What is a ‘virtual artist’?

Before I begin this article, I would like to thank you guys – my readers – for your interest in and support of this project, and many messages bearing useful feedback. It’s great to hear from others who share my passion for the world of virtual artists and its continuing evolution.

One issue that has frequently been brought up is my use of the term ‘virtual artists’ to describe the phenomena around which the story being told here is centred – particularly the Vocaloid revolution. Therefore, in this article I will explain my interpretation of the term ‘virtual artist’ in more depth.

The music business is extremely complex, not to mention exceptionally vast. But for our purposes here, we will simplify this massively hyperconnected network into three main areas: music publishing, recorded music, and live music.

Music publishers deal with songwriters and composers – that is, those individuals who create new, permanent musical and lyrical works for commercial gain (and perhaps also personal expression and fulfilment, although this latter motivating factor is certainly not essential – unromantic as it sounds, the objective reality of the music business is that it is a business before anything else). The recorded music industry is comprised primarily of record labels who employ musicians and producers with a view toward the creation of recorded music products (i.e. single tracks and albums), and the live music industry is centred around live performances of musical works by musicians – possibly with some pyrotechnics and backing dancers thrown in in the name of entertainment.

Now here’s the interesting thing: in the context of the music business, the term ‘artist’ is almost exclusively used to describe performers. That is, a record label’s roster is said to be made up of ‘bands and artists’, and live shows are performed by ‘bands and artists’ – but in the world of music publishers, songwriters and composers are usually referred to simply as ‘writers’. As a result, in the context of the music business the term ‘artist’ becomes divorced from the process of creating original music for the purpose of self-expression (that is, the creation of original art), and is instead used to refer to those who simply perform music, regardless of whether or not they wrote the music being performed.

Let’s make up an artist, and call her Leona. Leona doesn’t write her own songs – but she does perform songs written by others. Therefore, she fits into our simplified music industry structure like so:

As Leona is a performer, she is referred to as an ‘artist’, even though she doesn’t write her own songs! In fact, her lack of ‘true artistry’ extends beyond this lack of involvement in the songwriting process, because Leona is a technical performer.

In technical performance, a performer is employed to act as a vessel through which others (songwriters / composers / choreographers / etc) may express themselves. During a technical performance every last thing the performer does happens in accordance with a strict set of pre-defined instructions, and at no point is the performer permitted to deviate from them. Many pop stars are technical performers, although when deriding them for their lack of ‘true artistry’ it is easy to forget that in the classical world, technical performance is the norm – orchestral musicians are most often paid to follow a strict set of instructions given by the conductor and composer via hand gestures and sheet music respectively.

When Leona enters the recording studio, she is there to sing a song precisely as the songwriter wrote it, with all the correct vocal inflections in all the right places as determined by the producer and her vocal coach. When she struts onstage to perform live, her every breath, pout, turn, and twirl happens as her choreographer decided – and everything her voice does (including any apparently spontaneous moments that deviate from the tracks heard on her album) is determined by her vocal coach and musical director’s extensive guidance and drills. In short, Leona’s role is to be programmed by others, and perform in strict accordance with that programming.

Given that this is the case, does Leona need to be human in order to be considered a performer, and by extension an artist? After all, humans are not the only entities capable of technical performance – computers are specifically designed to carry out pre-programmed tasks flawlessly, and do it over and over and over again. At this point, since Leona only exists in our imaginations she could be one of two things – Human Leona (a biological performer, like any other pop artist) or Virtual Leona, existing only as a result of computational activity, software, and hardware. Most people would happily accept Human Leona as a performer / artist. But what about Virtual Leona?

Well, in order for a performance to be defined as such, two things must happen. First, a performer must perform an action. Secondly, that action must be witnessed by an audience. This is easily demonstrated in live performance – the performer appears onstage, performs an action or sequence of actions, and the audience bears witness to those actions. But audio-only recorded musical performances (such as those found on single tracks and albums) are also considered to be performances as they are heard by an audience of listeners, even though all those listeners may happen to be in any number of separate physical locations or social situations as they hear the performance. Therefore, if an entity (human or virtual) is capable of performing an action for the benefit of an audience, he / she / it is worthy of being accepted as a performer. And if those actions happen to be musical in nature, we arrive at the acceptance of both human and virtual performers (or human and virtual artists) as being worthy of such a definition.

