The rise and rise of virtual acts
Virtual music acts – complete with cartoon-like identities and huge social media followings – come without the trappings of human fame. No egos. No ill-health. No certainty of death. But what’s the appeal for music consumers and fans? And are they a long-term viable option for the recorded music industry?
Kingship is a new a virtual act just signed by Universal Music imprint, 10.22PM, “a next-gen Web3 label that discovers and develops artists, intellectual property, brands and digital creators”.
After making its name signing influencers, 10.22PM has now stepped into the NFT world.
Kingship are a Gorillaz-style cartoon band with characters from NFT brand Bored Ape Yacht Club.
“Through music and events across the metaverse, we will bring the Apes in Kingship to life by building communities and utility, and entertaining audiences around the world,” 10.22PM founder, Celine Joshua, says.
Kingship were already riding a lucrative virtual wave before they got signed up.
Bored Ape Yacht Club launched in April, offering 10,000 images of the apes as NFTs, each at $200, giving collectors 100% monetisation rights.
Within a day, all 10,000 sold out, and consumers are paying up to $14,000 on second-hand sites. They have generated $500 million already.
This year, Whet Records – Warner Music Group‘s pan-Asian dance label in China – signed green haired virtual idol Ha Jiang, who has more than 100,000 followers in China.
Whet surrounded her with writers and producers and she’s still working on her first release.
Warner is convinced of her global potential.
“As with any form of fame, there are stars that cross over into music. ‘Virtual idols’ won’t be any different,” Warner Music’s Greater China CEO, Jonathan Serbin, told Music Business Weekly.
“We see a lot of overlap between the followers of Chinese pop stars and the fans of ‘virtual idols’, so they’re already appealing to the same audience.”
Virtual music acts began 63 years ago. Through the years there’ve been hundreds, from comics to games to TV shows.
Their appeal to the music industry is that they can have hits, and they last longer than human ones because they don’t suffer from ego, drugs, ill-health and death.
The first, Alvin & The Chipmunks, came in 1958. Composer creator Ross Bagdasarian did the recording at half-speed, and sang the lyrics slowly. At normal speed, it sounded a chipmunk.
The first single ‘The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)’ won three Grammys and sold an astounding 25 million copies.
Bagdasarian died in the ‘70s with a fortune of $15 million. The act went on to sell 30 million albums, their TV show ran until the 1990s and a Christmas movie was made in 2007.
The Chipmunks brand is currently said to be up for sale for $300 million.
The cartoon band The Archies came from the Archie Comics (from 1942) and the hit animated musical sitcom The Archies Show.
They had #1s in the US and UK (and #5 in Australia) with million seller ‘Sugar Sugar’, and are still considered a going entity.
Gorillaz, formed in 1998 by Damon Albarn and 2D artist Jamie Hewlet as four characters voiced by Albarn, brought the concept to a new generation, backing it up with powerful inventive music and visuals which broke the rules.
Their 2001 debut album sold 7 million, going to #3 in the UK and #14 in the US. In Australia it reached #14 on the ARIA chart and #1 in the ARIA Alternate chart and was certified Gold.
The other albums also sold well as did their live shows. The Humanz Tour (2017/8) did 53 shows and the act returns to play Australia next year.
For Kingship’s and Ha Jiang’s labels, it’s how A1 and social media have changed expectations.
But what they can achieve is reflected in a number of current virtuals not with record labels.
Robot rapper FN Meka – neon green braids, nose ring, face tattoos, even a ‘beef’ with virtual rival FN Nxrmal – has 10 million followers on TikTok who have watched the videos to his three singles one billion times.
Meka is in huge demand by brands, especially luxury ones, as his fans also come to gawk as his designs as a Starbucks-themed espresso-making PS5, a Louis Vuitton baby stroller, an Apple AirPods shotgun and a Gucci Batmobile.
Lil Miquela has three million Instagram followers and hundreds of thousands of music listers via Spotify, and helped transmedia studio Brud turn over $125 million.
K-pop female band K/DA, created in 2018 by Riot Games to spruik its League Of Legends series, were an instant smash.
The video for the first single ‘Pop/Stars’ had 100 million YouTube views in its first month and reached over 250 million views, and topped Billboard’s World Digital Song Sales chart.
They followed it up with two hit albums, with voice supplied by US and Asian singers.
For Kingship and Ha Jiang, music success might end up relying on transcending being a gimmick.