Whether it’s for marketing or entertainment, hiring a real-life celebrity is expensive and carries risks. Several Chinese stars have been caught up in scandals recently. Some get into trouble for being out of step with the Communist Party. The party, for its part, has attacked fan culture, banning online rankings of celebrities. It wants public figures to be upstanding role models. Little wonder, then, that many Chinese firms are choosing to work with “virtual idols” instead of the human kind.
Virtual idols are generated by computers. Often, though, these digital avatars are controlled by anonymous human performers wearing motion-capture gear. The most popular virtual idols sing and dance before millions of viewers on live-streaming platforms. Fans tip real money and buy merchandise. Some virtual idols are influencers or used in marketing campaigns. It makes for big business. China’s virtual-idol market was estimated to be worth nearly $16bn in 2021, says iiMedia, a consultancy.
Virtual idols have problems, too, though. Take Carol (pictured), the lead singer of a-soul, one of China’s most popular virtual bands. Its creators are backed by ByteDance, a Chinese tech giant. Carol alone generated over 2m yuan ($300,000) in revenue, mostly from tips, in a single month last year, according to reports. But in May it was announced that Carol was leaving a-soul. According to fans, the performer behind the virtual idol had complained that she was bullied, overworked and underpaid. Her employers denied all of this, noting that human performers receive 10% of live-stream earnings. Nevertheless, the virtual Carol has disappeared.
Such issues will inevitably arise as Chinese firms pursue opportunities in the metaverse. They poured billions of yuan into such ventures last year; ByteDance spent a small fortune on Pico, a maker of virtual-reality headsets. A paper published in October by the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, a state think-tank, spoke of the need for laws and regulations surrounding “virtual labour”. Young people, meanwhile, are increasingly fed up with “996” schedules (ie, working 9am to 9pm six days a week). Virtual idols offer them an escape. But behind some avatars are humans with similar gripes.