This digital artist simply inked a significant file deal in China. An indication of the longer term?
Virtual artists are still something new, but nothing new.
The most famous virtual artist in the west – as in an AI-generated performer – is perhaps Lil Miquela with her 3 million Instagram followers and hundreds of thousands of monthly listeners on Spotify.
There’s also FN Meka, the “robot rapper” MBW wrote about in April (who now has nearly 10 million followers on TikTok), as well as the League Of Legends K-pop band K / DA – voiced by people but by Avatars cited.
However, we’ve never seen a virtual artist sign a deal with a major record label … until now.
That big record label is Whet Records – Warner Music Group’s pan-Asian dance label in China, which was founded in April and is already expanding rapidly.
To date, Whet has been very focused on the human realm, with outstanding signings including Chinese star DJ Lizzy Wang.
This week Whet announced six newcomers from different backgrounds. These include dance music pioneer Mickey Zhang and one of Southeast Asia’s top DJs, 22Bullets.
But this latest generation of signings also includes an artist who only exists online.
Ha Jiang is what is known locally as the “virtual idol” – a big deal in Asia, especially China and Japan, where they have amassed a significant following.
“Virtual idols” talk about their lives, their relationships, what they are up to, what interests them. And some have started building careers as influencers and models.
Ha Jiang is the first to sign a record deal with a major label. Is it a gimmick, alongside five human artists, or the beginning of a meaningful trend?
MBW met with Jon Serbin, CEO of Warner Music Greater China and Head of Whet Records to find out …
Before we talk about “virtual idols”, what kind of artists would you normally want to include on the whet list?
We’re looking for original artists we can help cut through the noise and connect with a huge fan base.
Check out Mickey Zhang, the man is a true pioneer of dance music in Asia who blended western and local sounds to create music that has inspired generations of artists and producers. Or YUAN, who has combined traditional Chinese instruments with dance beats to create a unique sound, and Yuen Yuen, who deliver their art in multimedia formats. Or Gigi Lee, who combined her musical skills with her keen sense of fashion to become an important influencing factor in Greater China.
What is the meaning of “virtual idols” in Asia?
“Virtual idols” are already a huge phenomenon in China and other parts of Asia. They attract a huge following on social media, especially Gen Z fans. People deal intensively with the daily life of the idols, similar to real movie stars or models.
So far, the idols have mostly made careers in fashion, taking part in virtual catwalks and wearing the latest designs. The Japanese model Imma with around 350,000 Instagram followers posts about art, film and culture. It’s really a mix of virtual and real. She appears in posts with human celebrities and “friends” and talks about things like moving to a new home. A lot of the posts are pretty lifelike, others are more surreal.
“As with any form of fame, there are stars who transition into music. ‘Virtual Idols’ will be no different. “
Jon Serbin, Warner Music Greater China / Whet Records
As with any form of fame, there are stars who transition into music. ‘Virtual Idols’ will be no different. We see a lot of overlap between followers of Chinese pop stars and fans of “virtual idols” so that they already appeal to the same audience.
It’s hard for some people to understand that it’s typical not to talk about the teams behind these idols. The idols are always referred to as real personalities.
Who is the “virtual idol” you are subscribing to?
Our first ‘virtual idol’ signing is Ha Jiang, who already has more than 100,000 followers in China.
Essentially, she is a social influencer known for her flair for style and fashion. The city of Shanghai even hired them to promote safe driving!
“We’re going to bring her together with some great songwriters and producers and make amazing music that will introduce her to a whole new audience.”
Switching to music is a natural next step. Her image is all about positivity and good vibes and her style is perfect for the dance genre.
There is a deep connection between Ha Jiang and her growing and very passionate fan base. We’re going to bring her together with some great songwriters and producers and make amazing music that will introduce her to a whole new audience.
How groundbreaking is it for Warner / Whet to sign a “virtual idol” for a record deal?
We’re leading a new trend here. Our deal with Ha Jiang is the first of its kind for a major record company in Asia. And it’s not a novelty for us – we see this as the beginning of a real campaign.
She might even do a duet with one of her Whet label mates – she has the ability to open up new avenues for them.
I’m sure we’ll see many more deals between “virtual idols” and labels around the world.
Why do you choose an idol in the dance genre?
Dance is a very universal genre and there are often very strong visuals and graphics associated with music. In this genre, Ha Jiang has the potential to find fans all over Asia and even to travel the world.
Dance music has always been trend-setting in terms of technology. Its openness to innovation and eagerness to embrace the next big thing make it a perfect launch pad.
It is clear that you are not turning your back on human stars, but what impact do you expect virtual artists to have in the Chinese market in the future?
As you know, we just announced the signing of six incredible artists. We have ambitious plans to step up our signings in Greater China and invest even more in phenomenal talent in genres from dance to hip-hop.
And it is important to say that our projects for “virtual idols” also create opportunities for people. We’ll be working with great songwriters, engineers and producers to create their music.
“It is important to say that our projects for ‘virtual idols’ also create opportunities for people. We will work with great songwriters, engineers and producers to create their music. “
Overall, we believe that “virtual idols” will help fuel the expansion of the Chinese music market.
You will be a dynamic addition to our roster and another way for music to compete in the attention economy.
Is this a trend you see around the world?
Yes. We are already seeing “virtual idols” in markets like Japan and Korea, and even in the US.
China is at the forefront of the scene because of the enormous size of its market and the willingness of fans to adopt new technologies. Remember, Greater China was also the pioneering market in live streaming gigs long before the Covid pandemic took hold in the rest of the world.
Do you think the way the pandemic has affected our behavior – how comfortable we are with virtual meetings, virtual concerts, etc. – has accelerated the commercial potential of virtual idols / artists?
The effects of Covid-19 and the way we have moved to more digital interaction have certainly accelerated the rise of “virtual idols”.
Fans like the fact that idols are very relatable but can also do very unusual, magical things.
“During the pandemic, while everyone else is on hold, there are no real limits to idols. There is a very creative escapism going on. “
During the pandemic, with everyone else locked up, there are no real limits to idols. There is a very creative escapism.
But we don’t think they’ll go away when the pandemic recedes. There’s a place for them alongside human artists, just as live streaming will continue to complement personal appearances.Music business worldwide