If animated pop stars have been around for years, why are they booming now? For one, these characters are being marketed differently than in the past. Meta-internet buzzwords and acronyms like AI, NFT, and influencer appear all over the characters’ social media profiles. And speaking of social media, the plethora of platforms through which fans can consume content from influencers boosts the characters’ growing popularity. Platforms like Tiktok seem custom made for this type of short-form animated content and allow the teams behind these characters to release briefer videos more frequently. That means more facetime and more instant fan interaction than a traditional film or tv character would get. Certainly, technological advancements have pushed the phenomenon as well, as digital animation processes allows for quicker turnaround of content.
What makes these characters attractive to record labels? Like their real-life counterparts, virtual influencers bring an established fanbase with them when signed by a label. Unlike their human counterparts, however, “They can exist anywhere in the world, anytime,” said Yuna I of Sony Music Solutions’ global strategic marketing division, regarding the wide appeal of VTubers. “They can live forever.” It also seems likely that a virtual performer’s contract and rider would be significantly less demanding than that of a real human.
Are there any drawbacks to the rise of these virtual influencers? As mentioned earlier, Capitol Music Group dropped its recently signed U.S.-based virtual influencer FN Meka after accusations of cultural appropriation, trivializing police brutality, and benefiting from other artists’ work without giving proper credit. Those accusations are not unique to the FN Meka character either. Kyung Hee University professor Kimg Sang-kyun, speaking with the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, argued that there should be laws implemented to regulate the quickly growing market. While pop stars may seem harmless enough, he envisions a future where:
The market will develop more hyper realistic virtual characters and they will play a lot of roles in society, for example teachers. By law, the virtual character owns rights as an individual [if it is performed by a person]. As more of those masked characters appear, it gets more difficult to track down a person who hides behind a mask and spreads false information. There should be discussions to create rules for that, or common ground to deal with [their] existence.
Are these characters a passing fad, or here to stay? The answer to that question is a subject of endless debate, but right now the virtual influencer market is only becoming more popular. According to data from Emergen Research, the global digital human avatar market, valued at around $10 billion in 2020, is forecast to reach $528.6 billion by 2030. Notably, the North American avatar market accounted for a significant revenue share in 2020 when compared to other regional markets, so it makes sense that foreign characters should start releasing songs in English. After all, these influencers can be fluent in any language where a voice actor is available.