Wearing mid-thigh skirts and heavy makeup, infantilized artists with thin faces and bulbous eyes dance to rock-infused Korean hits. That could be your average K-pop band, only this one is made of six virtual avatars in the metaverse.

Despite being three-dimensional avatars, the six members — Gosegu, Lilpa, Ine, Zingburger, Jururu and Viichan — have each taken on roles and personalities in the band. For instance, Jururu is the main vocalist while Lilpa is the more charismatic dancer. 

Human beings sing and communicate with fans behind the six avatars. But their identities have not been made public. 

The move into the metaverse comes as the music publishing industry grapples with wayward K-pop idols and an inability amid the pandemic to organize multi-country mega concerts, a money spinner for record labels and artists despite the growth in streaming services. For context, about 95% of U2’s earnings in 2017 came from touring, despite the iconic band being the highest-paid musical act of that year.

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Isegye Idol was produced by Korean online personality “Woowakgood” who in June 2021, embarked on an ambitious project — post auditions of online avatars to over 2.7 million of his followers on YouTube and Twitch, with fans voting for final members.  

Fans were also invited to participate in other aspects of producing for the band such as writing songs and arranging the music, an inclusive exercise that they could only dream of when it came to real-life K-pop idols produced by South Korea’s behemoth entertainment agencies. 

This has helped fans restore a connection with their K-pop idols as a burgeoning South Korean entertainment industry focused on solidifying its global appeal grew distant from admirers at home. 

Striking a high note

In 2020, K-pop was responsible for most of the 44.8% on-year growth in the world’s seventh-largest music market, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry. This made South Korea’s music industry the world’s fastest-growing market that year.

The industry has come a long way since The Kim Sisters popularized Korean pop in the West in the 1950s, becoming the first Korean group to make it to the Billboard charts.

Sook-ja, Ai-ja and Min-ja got their start entertaining American GIs during the Korean War as little children. They went on to become famous in the U.S. for singing, dancing and playing more than 20 different musical instruments.

The Kim Sisters | Image: thekimsisters.com

“Fans see Isegye Idol as artists that they have created with their own two hands, not something produced by an entertainment agency,” Kim Sang-kyun, professor at Kyung Hee University and author of several books on the metaverse, told Forkast

“Fans see Isegye Idol as artists that they have created with their own two hands.”

– Kim Sang-kyun, Professor, Kyung Hee University

The process of developing and producing a virtual band in the Metaverse differs from television in that “the width and the depth of communication [between the artist and fans] is greater,” Kim said.

The band made its debut in December 2021 with the hit single “Rewind” which topped charts in South Korea. The song has been viewed more than 7.5 million times on YouTube.

Isegye Idol’s debut single, RE:WIND

Winter Spring,” a ballad with piano riffs, has notched up more than 3.3 million views in the three months since it was released. 

The metaverse foray is a logical step for an industry that has taken to virtual performances amid the pandemic.

See related article: The metaverse isn’t a fad but part of the future economy

Follow the money

“[The music industry] was hit hard during the pandemic as artists could not promote and perform their music,” Hye-jin Lee, a clinical assistant professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, told Forkast

“The K-pop industry, however, has been able to remain or even become more globally popular during the pandemic as K-pop artists have continued to perform and meet fans virtually,” the reviewer of publications by feminist scholars in the fields of media, communication, science and technology and a specialist in teaching and writing about Korean popular culture said. 

While subscription-based streaming services and advertisement-based entertainment platforms such as YouTube help with revenues, real-life performances continue to be the main money spinner for music artists and their producers.

Despite double-digit growth in the number of paid subscriptions to on-demand streaming services, at least in the U.S., artists from major labels typically receive only 16% of royalty payments from such services, according to Sean Fitzjohn, the cofounder and editor-in-chief at Producer Hive, a community-run music production blog. Record labels take the bulk of royalty payments.

