Reality check: the real rise of virtual pop
The Monkees could have had a global hit with ‘Sugar, Sugar’ in 1967, but a meeting with their music supervisor Don Kirshner descended into a dispute as the TV-created band began to push for more autonomy over their career. Instead a group of musicians managed by Kirshner recorded it and the song became a hit in 1969 – going to number 1 in multiple markets – but under the name of The Archies. They were a fictional cartoon band whose show had debuted in 1968 to capitalize on the mania around… The Monkees.
Alvin & The Chipmunks may have provided the template in the 1950s for fictional bands, but The Archies took it to whole new levels. And unlike The Monkees, The Archies were completely malleable. “‘Screw The Monkees, I want a band that won’t talk back,” Kirshner is reported to have said.
It has been a long and curious journey since, with cartoons initially being their key medium, notably Josie & The Pussycats in 1970-1971 and then Jem & The Holograms in 1985-1988.
There was a huge credibility chasm for these virtual acts to bridge, but a step change happened in 1998 when Damon Albarn from Blur and artist Jamie Hewlett collaborated on Gorillaz who have so far released seven studio albums to date and toured extensively.
Born in Asia but expanding globally
As Music Business Worldwide noted in July 2021, virtual idols might be “a huge deal in Asia – particularly in China and Japan, where they’ve amassed significant fan bases”, citing names like Lil Miquela and FN Meka as successes here – but the ripple effect is becoming global. The fact that Warner Music, through its pan-Asia dance label Whet Records, has signed Ha Jiang, described as a “virtual idol”, shows serious intent from the major labels here.
“We’re leading a new trend here,” Jon Serbin, CEO of Warner Music Greater China and head of Whet Records, told Music Business Worldwide. “[I]t isn’t a novelty deal to us – we’re seeing this as the start of a proper campaign […] I’m certain we’ll see many more deals between ‘virtual idols’ and labels around the world.” The trend is not just confined to China, Japan and South Korea, he said, and is now making inroads into the US.
Due to the nature of the technology – and similar to how deceased artists are rising again as holograms – until recently, virtual pop stars had to be tightly programmed and scripted.
Such idols are built to fit what fans want, representing a philosophical shift in the very essence of what a pop star is. Previously they would project their art/personality outwards and fandom clustered around that; now fans can build their dream pop star from the ground up.
They can be programmed with different data sets and source material to give them the sheen of uniqueness, but they can never age and never get ill (or talk back). As such, they can be duplicated to allow for multiple versions to be sent on the road in different markets simultaneously. The more cynical might see this industrialized approach to pop stardom as the ultimate dream of the music business where artists can be worked around the clock.
The scalability and efficiencies of touring virtual artists are also wildly different from human artists, on whom touring can take a significant mental and physical toll
Virtual pop could grow the overall market, not eat it from within
The darker side of AI-driven pop is that creative happenstance risks being erased in favor of a type of music built to chase algorithms: in effect it is pop decided by data committee.
Plus, this new type of scalability – creating legions of virtual pop stars that can play every night in every city forever – means a whole new type of ubiquity for this particular approach to music making and star creation.
“The scalability and efficiencies of touring virtual artists are also wildly different from human artists, on whom touring can take a significant mental and physical toll,” wrote Ian Simon, co-founder and CEO of Strangeloop Studios and Spirit Bomb, in an op-ed piece recently for Music Business Worldwide. “A virtual artist can perform in 20 markets, simultaneously, for millions of people. They don’t need riders or dressing rooms, let alone private jets.”
It is tempting to slip into dystopian thinking here about what it all means. Just as AI-based music creation software will serve a precise function (creating incidental and library music, primarily), but will not eradicate human songwriting, so too will the AI-powered virtual pop star exist as an interesting sideshow to pop music, not the main attraction.
Rather than dismiss this as purely cannibalistic, it can instead be seen as growing alongside the traditional pop business without necessarily replacing it. The two could co-exist and see the overall market grow in aggregate.
Context is everything here. Simply because there are virtual successes it does not, and should not, mean that all pop now has to bend to the new opportunities and possibilities of the virtual.
Proof of that is virtual versions of pop stars that have the biggest appeal – from Travis Scott attracting 12 million people to watch a digital version of him perform inside Fortnite to the phenomenal demand for the ABBA Voyage virtual shows in London – are actually based on pre-existing fame. These are pop stars who have enormous impact in the actual world transposing their fame and allure into the virtual world.
What could however happen is a shift in royalty payments that actually benefit, rather than deplete, the payments human contributors (such as those writing and producing songs for virtual stars) get for their work here.
“With virtual artists, the large share traditionally reserved for the performing artist doesn’t have to be consolidated in a single human,” proposed Ian Simon of Strangeloop Studios and Spirit Bomb. “It can be equitably divided up among contributors, drastically increasing their amount of skin in the game.” This might prove to be the biggest industry shift caused by virtual pop.
In many ways, acts like Kraftwerk’s robot alter egos and Gorillaz (and, yes, The Archies) have always offered templates for a new type of unreal pop star. The only difference today is that the technology is finally catching up with the creative ambition.