Luo Tianyi’s (洛天依) New Year’s Day performance was sparsely attended by pop star standards, with only about 300 people in the audience. Then again, she was not there either.
To actually see Luo, one of China’s rising superstars, about 150 million people tuned in to the livestream on their TVs and mobile devices.
Teen singer Luo Tianyi is a “vocaloid,” the first Mandarin-speaking, computer-generated, voice-synthesized pop star.
China is the latest market to embrace vocaloids, the most extreme mashup of technology and music.
Although they were developed in Japan and became influential in 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 US$35 billion last year, the media company iQiyi said.
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 existed.
For a flat fee of US$225, creators get audio editing software that can generate songs complete with synthetic human voices.
Yamaha is developing technology to make the voices more life-like and to allow musical expressions unique to vocaloids.
With bright pop tunes, Luo exemplifies the genre. She is 15, with gray hair, green eyes and 5 million followers on Weibo.
Her concerts sell out in minutes, she has sung and danced to Lang Lang’s (郎朗) piano accompaniment, and China Central Television put her in the lineup for its Spring Festival Gala alongside Andy Lau (劉德華) and Andrea Bocelli.
More than one-third of Luo’s fans were 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, while Harper’s Bazaar put her image on the cover of its China edition.
All of this is the work of Shanghai Henian Technology, which is emerging as China’s leading vocaloid impresario, with six performers.
Shanghai Henian used to work 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 has amassed more than 100,000 songs and a wide range of endorsement deals, she offers a window into the potential — and limits — for China’s aspiring stars.
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, Shanghai Henian director of operations Candy Huang said.
“She may be forever 15, but we have to upgrade her to fit changing consumer tastes,” she added.
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