Group 4

A short history of virtual artists

Ahead of Gorillaz's latest album, we reflect on the intersection between music and the machine


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Text: Rukiat Ashawe, Editorial Assistant

As virtual reality becomes increasingly normalised and technology becomes an intrinsic part of our lives, the real and virtual worlds have begun to overlap, intertwine and create blurred lines. So, is it really a surprise that out of such progress comes… a legion of virtual music stars? Some find them unsettling, others see them as a weird brand of comedy, while many straight up refuse to stan, adamant that virtual stars are taking the jobs of hardworking artists. But from iconic acts like Gorillaz and Hatsune Miku to newcomers like Aespa and K/DA and the array of musicians who have performed as their avatar selves in the metaverse, virtual artists are not coming – they’re already here. ‍Read on to learn about the history of virtual artists, starting with one of the latest iterations. 


Aespa are one of the most successful newcomers in K-pop, landing a spot on 2022's Forbes 30 under 30 Asia list only two years after their debut. Created by SM Entertainment, one of the biggest music labels in South Korea, the concept behind the four piece centres around the FLAT, another dimension where members' AI counterparts, referred to as “æ-avatars”, exist.

Aespa’s æ-avatars have appeared in music videos and on stage with them and the group even has an intricate lore centred around their virtual world, followed closely by fans. However, fans have criticised the avatar concept, claiming that Aespa’s lore is so difficult to follow that even the members don’t know their full story, sometimes struggling to explain the concept. Regardless, SM Entertainment continues to promote their virtual storyline, with Aespa acting as the first project in the SM Culture Universe – an indication that big names in the K-pop industry are making plans to normalise the presence of virtual artists and incorporate the metaverse into fan experiences. As one fan declared via YouTube comment, “AESPA IS A NEW ERA ON AUDIOVISUAL INDUSTRY! this is not ‘just music’ now, IT'S THE FUTURE!”


K/DA is a collaborative multilingual girl group created by Riot Games to promote the video game League of Legends. The group members were initially voiced by American pop stars Madison Beer and Jaira Burns, alongside K-pop stars Miyeon and Soyeon of (G)I-DLE, all of whom perform on stage with their virtual counterparts. The group rose to fame after their first (now platinum-certified) single POP/STARS topped the world music charts – their top four songs now have over 100 million Spotify streams each.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of K/DA is that the virtual members have been voiced by and collaborated with other up-and-coming songstresses, like Kim Petras and members of the K-pop group TWICE. Essentially, the virtual group provides a platform for a rotation of artists to showcase their talents to a global audience and collaborate with voices across genres and markets.


Gorillaz are one of the earliest and most notable virtual artists of our digital age – so much so that Guinness World Records named them the biggest-selling virtual band in the world. Gorillaz began with their identities hidden, with Damon Albarn providing the lead vocals and Jamie Hewlett designing the 2D characters. Together, they conceptualised the sound and visual world of the virtual band. During their first tour, Damon performed in front of thousands behind a screen that played music videos and clips of the virtual Gorillaz. The tour was the first of its kind – and proved that fictional artists had a place on the world stage. Today, Gorillaz are set to release their eighth studio album in early 2023. 


In 1998, the tech company Adamsoft created the first ever virtual K-pop idol – Cyber Singer Adam, or Adam for short. Modelled after Won Bin, a '90s actor with a reputation as a heartthrob, Adam was a hit, selling over 200,000 albums in Korea. His most popular music video depicted him in our world with a human love interest – an early image of how the real world and cyber world collide. But by the year 2000, Adam went into obscurity, with rumours claiming he was killed by the Y2K virus (lol). 

Hatsune Miku

Hatsune Miku is regarded as one of Japan’s biggest pop stars. She started with humble beginnings as a vocaloid software, but once she was licenced out for creative use, her popularity boomed. Miku’s success is in part community-driven – her image and voice have become a vessel for all sorts of creative endeavours and to date she has over 100,000 songs released, many fan-made. In fact, her vocals have kickstarted the careers of artists like YaosabiSupercell and Hachi/Kenshi Yonezu. Thousands of people around the world flock to Miku’s concerts to watch her hologram perform these songs – her existence acting as a symbol of people coming together in the name of creativity and artistic expression.


Superkind are one of the latest K-pop groups to make waves in the virtual world, debuting earlier this year. Five of Superkind’s members are human, while the sixth member, Saejin, is strictly virtual. Created by DeepStudio, an entertainment company that specialises in artificial intelligence, deep learning and visual effects, the design for Saejin is detailed and lifelike, and he almost feels indistinguishable from his human peers. Unlike Aespa, whose virtual counterparts only make short appearances, Saejin is a core member of the group, performing in music videos, rehearsing at dance practices and appearing in promotions. DeepStudio plans to introduce more virtual members – in fact, the name Superkind is an anagram of NUKE, PRID and S. NUKE refers to the virtual members and PRID refers to the human members, while the S remains a mystery that PRIDs and NUKEs must journey to uncover.

Superkind’s USP lies in how interactive their concept is – with a video-game-themed creative wrapper, fans are called “players” and get to have a say in the group’s storyline development and each release or “round” via their official Discord server. Saejin's role has also acted as a talking point around how virtual performers may be better equipped to endure the expectations of idol life, with group leader Geon joking that, “Saejin doesn’t have to watch his weight… I was so jealous of him when I was on a strict diet for our debut, hitting the gym at 5 a.m. on an empty stomach. He never catches a cold either”. Although it's still early days, Superkind is an example of how lifelike virtual idols may become the norm as they integrate seamlessly with human idols.

Looking at the virtual artists of the past and present, it is clear that their presence is inevitable – especially now that human artists are performing in the metaverse, like Travis Scott taking over Fortnite and Lil Nas X putting on a show for millions in Roblox. Not to mention ABBA’s virtual residency in London, where realistic holograms of the group’s younger selves shapeshift and magically change outfits on stage. Whether you’re looking for a (trippy) nostalgia trip ABBA-style or a new K-pop bias with a futuristic flavour, virtual artists have proven to offer more than just smoke and mirrors.

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