Are virtual avatars the musicians of the future?

·4-min read
South Korean singer Karina (R) and her virtual avatar, ae-Karina, are both members of the group aespa.

The K-pop industry has long recognized the marketing possibilities of virtual artists, and is exploiting them to propel new groups into the spotlight. The agency SM Entertainment used this tactic last November for the debut of the latest "girls band" of its stable, aespa. This group is composed of singers Karina, Giselle, Winter and NingNing, but also their virtual counterparts. In the absence of concerts and world tours, the music industry is struggling to reinvent the live show in the virtual world. Its latest trick? Creating virtual avatars for both known and unknown artists to give performances online. We take a closer look at the phenomenon.

While big names in music like Björk and Gorillaz have been using avatars for various purposes for years, the pandemic has sparked a renewed interest in these new-generation alter egos. The Weeknd's latest virtual concert on TikTok, during which the Canadian singer performed songs from his latest album as a virtual avatar, is proof of this. More than 2 million fans connected to watch this unique performance by the artist known for "Blinding Lights."

In response to the public's enthusiasm for this new form of entertainment, Warner Music Group has entered into a partnership with Genies, "the world's largest avatar technology company." The two companies will develop virtual characters for the label's artists as well as digital clothing and accessories in the form of NFTs. An initiative that will allow them to"not be constrained by real world limitations"in their interactions with their fans, according to Akash Nigam, CEO of Genies.

Oana Ruxandra, Chief Digital Officer at Warner Music Group, sees in this partnership an opportunity for Warner Music Group artists to diversify their income through merchandising. A market still untapped, that the professional organization Licensing International had estimated at 3.7 million dollars in 2019.

"As avatars and their customization become an increasingly relevant avenue for self-expression and merch generates diversified sources of revenue, WMG's partnership with Genies will enable our artists and songwriters to tap into a new form of self-expression and audience reach," she noted.

FN Meka, the new star of TikTok

While artists like John Legend, Justin Bieber and Dillon Francis are jumping on board the movement to reinvent themselves through virtual avatars, some start-ups are going further by saying that tomorrow's stars won't necessarily have to exist in the flesh to break into the industry. This is the case of the label Factory New, which has chosen to represent only non-human artists. For the moment, the American company has only one talent: FN Meka. This virtual rapper, whose aesthetic is inspired by the cyberpunk movement, follows in the lineage of "soundcloud rappers" like Lil Pump, Lil Uzi Vert and 6ix9ine.

Unlike them, FN Meka didn't write or compose his songs "INTERNET" and "SPEED DEMON;" an artificial intelligence did that for him. "We've developed a proprietary AI technology that analyzes certain popular songs of a specified genre and generates recommendations for the various elements of song construction: lyrical content, chords, melody, tempo, sounds, etc. We then combine these elements to create the song," Anthony Martini, co-founder of Factory New, revealed to Music Business Worldwide.

Although some have questioned the quality of the songs composed for FN Meka, the rapper seems to have found his audience on TikTok . .. on TikTok. He has more than 9 million subscribers on the platform, where he shares videos of himself shirtless or driving a luxury car. Appealing to users of social networks -- this is the real mission of FN Meka, according to Anthony Martini. "Not to get all philosophical but, what is an 'artist' today? Think about the biggest stars in the world. How many of them are just vessels for commercial endeavors?" he explained to the specialist publication.

K-pop, a pioneer in virtual avatars

The K-pop industry has long recognized the marketing possibilities of virtual artists, and is using them to propel new groups into the spotlight. The agency SM Entertainment used this tactic last November for the debut of the latest "girls band" in its stable, aespa. This group is composed of singers Karina, Giselle, Winter and NingNing, but also their virtual counterparts.

"The members of the real and virtual worlds are able to interact and communicate as [the virtual members] have AI brains. They are able to talk to each other and help each other, become friends and share info. They will also eventually be able to enter each others' worlds," outlined Lee Soo-man, CEO SM Entertainment, at the official presentation of the girls band during the World Cultural Industry Forum.

The agency takes this concept even further in a promotional video for the group, where South Korean singer Karina tells the story of her encounter on a social network with her digital alter ego, ae Karina. Although some people are skeptical about the narrative, aespa has the support of K-pop fans. The proof: her latest track, "Black Mamba," has more than 143 million views on YouTube. Karina, Giselle, Winter and NingNing and their virtual avatars are delighted with the success.

Caroline Drzewinski