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Virtual singers headline multibillion-dollar industry in China

China is the latest market to embrace vocaloids, Mandarin-speaking, computer-generated, voice-synthesized pop stars

Vocaloid Luo Tianyi
Vocaloid Luo Tianyi

Luo Tianyi’s New Years’ Day performance was sparsely attended by pop star standards, with only about 300 people in the audience. Then again, she wasn’t there either.

To actually see Luo, one of China’s rising superstars, some 150 million tuned in to the livestream on their TVs and mobile devices. The teen singer is a vocaloid, the first Mandarin-speaking, computer-generated, voice-synthesized pop star.

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China is the latest market to embrace vocaloids, the most extreme mashup of technology and music. Though they developed in Japan and casted their influence on K-pop, China has the biggest potential audience, with an estimated 390 million people watching virtual idols. The accompanying animation industry, which includes TV series and comics, hit $35 billion in 2020, according to media company iQiyi.

From an animated cat dancing with Paula Abdul in the 1990s to holograms that revived dead singers in the 2000s, the music industry has flirted with non-human performances for as long as the technology has allowed.

For a flat fee of $225, creators get an audio editing software that can generate songs complete with synthetic human voices. Yamaha is now developing technology to make the voices more lifelike and allowing musical expressions unique to vocaloids.

With bright pop tunes, Luo exemplifies the genre. She’s 15, with grey hair, green eyes and 5 million followers on Weibo. Her concerts sell out in minutes, she’s sung and danced to Lang Lang’s piano accompaniment, and CCTV put her in the lineup for its Spring Festival Gala alongside Andy Lau and Andrea Bocelli.

More than a third of Luo’s fans are born after 2000 and mostly located in China’s bigger cities while the company tries to expand their presence beyond them. Nescafe, KFC and other companies have used her songs in advertising campaigns. Harper’s Bazaar put her image on the cover of its China edition.

All of this is the work of Shanghai Henian Technology Co., which is emerging as China’s leading vocaloid impresario, with six performers. The company, which has offices in China and Japan, has focused on the vocaloid business for about a decade. Shanghai Henian once worked with Yamaha on virtual singers before buying the rights to Luo in 2015.

Japan’s Hatsune Miku, the best-known vocaloid offers a window into the potential opportunities—and limits—for China’s rising stars. In the 14 years since her debut, she’s amassed more than 100,000 songs and a wide range of endorsement deals. The country’s industry is estimated at $100 million, though the knock-on effects are bigger: the video streaming site Bilibili that raised $2.6 billion in a secondary listing this year started as the fan forum

“One thing that’s kind of unique to vocaloid culture, compared with other amateur creative cultures, is that it’s not just music that’s being created,” said Hiroyuki Ito, chief executive of Crypton Future Media Inc, which owns Miku. “Someone would create a song, and someone else would attach a story or draw an illustration or make a music video.” Vocaloid culture has narrowed the gap between amateur and professional music production, he added.

Take Kenshi Yonezu, who gained a following from his vocaloid music in 2009 before debuting in person. He eventually became the first artist to land Billboard’s song of the year in Japan for two years running.

In China, the approach is less grassroots. Vocaloids like Luo are promoted alongside human celebrities, appearing on variety shows, singing programs, shopping festivals and livestream content.

Managing vocaloids isn’t necessarily easier than working with human stars. For Luo’s New Years’ Day performance, Shanghai Henian spent months plotting her outfits, visual effects and movement across the stage.

“When you think of a human performer, the size of the singer does not change regardless of camera movements,” said Candy Huang, director of operations at Luo’s company. “However, Luo is a virtual character – to achieve the correct size her body relative to camera movements, and yet not breaking the illusion that she should be real—this requires an enormous amount of calculation and high-tech skills.”

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Going forward, Shanghai Henian is working on fusing Luo with artificial intelligence to let her think independently and communicate with fans, as well as riding on a recent hype in gu feng—a type of music inspired by traditional Chinese music and history, Huang said. “She may be forever 15, but we have to upgrade her to fit changing consumer tastes,” she said.

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