Back to Virtual Leona. She is a virtual artist (a digital entity designed to perform music), doing her job flawlessly, over and over again. But she is, really, just a piece of software. This is fine for studio work – virtual instruments are ubiquitous in the world of audio production today. But live, Virtual Leona needs some way of making contact with her audience. She needs to begin to move from her native world of ones and zeroes into our physical reality. Unfortunately, at present robotic bodies such as the HRP-4C are still quite limited in terms of their expressive capabilities – so instead, during her live shows Virtual Leona appears as a holographic projection with a human backing band.

So now, Virtual Leona fits into our simplified music industry structure as follows:

 

And, given that Virtual Leona now resembles another well-known virtual artist, we might as well replace her with her real-life counterpart:

 

We can now see how Hatsune Miku (the archetypal technical performer and virtual artist) and others like her fit quite comfortably into the Western music industry’s existing structure.

By extension, we can also see how Vocaloids are now hinting at the emergence of an entirely new global music industry paradigm. Virtual artists (not just Vocaloids, but other forms of virtual artists that have yet to emerge) will not run around doing drugs, binge drinking, assaulting fans, or marrying footballers. When they are part of the traditional ‘top-down’ artist development and management structure, they will do as their labels please (an idea likely to bring tears of joy to the eyes of the entire recorded music industry). Of course, as I have already stated here, this does not mean that virtual artists will replace human artists – as long as a biological human race exists there will still be demand for flesh and blood human performers. Rather, virtual artists will expand the scope of the global music industry, and provide music fans with a wealth of new experiences.

Vocaloids also demonstrate the potential of another paradigm-shifting idea – the extensive use of fan-generated content. Although Hatsune Miku fits perfectly well within our simplified music industry structure as shown above, the Vocaloid world as it exists today has its own complex ecosystem, and is a unique cultural force in its own right. The Hatsune Miku ‘singing synthesiser’ software is freely available for anyone to buy, meaning that all of her fans have the opportunity to write and record songs featuring her vocals. Those songs can then be uploaded onto the Internet for others to hear. Some listeners might then be inspired to create their own illustrations, promotional artwork, or even entire music videos synchronised with their favourite songs – and the end result of all this is a rich panoply of creative offerings that can be found with a simple Google search. Crypton Future Media (the Japanese software company that created Hatsune Miku) now runs a website named PiaPro (short for ‘peer production’) that is specifically designed to streamline the process of mass online collaboration, as well as a record label (KarenT) that mainly promotes Vocaloid artists. The nurturance of this fan-centric creative world drives a level of engagement that most music industry operators would gladly sell their family and friends for.

So, by peeking down the Vocaloid rabbit hole, we have uncovered two exciting concepts – virtual artists (digital entities designed to perform music) and ‘bottom-up’ or ‘open-source’ artist development – that have the potential to revolutionise the global music industry. If we were to dismiss Vocaloids as ‘just another silly Japanese thing’ without affording them any amount of deep consideration and thought, we would also have missed the opportunity to unearth these paradigm-shifting potentialities.

Unfortunately, the music industry has an extensive track record of missed opportunities arising from ignorance or dismissal of emerging technologies. Recorded music, the radio, pop music-centred TV shows, electric instruments, amplification, cassettes, drum machines, synthesisers, CDs and MP3s were all initially met with resistance and derision – and the ongoing struggle surrounding illegal file-sharing perfectly illustrates the inevitable negative consequences of such short-sighted attitudes.

At this point, the music industry can ill afford to ignore the emerging world of virtual artists. To do so would be to usher in a future in which technology companies swoop in to capitalise on the music industry’s short-sightedness, leaving it no better off than it is today.

Stay tuned to the story of virtual artists via Twitter (@musicalfuturist), Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/TheMusicalFuturist) and / or RSS.

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2 thoughts on “What is a ‘virtual artist’?

  1. Reblogged this on Lady Emberheart's Blog and commented:
    Some great thoughts on the concept of a “Virtual Artist”. Enjoy. :)

  2. You hit the nail on the head there, as much with the reason I love Vocaloid as to why I hate the mainstream music industry. We can celebrate our Lady Gaga’s and our Justin Beibers and whoever the hell is charting these days as amazing “artists”, but they’re just puppets on strings. At least in Asian music industries they seem more transparent about it with the producers getting more recognition, but still, I think imma stick with ma indie rock and ma Vocaloid. :)

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