SEOUL, Aug 30 — Virtual idols have been very successful in Asia for a few years now. Now they are conquering the rest of the world. One of them, Apoki, has managed to attract the interest of Sony Music, one of the most powerful names on the international music scene.

Is worldwide fame far behind?

Like every year, the end of summer school vacation is a prime time for new music releases. Apoki is one of the artists making her comeback this year, having recently unveiled her new track, West Swing, which she created in collaboration with the Californian rapper E-40.

This song is an opportunity for Apoki to try her hand at new jack swing, a genre popular in the late 1980s and early ‘90 that mixes hip hop and R’n’B, but also aims to reach a wider audience. While the K-pop singer enjoys a huge fan base in South Korea, she is much less renowned outside her native country.

One of the reasons is that Apoki is not a regular human artist but a virtual pop star. 2.0 idols are very successful in Asia, especially in China and Japan, where they have managed to build up large communities of fans. For instance Apoki is followed by more than 3.7 million people on TikTok, and 291,000 on YouTube.

Engineered for success

She started her career in April 2019 by covering songs from artists — real ones — like Kehlani, Blackpink and BOA. Two years later, she released her first single, GET IT OUT, with K-pop stylings. Music lovers were then able to discover the atypical journey of this humanoid rabbit with a Y2K aesthetic, who lives somewhere in space... and came from the AFUN INTERACTIVE studios.

This South Korean start-up specialises in the production of 3D content in real time. It recently announced a partnership with Sony Music Solutions in Japan to develop Apoki’s career internationally.

“At AFUN INTERACTIVE, we’re pioneering the new genre of virtual entertainment, so we look forward to seeing the various kinds of synergy we will produce with Sony,” said DK Kwon, CEO of AFUN INTERACTIVE, in a statement.

Like all virtual idols, Apoki is built to adapt to the expectations of her fans, which speaks to a true paradigm shift in the essence of what an artist is today.

“I can do anything we dream up. It’s a shame that I can’t put on a show in real life, but there’s a lot of things that I’m able to do as a virtual artist that make up for that and more.” she explained in an interview with Billboard Japan.

The age of music 2.0

These digital pop stars are only the most visible aspect of a key trend in the entertainment industry. The technology that creates them, artificial intelligence, is increasingly being used in the domain of music creation.

Kàra Màr, an entirely virtual non-binary DJ, released Anthropic Principle, in December an album composed of eight techno tracks generated by artificial intelligence. FN Meka’s tracks are also entirely composed with the help of algorithms. Only the voice of the controversial robot-rapper is human.

It’s tempting to make dystopian — and alarmist — predictions about what the rise of these entirely digital pop stars means for the future of music. While some record companies like Universal Music support the development of these virtual artists, they are not intended to replace flesh-and-blood artists.

But one thing is for sure: it is much easier to take care of the musical career of an avatar. They are much more docile and malleable than their ‘real’ counterparts. “I don’t have to worry about maintaining my figure... so I can eat as much as I want,” Apoki told Billboard Japan.

This is quite a statement when you consider that many K-pop singers are closely controlled by their management, who tell them what to eat to keep a slim figure and even what plastic surgeries to get.

Apoki doesn’t need to go under the knife: the slightest of her imperfections can be erased with a few mouse clicks. — ETX Studio