Inside today’s virtual artist labels


New’s FN Meka factory

Virtual artists are nothing new: Animation group Gorillaz, created by musician Damon Albarn and visual artist Jamie Hewlett, has sold the equivalent of more than 24 million albums worldwide (according to his label, Parlophone) and won a Grammy Award for the hit “Feel Good Inc.” ; Hatsune Miku, a Japanese pop star who sells arenas in her home country, was scheduled to perform in hologram at Coachella last year. Now the music industry is emerging from a pandemic that has put an end to touring, at a time when virtual reality and AI technology are making significant strides, and investment is pouring into companies like Spirit Bomb, a virtual artist label backed by Warner Music Group of studio production Strangeloop Studios and Authentic Artists, a startup launched in April with funding from Linkin Park co-founder Mike Shinoda.

One star to watch is Lil Miquela, a perpetually 19-year-old Brazilian-American model / pop star with 250,000 monthly listeners on Spotify and sponsorship deals with Calvin Klein and Prada. It was created by studio Brud, which specializes in virtual social media personalities and has raised $ 6.1 million, according to Crunchbase. (Lil Miquela makes over $ 10 million a year, according to UK online marketplace OnBuy.) When co-founder Trevor McFedries launched Lil Miquela’s Instagram profile in 2016, where she now has 3 million followers (with the same number on TikTok), he says his peers “couldn’t get” the idea of ​​a virtual celebrity. But it’s been said that today’s teens consume so much pop culture online that it doesn’t matter whether the people they follow even exist offline.

“It became really obvious that young people didn’t differentiate between Miquela and the other celebrities they followed,” says McFedries, who toured as a DJ with Katy Perry and produced music for Azealia Banks under the name of Yung Skeeter. “If you’re 11 or 12, some of your first friends are probably Roblox or Minecraft players” from virtual interactions. “And the relationship between Miquela and a fan [versus] between Rihanna and a fan – interfacing through these mobile devices – is quite similar. “


Lil Miquela from Brud

Much like human artists, virtual artists need a story for fans to follow, whether relatable or futuristic. Lil Miquela’s Instagram posts are a mix of Gen Z “It” girl aesthetic (think Telfar bags and bucket hats) and political advocacy (like an article about police funding); FN Meka is essentially a cyborg video game character who goes bowling and uses inhuman speed to cook meals in TikTok videos; the futuristic and alien artists on Spirit Bomb’s roster have been sent back in time to save the world.

“What allows people to connect is to see their history and their personality and to want to take the next step of their journey,” explains Ian simon, co-founder of Spirit Bomb and Los Angeles-based Strangeloop, who created tour visuals for artists such as Kendrick Lamar and SZA, and began working more seriously on virtual artists when the pandemic stopped tours.

Music matters, of course. While songs for bands like FN Meka are created with AI, other virtual artists rely on human collaborators. Lil Miquela’s voice mixes the voices of real singers with computer-generated sounds, and McFedries brings in talents like producer Jasper Harris, songwriter Sarah Aarons and singer Teyana Taylor to create his music. Simon brought in songwriter-producer Mr. Carmack, dance musician Sweater Beats and others to create Spirit Bomb’s first EP compilation in May, Spirit Bomb 001, offering musicians an outlet to test new sounds or release music without the mental burden of fame. “Part of the genesis was having [artists] be like, ‘I’m sitting on several hard drives of music that will never be released as part of my main project, and I would love to release it to the world,’ “he says. League of Legends Riot game publisher Games’ virtual K-pop girl group, K / DA – which has 2.8 million monthly listeners on Spotify – relies on an in-house music team of 20, as well as the voices of artists like Kim. Petras, Becky G and the real life K-pop girl group (G) -IDLE. “There is no shortcut, because it’s very easy to feel like a waterfall,” says the director of the Riot Music Group . Toa Dunn.

Working for an avatar can have its benefits. Simon says that without an actual artist earning a royalty on recorded music, Spirit Bomb can offer music producers “significantly better deals.” And virtual artists are ideally placed to take advantage of new digital revenue streams such as non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and digital products for video game players. In March, FN Meka sold an NFT animation of a “super toilet” for $ 6,400, and Spirit Bomb’s first NFT “character card”, featuring virtual artist XEN, sold for 4,000. $ in April. For a few dollars each, League of Legends sells “skins” that allow players to appear in the game as members of K / DA. That money could add up: Gamers spent around $ 50 billion worldwide on such in-game items in 2020, according to MIDiA Research – more than the entire music industry received.

There is a growing market for avatar accessories, even outside of video games, as avatars are a prerequisite for “metaverse,” the futuristic concept of a shared virtual space. Industry leaders predict that it will eventually become common for people to use avatars as a form of self-expression similar to social media profiles.

“It’s a necessity to be able to present myself virtually,” says Warner Music Group Chief Digital Officer and Executive VP, Business Development Oana Ruxandra, who led the company’s investments in Spirit Bomb and avatar tech companies Wave and Genies. “It’s been a space where people just got a photo or an email address or a handful, and [avatars are] just another way for people to express themselves. “

Spirit Bomb

Spirit Bomb XEN

The next steps include interactive experiences that could allow fans to influence the music and stories of virtual artists. Authentic Artists, a startup startup launched in April by Chris McGarry, a former music strategist at Facebook’s Oculus, lets fans influence how these artists perform on virtual shows on Twitch – who already have average view times of over 30 minutes. And Brud’s McFedries will soon allow fans to essentially vote on actions virtual characters like Lil Miquela take. “You can imagine a world where [virtual] who’s going to the Grammys or not is a vote fans can take, “he said, referring to The Weeknd’s decision not to attend this year.” If fans are like, ‘No, we’re going be in solidarity with The Weeknd ‘, then the artist does not go. “

Ultimately, the virtual realm will give fans a much bigger voice in artist development – even if that means letting go of a concept and starting over. “If the audience doesn’t end up caring about a particular virtual artist, we can give birth to a new artist and release it to the world,” says McGarry. “We are here at the service of the public.”

Authentic artists

DJ Dragoon of authentic artists

What does this mean for real world artists? There is a fear that the virtual will replace the real, as well as a skepticism that the music created by AI can ever live up to reality, as when an algorithm “trained” on the music. from Nirvana created a song in the style of the group. Again, how different is the idea of ​​executives creating a virtual star from the advice and creative direction given by managers, label heads, A&R executives and various consultants who help actual artists?

“I was talking to someone and they were like, ‘You make virtual artists. What does that do to human artists?'” Recalls McGarry. “My response was, ‘Why should Scooter Braun be the only person allowed to make artists?'”

A version of this story originally appeared in the June 26, 2021 issue of Billboard.

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