It’s 10:30 on a Wednesday night and Dj CUTMAN is in the middle of his livestreamed show “This Week in Chiptune.” The topic of discussion in the chatroom? His sideburns.
Pixel8tr: dj sideburns…did we say that tonite yet?
The weekly show, featuring the latest in chiptunes from around the world, is broadcast on Twitch, the Amazon-owned platform where gamers broadcast their screens to viewers around the world. Nearly 80 listeners are tuned in right now, some of them talking (and poking fun at CUTMAN) in the livestream’s chatroom.
Tegisalex: When is cutman gonna cut his sideburns?
Some nights, CUTMAN fits more of the traditional DJ mold. He’ll be on stage at comic conventions and gamer festivals, masked in a red MegaMan helmet, spinning video game music with dubstep or house swagger to an audience he can see and hear.
But more often, he’s here, in his University City apartment, sitting at his computer on a weekday night, a green screen behind him (it makes it look like he’s livestreaming from space) as he plays the latest chiptunes to roughly 100 fans, sometimes more. No MegaMan helmet for these gigs, just a flat-brim cap (and sometimes, when his fans request it, the armor). Though he can’t see his audience, he still performs for them. Case in point: the sideburns.
When he catches wind of the sideburn jokes, he laughs, then he addresses the audience, looking into the webcam, contorting his face into a scream and violently pointing at the chatroom on the screen. Then he grins and strokes his sideburns. Then he’s back to bobbing his head to the music. Like any good DJ, CUTMAN knows how to play off his audience. Even if they’re miles away.
(Editor’s note: Dj CUTMAN will be playing live at the Philly Tech Week presented by Comcast kickoff event, Arcade @ Dilworth, April 17 at 6 p.m.)
CUTMAN is Chris Davidson. He didn’t always have an audience. Not like this, at least.
Back when he started DJing five years ago, Davidson, now 30, used to pack his speakers into a cat carrier and take them onto the streets of Ithaca, N.Y., where he was a high-tech busker. He’d play his particular brand of video-game EDM for anyone who passed by (“No one gave a shit,” he said). He started getting gigs here and there at conventions and festivals, but when he moved to Philly to join his girlfriend, who was getting her Ph.D. at Penn, it was hard to book shows. Even harder to get a residency. That’s when he turned to the internet.
The internet has been kind to Davidson.
“This Week in Chiptune” gets about 5,000 downloads a month, on top of the roughly 120 regular listeners to the livestream, but here’s the rub: his fans actually pay him. They buy a weekly subscription through his Patreon page, paying anywhere between $1 and $20 per episode. That, plus the tips he gets through Twitch and his live gigs, is enough to pay the bills.
He doesn’t have a day job. This is his day job.
Davidson broadcasts his weekly show from his living room. It’s covered in video game curiosities, like Kirby and Meta Knight “amiibos” (Nintendo collectors’ items that Davidson likens to Beanie Babies), stuffed Pokemon characters and decals of the villains from MegaMan (Cutman takes his name from one of them). And video games cartridges, of course, for Wii, Nintendo and Super Nintendo, are shelved neatly all over the room, though Davidson said he doesn’t have much time to play anymore.
When we arrive at the apartment, shortly before the show begins, there’s a small crew hanging out. They’re the regulars: Davidson’s girlfriend, Maddie Stone, a writer for Gizmodo and VICE’s Motherboard; Nina Russo, who livestreams her gaming and art on Twitch, and her boyfriend, local pixel artist Squarepainter aka Adam Shub (his art is all over the apartment).
Russo and Shub, who met at one of CUTMAN’s 8bit Lounge parties at PhilaMOCA a few years back, often play retro video games during “This Week in Chiptune” and that gets broadcast alongside webcam streams of Davidson and his hands on the mixer. It’s a complete sensory experience. Tonight, they’re playing Super Castlevania IV on the Wii U.
As the show starts, he turns his DJ voice on — it’s deeper, fuller, charismatic even — and speaks into his mic: “Hey everyone, this is Dj CUTMAN, thanks for tuning into This Week in Chiptune.”
Davidson said he started DJing as a coping mechanism after the hip hop studio he co-owned in Ithaca got robbed. That was in 2010, when he started remixing video game music with dance beats, and he seemed to be the only one around who was doing anything like it.
When he got to Philly, he took a job as an interactive designer at Aramark and kept at DJing. Three years later, when his hours at Aramark got cut, he wondered if he could cobble together enough DJ revenue to make ends meet. Turns out he could.
The platform of Twitch was a big help. He used to livestream on Mixify, which didn’t allow for any video, but when Twitch started allowing music streams last January, he switched over and his audience more than tripled. Two weeks ago, during his 100th episode of This Week in Chiptune, Twitch featured his stream on their front page and the spotlight drew 1,500 listeners.
When you ask Davidson about what it’s like to have a following after busking in the street to no one at all, he says he tries not to think about it too much. Not that much has changed, he said. The most striking thing, he said, is how this community exists around him and how they support him, by pledging some cash every week or just tuning in. There’s a big difference between that and getting paid by the hour, like Davidson used to as a recording engineer or when he plays gigs.
So what’s the big goal? What’s Dj CUTMAN working toward?
It’s pretty straightforward.
“My goal has always been to make a living off my art, and help others do the same,” he wrote in an email.
But really, he just likes finding and sharing music and spreading some of that video-game joy through chiptunes. All right, Dj CUTMAN, do your thing.-30-