In June, Chinese pop-punk singer Wowkie Zhang released a music video where he encounters a virtual character in a hyper-colored and animated world reminiscent of Pixar films. The avatar, sporting Gen-Z-style silver hair, an oversized yellow and black sweatshirt, and baggy pants, does hip-hop moves to Zhang’s catchy, lighthearted tune.
The virtual character is not a unique creation; instead, Zebra Labs, which produced the video, turns it into a reusable piece of intellectual property that can be purchased as NFTs in marketplaces and appear in other virtual occasions like video games. The startup is waiting for the bull market to return to launch the NFT project, Scarlett Li, founder and CEO of Zebra Labs, tells TechCrunch.
Zebra Labs’ goal is to “create intellectual property deeply embedded in content” and “run virtual idols like celebrities,” Li says. Some of the avatars he creates are based on real stars, while others are original characters. To generate revenue, Zebra Labs cultivates a following for its idols through short films, pictures and social posts and in turn monetizes the fan base. He also licenses his virtual idols to partners for a fee.
Here’s Zebra Labs trying to build a fan base for Zookie, who makes an appearance in Wowkie Zhang’s music video, by producing Douyin (Chinese version of TikTok) clips of the character:
NFT, which is already widely used to authenticate intellectual property rights, can be used to better engage fans, believes Li, who previously helped organize some of China’s biggest music festivals. “When you hit 30, you lose interest in exploring music, so a virtual environment can jump-start the viewing [of music] Again.”
NFTs also offer emerging musicians a more direct source of income. In China, music distribution is in the grip of music streaming giants owned by Tencent and NetEase. These platforms tend to allocate user traffic to musicians who already have a lot of fans, “so to live well as a musician, you need to have a million followers,” Li says. “NFTs can change that.”
As a music festival veteran, Li is excited about the prospect of online concerts. It compares to Ariana Grande’s Fornite concert, in which the singer descends into a colorful island in her virtual manifestation with a shimmering silver dress and a dazzling white ponytail. Zebra Labs is in talks with several game companies to launch virtual concerts for Chinese artists in a Minecraft-like game and metaverse platform by 2023, Li said.
Zebra Labs recently raised $5 million to advance its vision for the metaverse. Funding came from Chinese gaming company NetDragon and Japanese conglomerate Sumitomo. Bringing in a Japanese investor, Li says, can help the startup learn from the country’s long history of intellectual property management, exemplified by the success of virtual idols like Hatsune Miku. The company is also backed by SOSV, the venture capital firm known for its network of accelerators.
Following its collaboration with Wowkie Zhang’s music video, which garnered some 40 million clicks across an array of online channels, Zebra Labs has five more artists in the works. It also plans to release a digital twin of Zhang by Q1 2023.