The following MBW op/ed comes from Ian Simon (pictured inset below), co-founder and CEO of Strangeloop Studios and Spirit Bomb.
Spirit Bomb has won investment from the likes of Warner Music Group and Chinatown Market, in addition to Avex USA, the US arm of Japanese music company Avex Inc. Spirit Bomb operates as a record label for virtual artist avatars created by Los Angeles-HQ’d media production house Strangeloop Studios, which has previously designed concert visuals for stars such as The Weeknd, David Gilmour, SZA, Kendrick Lamar, and Flying Lotus.
Spirit Bomb’s virtual artists include Xen, SUBI and AntiFragile. The music performed by these avatars is created with/by human musicians and producers.
The new singing competition show from FOX, Alter Ego, features a unique twist on the old formula: rather than performing songs in front of the judges, the amateur contestants are tucked offstage, controlling larger than life digital avatars.
It’s the latest mainstream embrace of “virtual beings”: CGI personas with apparent autonomy. In fact, one of Alter Ego’s celebrity judges is Grimes, who created and launched her own 3D character War Nymph last year.
These virtual beings are either our chance to make the music industry more equitable, or the final nail in the coffin for artists, depending on who you ask.
“thanks to a host of opportunities offered by the current digital landscape, virtual artists are poised for primetime unlike ever before.”
To be clear, virtual beings aren’t a new idea (think Platinum selling Gorillaz, or even Alvin and the Chipmunks).They differ from touring holograms, such as the infamous Tupac hologram at Coachella 2012.
These are original creations, with their own identities. And thanks to a host of opportunities offered by the current digital landscape, virtual artists are poised for primetime unlike ever before.
The timing couldn’t be more perfect. Today, digital streaming platforms (DSPs) and algorithms drive music consumption habits, social media has put unprecedented demands on artists to be “content creators,” and the music community is taking a hard look at the exploitative history of the industry (and how we can change it).
It’s almost impossible to be a musical artist these days without constantly posting on social media, but there is a growing awareness of the mental toll of “winning” the content game.
While some artists are naturally suited for this ecosystem (think Lil Nas X and his seemingly effortless ability to captivate digital audiences), not all great musicians are great content creators. How many budding geniuses have given up, because they don’t look like the kind of personality we’re used to seeing succeed on social media? This is one area of promise for the virtual artist. Gifted musicians can contribute music without having to be the face of the music.
“Most contributors to our favorite music have been shut out of the royalties they deserve… Virtual artists can change this paradigm.”
And then there’s the issue of royalties. A quick glance down the production credits of any Top 40 song makes it clear that there’s a team behind every artist: songwriters and producers, not to mention creative directors, engineers, and marketing teams.
But most of these contributors to our favorite music have been shut out of the royalties they deserve: a songwriter often only gets a share of publishing, without any share of the master royalty, despite having a massive hand in the crafting of the song. Virtual artists can change this paradigm.
With virtual artists, the large share traditionally reserved for the performing artist doesn’t have to be consolidated in a single human. It can be equitably divided up among contributors, drastically increasing their amount of skin in the game.
Take a pop producer for example, who in a current record deal might get 2-3% of the artist royalty. When producing for a virtual artist (who doesn’t have bills to pay or a lavish lifestyle to keep up), that same producer can have 10x the share, with room to spare for other creative contributors to have a stake, too.
“When producing for a virtual artist (who doesn’t have bills to pay or a lavish lifestyle to keep up), a producer can have 10x the share of [a track’s] royalties.”
Virtual artists arrive as a suite of digital tools is emerging to lower the barrier to entry for this kind of ownership-staking and profit-sharing.
Blockchain technologies like “smart contracts” can execute payments automatically and transparently, changing our fundamental assumptions about collection and disbursement of capital.
It also opens up an entirely new level of interaction for fans. Not only can virtual artists involve fans in the creative process by responding to audience feedback, they can also bring fans into the financial upside.
Imagine if a fan could “own a stake” in their favorite artist via the blockchain, just through their fandom and support? That possibility is already gaining popularity, in the form of “social tokens” like those on Fyooz.io, where fans can bet on their favorite artists (like Lil Yachty), and invest in their future.
“There will never be a replacement for the power of human performance, but these virtual concert experiences offer audiences something new, different, and exciting.”
On stage, the effect popularized by the Tupac hologram is the tip of the iceberg. Technologies like AR and 3D LED are elevating live experiences beyond just CG performers, to include immersive environments and cinematic storytelling.
There will never be a replacement for the power of human performance, but these virtual concert experiences offer audiences something new, different, and exciting.
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. Gone are the days of zigzag routing and overtime truck hauls.
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. They come ready to play on a USB stick, or as an executable real-time program, and can drastically reduce the carbon footprint of large touring productions.
“Virtual beings provide a heat shield for experimentation, allowing artists to try new things without having to create a new visual identity or brand, or risk alienating their fans.”
It’s not just budding creatives who stand to benefit from virtual beings. Established stars can get pigeonholed, unable to experiment for fear of disappointing their fan bases or the critics. Building credible side projects takes time and money.
Virtual beings provide a heat shield for experimentation, allowing artists to try new things without having to create a new visual identity or brand, or risk alienating their fans. We could see new, boundary-pushing music from stars who wouldn’t otherwise take the chance.
For all the optimism of the current moment, widespread adoption could be on us before we know it, as indicators like Alter Ego portend.
Exploring equitable models for virtual beings could swiftly move from a playful exercise to an urgent need. If we don’t utilize that head start, we may find the tech sprinting past us, as it did with streaming platforms, and the usual power brokers writing the rules to keep themselves in control.
“The success of virtual artists should be measured by the value they unlock in, and provide to, their fans and contributors.”
By collectively embracing the potential of virtual beings, we can dictate the way they’re considered: not as replacements for artists or cash cows for major labels, but as unprecedented tools for human creativity.
The success of virtual artists should be measured by the value they unlock in, and provide to, their fans and contributors.
If we make that expectation the norm, we may witness a boom in experimental artistry, built on a thriving and equitable creative economy.Music Business Worldwide