K-pop girl group aespa (S.M. Entertainment)
Large K-pop labels that have almost recovered from their pandemic losses thanks to strong album sales and successful virtual concerts are now turning their eyes to a more futuristic idea – avatar idols.
Over the past month, Big Hit Entertainment, JYP Entertainment and YG Entertainment have made separate investments, worth a combined 17 billion won ($15.3 million), in Naver Z, the developer of the avatar app Zepeto. It is rare for the rival firms to have a stake in the same company.
Naver Z is a spin-off company of Naver’s augmented reality selfie app Snow. As of October, its Zepeto app boasts 190 million users worldwide, among which 90 percent come from outside South Korea.
The firm’s technological prowess and its strong backer Naver, the nation’s largest and most powerful internet portal, seem to have caught the eyes of the K-pop labels eager to monetize their crucial IP assets for new revenue sources.
Big Hit invested 7 billion won to secure a stake in the company, while JYP and YG each invested 5 billion won.
Poster for Black Pink's avatar version of "Ice Cream" music video on Zepeto (Naver Z)
Users also responded positively to their early collaborations.
Blackpink’s avatar version of its “Ice Cream” music video garnered over 35 million views over two months, while Twice’s recent avatar dance performance trailer amassed 1.7 million views in just a week.
In the meantime, their crosstown rival S.M. Entertainment has paved its own way for a virtual push. In August, the firm secured 100 billion won worth of funding from Naver to jointly develop virtual K-pop services like virtual concerts and fan meetups.
Adding to that, the firm is debuting its latest girl group aespa on Tuesday. Keen attention is being paid to the group not just because they are the first S.M. girl group to debut in six years, but also because they are coming with their own very unique avatar selves.
The four members – Karina, Winter, Giselle and Ninging – are connected to their avatars – ae-Karina, ae-Weinter, ae-Giselle and ae-Ningning – coming together in a virtual universe.
The label hinted that the human bandmates and their avatars could perform on stage or attend key events together, with more experimental projects coming using its virtual platforms like Beyond Live.
Avatar of Twice members on Zepeto (Naver Z)
Will this avatar rush become mainstream in K-pop?
Experts agree virtual characters like avatars are more seriously embraced by younger music fans -- especially Gen Z, born in the late 1990s and after, today‘s target audience for K-pop.
“Gen Z started to use smartphones shortly after they were born. They find no need to compare avatars to real-life idols but just enjoy them for their unique experience,” Gwak Geum-ju, psychology professor at Seoul National University, told The Korea Herald.
“They seem willing to communicate with their favorite idols in whatever forms they choose. For K-pop labels, avatar idols are also easier to control and cost-effective.”
Culture critic Ha Jae-geun, however, was cautious about the immediate success of avatar idols, saying related technologies need to mature over time.
“For me, it’s still awkward to see the avatar characters. It would take some time for them to boast their own charm,” he said.
Ha agreed avatars could play a major role in diversifying K-pop content creation.
“There is no limit to what avatars can do. They can be easily adapted into other industries such as gaming and animation. Although they may be less popular than humans, they have more potential in terms of business expansion,” he said.
By Choi Ji-won (firstname.lastname@example.org)