammed Pogchamp emotes and called her a wizard. One of them then reposted a clip from her stream on Reddit, where it surged to the front page in March with more than 58,000 upvotes. De Wit later reposted the video on her own YouTube channel, where it’s now her third most-watched clip with more than 1.6 million views, though she feels it’s somewhat unearned.
“To be clear, I thought I did a horrible job, but some stranger managed to get it from my stream and put it on Reddit,” says de Wit. “The funny thing about going viral is you don't choose when it happens.”
How a career misstep led to internet stardom
Today, de Wit is amongst the fastest growing “Music and Performing Arts” Twitch streamers according to Twitch Metrics. That’s a monumental feat for someone who just started her Twitch account two years ago, but de Wit began establishing her online following on YouTube in 2009, back before Twitch existed. She used to post short videos of herself and friends playing video game music on the piano and violin as a way to blow off steam and build a musical portfolio when she was confused about her career path.
After graduating from the University of New South Wales with a Bachelor of Music when she was 21, de Wit landed a job with the Opera Australia a pianist and singing coach. The opportunity to work with the principal opera company in Australia was prestigious but her contract only ran from February to October each year. So in her mid-20s de Wit decided to attend medical school in hopes of a more stable career.
While de Wit was interested in the medical field it was immediately obvious to her that it wasn't the calling she was yearning for. Her love for music beckoned and after her first year in med school she dropped out to begin pursuing a career as an online musician.
In 2010 and 2011, de Wit went all-in on her YouTube channel. At first she uploaded a video a couple of times a week, but that quickly turned into every other day. She would post stunt clips, like playing three different songs while blindfolded or executing cosplay videos where she dresses up like the main character from the game music she was covering.
This cosplay series became the source of her first viral video. In July 2011 — years before she’d even heard about Twitch — de Wit filmed herself covering the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers theme with a violin while dressed as the Pink Ranger. It was only two and a half minutes long, which is brief compared to her medleys today, but it’s the second most popular video on her channel with more than 1.8 million views. It was a reassuring sign that de Wit had a future in playing music for people on the internet.
De Wit’s channel ballooned in popularity after her Power Rangers cover. She had under 300 subscribers early in April 2011 but managed to grow her audience to more than 38,000 by December, according to the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine. That year served to build a fundamental viewership, which de Wit credits to her Twitch fandom today.
“Twitch is an empty stadium which you have to fill,” says de Wit. “That channel built a foundation of people who then followed me to Twitch and allowed me to have the views and success that I have today. I like to think that thanks to my life misstep of deciding to study medicine, I have any music career at all.”
De Wit wouldn’t join Twitch for another few years, but her popularity on YouTube led to a few exciting opportunities. She and violinist Taylor Davis co-produced an album titled Game On: 2 Player Mode in 2012, and they were both invited to perform live at the video game industry conference E3 2012.
De Wit’s subscriber count had more than doubled to nearly 90,000 by the end of the year, but her explosive growth was cut short by a detrimental tweak to YouTube’s algorithm in October of 2012. The site began favoring lengthy, vlog-format videos to boost engagement, casting aside the shorter covers de Wit had built her following on.
A bump in the road
YouTube became substantially less lucrative for short-form content creators from then on, forcing de Wit to pick up odd jobs. Between 2013 and 2015 she juggled two part-time gigs while occasionally posting videos. De Wit was still working for the Opera Australia three times a week and pulled retail shifts at a Sydney chocolate shop on her off-days.
She transitioned to a full-time position as a high school music teacher in early 2015, which is when her friend and fellow pianist Kyle Landry showed her Twitch for the first time. De Wit was intrigued by how the new platform could help her grow her online following but decided not to jump on board because of her new school job. Two years later, after realizing there was little to no opportunity for career progression as a teacher, she decided to give Twitch a shot.
“They say that pain or misery drives change, and that's exactly what happened,” said de Wit. “In 2017, I was quite frankly hating my full-time job, so I started my Twitch channel and did some really naughty things. I started calling in sick when I wasn't sick just so I could stream, knowing full well if they found me that I was gone.”
To fully reap the rewards of Twitch, streamers need to meet the requirements to join its Partner Program. This offers premium monetization options, like allowing viewers to subscribe and the ability to run ads. To level up her Twitch game, de Wit needed to host a stream three separate days in one week, which was nearly impossible with her job schedule, but she made it work with a leap of faith.
“I started calling out frequently, maybe a Wednesday and then a Friday, and just really mixing it up and getting online as much as I could,” she says. “I wasn’t at the point where my income from Twitch would have been sustainable, but I had saved up money from working full time. I thought, 'If it gets bad, I’ll sell my car. I have to try this.' So I quit my job in early 2017.”
And she never looked back.
A new life as a full-time streaming musician
After more than 10 years of attempting to forge a living as an online musician, de Wit has done it. She supports herself solely with the revenue from her Twitch subscribers and donations, a career that dumbfounds many people she meets who still view her music as a hobby, not a career.
De Wit is often asked if she has a second job to back her passion for music. In her eyes, that’s due to the low-perceived value of musicians and music in general.
Thanks to the proliferation of music streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music, people now expect instant access to a library of tunes at any given moment. Some internet users don’t even think twice about illegally downloading full albums from torrenting sites. De Wit believes live streaming sites could serve as a partial solution to this complication by letting small artists who don’t tour or sell merch easily connect to their diehard fans, much like video game streamers.
“I would love for musicians to be more highly valued on a huge scale and for it to be normal that that's a way to make a living,” says de Wit. “I want musicians to infiltrate live streaming platforms everywhere to the point where [they’re as much of a part of them] as gamers are.”
”Sometimes in a side-scroller you have to make a really large jump ... but you have to jump anyway."
It’s a golden age for musicians and other artists on Twitch. Viewership for streamers in the “Music & Performing Arts” category has grown exponentially over the past few years, according to SullyGnome, an independent Twitch analytics site. De Wit warns that the field could already be saturated, and there might not be enough interest to go around for every musician with a piano and a webcam, but that doesn’t mean all hope is lost.
She sees a vast amount of untapped potential from emerging platforms, like TikTok, which musicians can use to gather a following and monetize their work, but virality doesn’t come easy. De Wit believes it’s equal parts talent, hard work, and luck to get that one viral clip to seize the spotlight. Most importantly, aspiring online artists need to understand that it won’t happen immediately. It takes persistence and the willingness to go out on a limb to try something new.
“It's like in a video game,” she says. “Sometimes in a side-scroller you have to make a really large jump before you can see the platform on the other side, but you have to jump anyway. If you wait too long, you won't reap the same advantages as if you've taken the leap of faith early.”
De Wit jumped and collected her 1-Up Mushroom, and there’s ample room for other skilled artists to follow her footsteps across the internet.
Lara de Wit is a member of the Inverse Future 50, a group of 50 people who will be forces of good in the 2020s.