Music Streaming Royalty Rates Per Platform Stats scaled 1
Source: Producer Hive

American musicians took home only one-tenth of national industry revenues, with Spotify paying just US$40 on average for a song that reaches 10,000 plays, according to estimates by Producer Hive’s Fitzjohn. 

Only musicians with 1 million or more monthly streams or 0.4% of musicians on streaming platforms surveyed were able to survive on that income, according to the UK Intellectual Property Office. The survey relied on streaming data between 2014 to 2020, among other sources.

“Live events are quickly shaping up to be the most lucrative space for musicians in the digital-music era,” Rolling Stone magazine said. “As listeners become inundated with cheap access to music provided by streaming services, dedicated music fans crave more intimate experiences with their favorite artists,” according to the American monthly magazine founded in 1967.

Playing along

In March, South Korea’s Bangtan Boys, also known as BTS, grossed over US$90 million in ticket sales over a three-day concert that combined real-life performances with live streaming.

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BTS attends the 64th Annual GRAMMY Awards | Image: Getty Images

This was the first performance at home in two and a half years for the seven-member band which was estimated to have contributed to South Korea earning US$5 billion a year or half a percent of its economic output.

But the South Korean music industry was thrown into a tizzy when at a dinner celebrating the group’s founding, band member Kim Nam-joon, better known by his stage name, RM, said the constant demands of BTS left him no time to pursue more meaningful artistic pursuits.

“The problem with K-pop and the whole idol system is that they don’t give you time to mature,” according to Reuters’ translation of remarks made in Korean. “You have to keep producing music and keep doing something,” he said.

Backlash from fans, known widely as the BTS Army, was intense.

The next day, investors sold down shares in Hybe Co., Ltd. with the band’s management company losing one-fourth of its market capitalization or US$1.55 billion.

Worried about the consequences to the music industry industry in the country, Korea Singers Association Chairman Lee Ja-yeon appealed to the group to reconsider its decision for the sake of the Hallyu Wave, a term for the global popularity of South Korea’s music, television dramas and movies. 

The vagaries of K-pop stars can be more pronounced with instances of driving under influence, possession and usage of illicit drugs, and sexual assault being reported in local media.

Bobby, a member of popular K-pop boy group iKon, stirred controversy when he posted a handwritten letter on social media about his plan to get married, after finding out that he would be a father in less than a month. While many fans congratulated the K-Pop idol, others were critical for being kept in the dark. 

K-pop stars are not able to separate their professional and personal lives, Professor Kim told Forkast. As a result, the persona projected to the public often collides with their private personalities, said Kim. “This causes stress to both fans and artists.”

Let’s go digital

In May, Brave Entertainment, the agency behind Brave Girls and DKB, debuted virtual singer Hip-Kongz with the single “Bam,” which means “night” in Korean.

Hip-Kongz | Image: Brave Entertainment

“We’re not going to reveal the singer [behind Hip-Kongz] in order to be evaluated only by music,” Brave Entertainment said in its press release. “Hip-Kongz does not act erratically,” Serene Yang, the firm’s marketing representative told Forkast. “They will not betray the love they received from fans,” she added. 

USC Annenberg’s Lee has her doubts. Since May 30, Hip-Kongz’s debut single has had a little over 5,000 views on YouTube.

“I’m not sure if virtual artists’ popularity will ever equate to or eclipse that of today’s K-pop artists,” said Lee. 

I’m not sure if virtual artists’ popularity will ever equate to or eclipse that of today’s K-pop artists.

– Hye-jin Lee, USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism

“Fans connect with their K-pop idols from their off-the-cuff moments, hearing their personal stories and thoughts, and catching them act spontaneously,” she said. Artificial personas built by content marketers, data analysts, animators and publicists are unlikely to replicate that, Lee said. 

They “do get upset when K-pop artists get mired in scandals or act transgressively,” Lee told Forkast. “But they also understand that K-pop artists are humans and can make mistakes,” she said. 

“Fans love their K-pop artists not because they’re perfect but because of their fallibility,” Lee said. “That makes them relatable.”