VR Headsets, Cyborgs and Legal Wrangles: Welcome to the Virtual Music World

AI takes a starring role in entertainment, from deceased stars performing from beyond the grave to digitally created rappers.

What if you could harness the power of AI to create the perfect modern rapper? Well, someone tried — and the star was “cancelled” for racist behaviour within days of being signed to a major record label.

Virtual Music World

FN Meka is a virtual rapper with millions of followers on TikTok. The digital avatar has the rapper look, a black cyborg with green braids, facial tattoos, and gold chains. But Meka was created by the white cofounders of Factory New, which promises to be a “first of its kind, next-generation music company, specialising in virtual beings”.

Though the character was voiced by an uncredited human, the other elements were created by AI. The company claims to have created technology that analyses popular songs from specific genres and then generates suggestions such as “lyrical content, chords, melody [and] tempo”.

Although the character has been around since 2019, a recent surge in popularity saw Meka amass over a billion views on TikTok. This led to an announcement that FN Meka had been signed by Capitol Records, making him the first AI artist to receive a major record deal.
It lasted 10 days.

The international headlines resulted in renewed questions about the use of the n-word in a 2019 song, and digitally generated images of the rapper being beaten by police on Instagram. One activist group, Industry Blackout, wrote an open letter saying FN Meka was “offensive” and “a direct insult to the black community and our culture”.

The group went on to state that the virtual rapper was “an amalgamation of gross stereotypes, appropriative mannerisms that derive from Black artists, complete with slurs infused in lyrics”.

Gunna, a black artist who is featured on a song with FN Meka, is currently incarcerated for rapping the same type of lyrics this robot mimics. “The difference is, your artificial rapper will not be subject to federal charges,” Industry Blackout said.

Gunna, real name Sergio Kitchens, is being held in a US prison without bond on a felony racketeering charge. Included as the prosecution’s evidence are some of the rapper’s lyrics. Kitchens denies the charges and is awaiting trial.

Before long, internet sleuths had tracked down the anonymous human voice of FN Meka, who revealed that he had never been paid for his involvement in the project. Capitol Records announced it had “severed ties with the FN Meka project, effective immediately”.

FN Meka is not the first fully-virtual artist, but even with his rapid fall from grace, he is the only one to approach popular success. Another contender is Polar, a female AI pop singer created by The Soul Publishing, the company behind many of the controversial “life hack” videos you see online. Characterised by signature turquoise pigtails and doll-like features, Polar may not have had FN Meka’s social media success, but she did recently headline the fully-virtual Solar Sounds Festival, which has attracted over four million attendees in the past. Solar Sounds Festival is hosted by the life-simulation computer game Avakin Life, and takes place in Facebook’s Metaverse, a virtual reality (VR) social space accessible with VR headsets. While VR headsets once seemed a curious luxury, the pandemic brought new life to the fringe industry. Bloomberg predicts that the Metaverse could be an $800bn market by 2024.

The increasing use of virtual reality in the music industry has also created new questions about copyright and ownership in the digital world. How much can somebody else’s music be used in the virtual world before it infringes on copyright laws? AI companies have recently been able to create and release “deep fake” music, where virtual voices that sound exactly like popular artists such as Katy Perry and Frank Sinatra — and they can sing anything their creators wish. While music played in public requires specific licences that pay royalties to the artist, there is not yet any such license for the Metaverse.

The question of how much control an artist has over their own likeness may not be new, but it has different implications in the digital world. From a hologram of Tupac Shakur rapping at a concert in 2012 to the rising popularity of performances by deceased artists in South Korea, these questions become increasingly complex. Confusion over who is actually behind a character, and the presence of a larger anonymous team, makes it difficult to establish accountability. In the case of FN Meka, it allowed developers to evade responsibility, and questions, for three years.

It is unlikely that AI will loosen its grip on the music industry anytime soon. While digital personalities may not be the way forward, many real-life artists have found success harnessing the powers of the virtual world. Recent surveys found that 45 percent of all adults would listen to live music in a virtual world, as would 56 percent of Gen Z, and 61 percent of millennials. Although entry to such concerts is usually free, visitors are prompted to buy virtual merch for their digital avatars to wear. The popular computer game Fortnite held its first concert in 2019 with EDM musician Marshmello. It netted him 147k new Twitter followers — and grew his daily YouTube views by 500 percent.

In 2020, 12.3m people attended Travis Scott’s nine-minute Fortnite concert, which had 27 million visitors, and generated $20m of income from merchandise for the rapper (compared to $53.5m from his entire world tour in 2018/19). Rapper Snoop Dogg released an exclusive metaverse music video of his song House I Built in April 2022, and Warner Music Group (WMG) announced in January 2022 that they would be hosting a “combination of musical theme park and concert venue” in the same digital space, rumoured to include artists such as Dua Lipa, Ed Sheeran, and Green Day.

In these virtual reality concerts, artists wear motion-capture suits and can respond to fans in real time. They are one-off, genuine performances in which visitors can interact with performers, and the world around them.

Ariana Grande’s Fortnite tour saw players surfing on cotton-candy waves and fighting monsters while watching her performance. This technology can be harnessed in the real world. In London, fans can watch ABBA perform, captured as their younger selves, without the group being there, or for anyone to wear a headset or look at a screen. These virtual concerts are becoming so popular that in 2022, MTV announced a new category for their upcoming Video Music Awards: Best Metaverse Performance.

It seems that the future of AI in the music industry does not lie in anonymous creators developing virtual musicians from scratch, but in collaborations between the real-world and the virtual one. As VR headsets become more commonplace in the household, it is not a question of if you will soon be attending your first virtual concert, but when.

By Kitty Wenham

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