K-pop labels embrace virtual stars and pursue metaverses to extend their artists' online reach

K-pop group NCT 127 will be taking part in NCT Metaverse events, including what appears to be an augmented reality concert and an online exhibition.
SM Entertainment

K-pop has a reputation for being futuristic at times, and the South Korean entertainment industry’s dedication to innovation is taking things to the next level with growing interest in hooking K-pop to trending technologies such as NFTs, metaverses and cryptocurrency.

Whether it’s A.C.E and BTS’ company Hybe launching NFT merchandise lines, or SM Entertainment pushing forward with plans to integrate its content in a metaverse, or reports of K-pop-themed cryptocurrencies, these are some of the biggest K-pop trends of 2021

The buzziest one of the moment by far is metaverses. With Facebook renaming itself “Meta” last month, the idea of blending digital spaces with offline ones in a virtual environment is everywhere.

A metaverse is essentially a way to make digital environments emulate the physical world, and often incorporates 3D virtual spaces and augmented reality functions.

K-pop group A.C.E launched an NFT merchandise line. PHOTO: Beat Interactive

Businesses and parts of the South Korean government are looking at creating metaverses; this summer saw banks in South Korea invest in metaverse asset funds and the country’s Ministry of Science and ICT earmark trillions of won to foster tech ventures including metaverses.

Millions of South Koreans invested in digital land grabs in metaverses.

In early November, the Seoul city government also announced plans for its own metaverse elements.

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In entertainment, augmented and virtual reality and artificial intelligence have taken off in a big way during the pandemic, with numerous new ventures for K-pop companies, especially online concerts and virtual fan engagement events.

A mainstay of K-pop’s push into metaverses is the growth of virtual performances and performers, which may seem like a new thing but dates back nearly two decades: A cyber singer known as Adam was created and released the album No Love Like This in 1998.

Numerous other digital performers have popped up in recent years, such as the popular League of Legends tie-in girl group K/DA, who is voiced by a variety of pop artists including K-pop stars, and this year’s virtual girl group Eternity.

In March, Blackpink’s virtual avatars held a fan event in the avatar-based social media network, and 46 million users reportedly attended the event to receive digital autographs from the group.

The following month, SK Telecom launched its “K-pop Metaverse Project” on its augmented reality app Jump AR, which enabled fans to create their own music videos based on girl group Weeekly’s music and dances. The group also hosted a virtual “face-to-face” event in May.

Aespa with their virtual “ae” counterparts. PHOTO: SM Entertainment

SM Entertainment, home to popular K-pop groups including NCT, Exo, Red Velvet and WayV, has been pursuing the idea of a metaverse on a massive scale, centred largely around girl group Aespa and artist-to-fan engagement.

At the end of last year, SM launched Aespa, which featured four members who each have their own virtual counterpart serving as a group member as well.

Known as “ae”, these virtual “members” frequently appear in Aespa’s music videos and performances, and are part of SM’s attempt to create a cross-media creative universe, known as the SMCU, which will play a role in its metaverse.

The cross-platform metaverse engagement focuses heavily on the financial well-being of SM’s subsidiary Dear U software company, which Korean media reported attracted around US$14.5 billion (S$19.6 billion) in deposits during its IPO this week.

Dear U operates a popular celebrity-to-fan app known as Bubble, which many K-pop acts use to contact fans. It has proven to be lucrative, as fans have to pay for access to individual stars’ conversations.

As of August, it had over 1.2 million subscribers. Along with SM, other K-pop companies, including JYP Entertainment, have sizeable stakes in Dear U.

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SM is also working with South Korean technology giant LG’s U+Dive and Idol Live apps to create NCT Metaverse events, including what appears to be an augmented reality concert and an online exhibition.

Though SM has taken the most meaningful steps towards creating its own metaverse, it’s far from the only K-pop company going down that road.

Hybe, the company behind BTS, Tomorrow X Together, and other K-pop groups, has also created a popular space for fans and celebrities to chat with one another, Weverse.

Along with its communication function, Weverse also operates as a shop and a magazine.

Is a metaverse on Hybe’s mind? The company hasn’t announced anything at the moment, but one of its investors has: Netmarble, which owns a sizeable share of Hybe, is developing a virtual girl group named Mave through its subsidiary, Metaverse Entertainment.

Metaverse Entertainment’s website homepage. PHOTO: Metaverse Entertainment

Mave will be created in partnership with Kakao Entertainment, a subsidiary of communications giant Kakao Group and the owner of Melon, South Korea’s most popular music streaming service.

On Nov 12, another virtual star, Yuna, will launch with her own NFT sale, through which people can purchase 10,000 limited edition and unique NFT illustrations of the singer, who is said to be “the metaverse’s first ever virtual K-pop artist”, although it is unclear how the company, Humap, differentiates Yuna from other such artists.

According to Seoul Stars, the project Yuna is part of, these early NFTs will yield royalties from Yuna’s upcoming albums, concerts and sponsorships, while NFT owners will have access to private performances and even have input into the creation of Yuna’s songs.

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This article was first published in South China Morning Post.