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What happens when a made-up, virtual rapper signs a deal with a major record label? In the case of FN Meka, a digitally rendered Black artist largely controlled by artificial intelligence and non-Black creators, major missteps and public backlash over “digital blackface” quickly led to a fiery end. Within weeks, Capitol Records scrapped his deal, his Instagram went private and most of his TikToks were deleted.
The saga resurfaced ongoing conversations about cultural appropriation and racism in AI, given Meka’s use of the N-word and fabricated backstory about his time spent in prison. That the “robot rapper” even received a record deal and amassed more than 10 million followers on TikTok, though, shows that the interest in virtual influencers has persisted, six years after another virtual project — Lil Miquela, an L.A.-based singer and model — became an online sensation.
While virtual influencers are not yet household names in the U.S., digital avatars have an outsize presence in Japan, South Korea and China, markets where these human-like CGI characters are often used for major brand and modeling campaigns. Hatsune Miku, a virtual star created by the Japanese company Crypton Future Media, regularly sells out concerts where she appears as a hologram and even opened for Lady Gaga on her Artpop tour in 2014.
As the U.S. plays catch-up, virtual influencers are meeting the fervor around popular NFT collections like the Bored Ape Yacht Club. In March, WME signed a DJ duo of Bored Apes. Known as Escape Plan, the brother apes are, to be clear, controlled by the humans at entertainment management company Big Night Talent. The duo has already collaborated with artists like Dillon Francis and Rich the Kid.
“Some of the reasons that they’re so successful and have gotten traction with real celebrity talent is because they’re backed by successful IP. Bored Ape Yacht Club is the hottest NFT collection — it’s probably the most well-known by far. So the content already resonates with people,” Kate Lonczak, a digital strategy agent at WME who works with Escape Plan, tells The Hollywood Reporter. “You’re just basically exploiting that IP into something bigger, giving it a backstory and giving people content to digest.”
Though Capitol Records may have been alarmed by its missteps with Meka — agents who spoke with THR say the deal and its talent should have been better vetted — another Universal Music Group label is forging ahead with a virtual project. The brainchild of Celine Joshua, the founder of Universal’s experimental 10:22 record label, a different Bored Apes quartet, Kingship, has secured a deal with Mars Inc. for a special collection of M&Ms and, perhaps more significant, attracted producers James Fauntleroy and Chauncey Hollis Jr. (aka Hit-Boy) to create music for the band.
“It is no different than if they were creating the sound and the music for soundtracks,” Joshua says, pointing to Hit-Boy’s work on EA Sports’ Madden video game franchise as an example. “They are not the face of it, but their music and their art and their creation is the heart [of the project].”
On the backend, the deals for virtual projects can resemble similar pacts with human talent who have a cadre of managers, publicists and lawyers working for them. The money just gets spread a little differently, based on such factors as who is responsible for creating the art, technology and story for the virtual influencer.
“Each case is unique because certain virtual avatars are using different tech,” says Adam Friedman, who guides CAA’s NFT work. “The technology is what allows consumers to interact with and view and consume content that is based off of these avatars.”
Influencer Marketing Hub estimates that Lil Miquela, who has more than 3 million followers on Instagram, could earn upward of $10,000 for a sponsored post. Though Joshua did not disclose specifics, the executive says any creator or artist working on Kingship — including Hit-Boy and Fauntleroy — are built into the royalty model and will be receiving secondary royalties made by Kingship.
Friedman says the money ultimately flows to the owner of the avatar. “While we are treating these folks as humans, in the sense that you may see Miquela be the face of PacSun, for example, Miquela herself can’t enter into a contract. There’s a team around her to do that,” Friedman says, adding that there are also costs involved in fulfilling a digital influencer’s appearances that don’t exist with human clients.
“If you’re going to do a brand or content deal, that content has to be created. If you’re going to be a guest star on a television show, that person just can’t walk on set. There has to be some sort of technology that is powering that,” Friedman says. “To create the ‘showing up’ for the avatar or virtual influencer, you have to take those costs into account.”
So what’s the appeal for businesses and brands in working with an AI influencer? At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, the opportunities for campaigns with digital avatars can go beyond what is humanly possible, given that a human isn’t starring in them. Storylines can be molded to marketers’ tastes, and the overall deal could — depending on the talent — be cheaper than one with a traditional, human influencer. Already, major brands like LVMH, Calvin Klein and Samsung are using digital influencers, and the formation of new projects like Escape Plan and Kingship demonstrate where digital avatars are headed next. Athletes like Carmelo Anthony, Luka Doncic and Jack Nicklaus have all partnered with AI companies to create digital versions of themselves, and estates have begun creating hyperrealistic models of deceased stars, like Biggie, to give fans another opportunity to interact with them.
But as the technology evolves and more creators get involved, there remain ethical boundaries to consider, especially if a digital avatar is based on a real human being or is meant to mimic the characteristics of a human, as was the case with FN Meka.
“You can’t ignore the ethics, the regulatory environment, the anti-discriminatory laws that exist in the real world. You just can’t ignore them just because it’s a digital world,” says Greg Cross, the CEO of Soul Machines, an AI company that specializes in creating human-like digital avatars and worked with Anthony and Nicklaus on their “digital twins.” For Cross, that means working closely with estates and license holders to ensure any digital avatar of a living or deceased celebrity is thoughtful and maintains the “legacy of the brand.” When creating human-like avatars that aren’t based on a living person, which Cross describes as “synthetic digital people,” cultural sensitivity and diversity remain high priorities, and Soul Machines has an ethics policy and ethics board to review its projects.
As for the role of digital avatars in Hollywood, don’t expect humans to be replaced entirely by their digital counterparts.
“We’re moving into an increasingly digital world. It’s not going to replace a face-to-face interaction with the real person. But we always talk about kids being in Roblox and Fortnite and spending time in these virtual worlds, and increasingly so,” says Phil Quist, a music and Web3 agent at CAA. “It seems like a natural transition to incorporate virtual influencers into a brand strategy and have them play a part in some of these worlds we’re inhabiting.”
A version of this story appeared in the Sept. 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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