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Hello, and welcome to Protocol Entertainment, your guide to the business of the gaming and media industries. This Thursday, we explore what went wrong with Capitol Records’ first AI rapper, and how “House of the Dragon” fared with viewers. Also: Zuckerberg gets a makeover.
The problem with virtual pop stars
Talk about 15 minutes of fame: Earlier this month, Capitol Records signed its first virtual being as an artist. FN Meka was hailed as a virtual rap star, who had amassed more than 10 million followers on TikTok.
FN Meka also had a history of using the N-Word in lyrics, and the character has been portrayed as a victim of police brutality. Activists were not amused and called for Capitol Records to terminate the partnership.
- “We find fault in the lack of awareness in how offensive this caricature is,” wrote entertainment industry activist group Industry Blackout on Twitter. “It is a direct insult to the Black community and our culture.”
- Industry Blackout took issue with what it called “an amalgamation of gross stereotypes” and “appropriative mannerisms.”
- Capitol Records responded swiftly, dropping FN Meka just hours later.
- “We offer our deepest apologies for our insensitivity in signing this project,” the label said in a public statement.
FN Meka is the creation of Factory New. The company bills itself as a virtual record label, and it defended the CGI rapper following the uproar.
- Company founder Anthony Martini told The New York Times that the whole controversy was due to “blogs that have latched onto a clickbait headline and created this narrative.”
- He also said the team behind Meka was “one of the most diverse teams you can get,” with him being the only white guy involved.
- Martini didn’t share any further details on that team, but claimed that Meka was actually the avatar for an unnamed human rapper, adding: “He’s a Black guy.”
That’s notably different from the way Meka has been portrayed in the past. Earlier this year, when the virtual rapper was first making headlines, Martini told Music Business Worldwide that he was very much the product of artificial intelligence.
- “He was created using thousands of data points compiled from video games and social media,” Martini told the publication at the time.
- Martini did admit there was some human involvement. “As of now, a human voice performs the vocals, but we are working towards the ability to have a computer come up with and perform its own words,” he said.
- Jacques Morel from Genius.com did a lot of digging to find out who that mystery rapper behind FN Meka is, and repeatedly pressed Factory New execs for answers.
- The result: FN Meka’s lyrics are being performed by Kyle the Hooligan, according to Morel.
Anonymous artists are nothing new. There’s a long history of artists performing masked or in disguise, for example Deadmau5, Daft Punk and Gorillaz.
- And then there are Vtubers, animated avatars often powered by motion capture, who have given rise to a whole new cast of anonymous creators that perform characters on Twitch and other platforms.
- Using AR or advanced real-time animation as a similar cloak is just the logical next step for recording artists.
- However, FN Meka wasn’t meant to be an alter ego for Kyle the Hooligan, but rather a star of his own, and that’s where things get dicey — especially because of the lack of transparency behind the project.
- That would have been true even if FN Meka hadn’t dropped the N-word, or wasn’t designed to depict a Black rapper.
- Virtual beings aren’t acting in a cultural vacuum, and the people behind them need to be transparent about their involvement and intentions.
- Here’s how Dudley Nevill-Spencer from the Virtual Influencer Agency put it in an interview with Morel: “If you have an avatar of a 50-year-old man, and that avatar pretends to be a 12-year-old girl — that’s a real problem.”
The lesson here: Technology can’t be an excuse for ignorance. That’s especially true if the tech is not actually all that impressive, as music tech blogger Cherie Hu pointed out on Twitter this week. “Let’s be clear: FN Meka was never an ‘AI’ rapper,” Hu wrote. “The persona’s creative direction is still a manual process with clearly biased humans behind the scenes, and behind the cloak of ‘AI rapper’ they probably thought they could get away with absolving responsibility to The Algorithm.”
— Janko Roettgers
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Dragons are working for HBO
The premiere of the “Game of Thrones” prequel “House of the Dragon” has been a huge success for HBO, according to both the network itself and third-party data.
- The first episode of the show was viewed by close to 10 million people, according to WarnerMedia numbers.
- That makes it the biggest series premiere for the network ever. The premiere of “Game of Thrones” itself was only seen by around 4 million people.
- Part of this is due to the fact that “Game of Thrones” became more popular over time; the show’s most popular episode ever — the premiere of season eight — was watched by close to 18 million people.
- However, “House of the Dragon” also benefits from HBO Max’s growing international footprint. The streaming service is now available in 61 countries and territories, including much of Europe.
- Warner Bros. Discovery stopped breaking out HBO subscribers when it posted its first earnings report as a newly merged company earlier this month, but HBO and HBO Max had a combined 76.8 million subscribers earlier this year.
U.S. viewers love dragons, too. We don’t know how much all those new international subscribers contributed to the show’s success, but data from Samba indicates the premiere was a big success with domestic audiences as well.
- The episode was seen by 2.6 million U.S. households across cable and streaming within the first six hours of its premiere, according to Samba, making it the most popular premiere of any show this year.
- That’s more than double the audience that Netflix was able to attract for the season four premiere of “Stranger Things.” That show was seen by 1.2 million U.S. households within 24 hours, according to Samba.
- “The next challenge, and the real opportunity for HBO in the coming weeks, is to expand viewership beyond the passionate built-in fan base,” said Samba CEO Ashwin Navin.
— Janko Roettgers
In other news
Microsoft paid a healthy sum for a Game Pass deal. In a Polish regulatory filing spotted by Twisted Voxel, Microsoft reportedly paid $600,000 to bring developer Big Cheese Studio’s Cooking Simulator to its Xbox Game Pass subscription platform.
YouTube Shorts are coming to smart TVs. YouTube wants to take on TikTok in the living room, where the Chinese video service has been slow to find an audience.
Bungie’s live service epic Destiny is nearing its end. Bungie detailed the second-to-last expansion for the game on Tuesday, bringing the nearly decade-old franchise one step closer to its narrative conclusion. The studio hasn’t disclosed next steps for Destiny after that.
Plex has been hacked. The media center app maker forced all of its users to reset their passwords after hackers gained access to its servers.
Phil Spencer claims exclusives are fading. The Microsoft Gaming CEO spoke to Bloomberg this week, saying that he “feels good” about the progress being made on the Activision deal. He also said console exclusivity “is something we’re just going to see less and less of.”
Why YouTube has been making its own chips. All those videos we all upload to YouTube every day are being converted by the service’s own VCU chipsets.
Sony’s next VR headset will be released in early 2023. The bad news: You won’t be able to buy a PSVR2 in time for the holidays. The good news: You’ll have a few more months trying to get a PS5, which is necessary to use the PSVR2.
NBC shows are moving from Hulu to Peacock. New episodes of shows like “Law & Order” and “The Voice” will become available on Peacock the day after they air on NBC starting next month.
Remember that brouhaha about Mark Zuckerberg’s VR avatar? After posting a selfie from Meta’s Horizon Worlds service that made Zuckerberg admittedly look a bit like a Mii character, and the inevitable online backlash, Meta’s chief exec returned with a much more detailed rendition. As Nick noted earlier this week, the do-over didn’t exactly placate Meta’s critics.
Still, I can’t be the only one who has been wondering about the backstory behind Zuck 2.0. Luckily, one of his employees took to LinkedIn this week to share the backstory, revealing that it took four weeks and 40 iterations to create the new Zuckerberg avatar. “Mark liked it enough to post it! Could not be more stoked,” wrote the character artist behind the creation. The feeling was apparently not mutual at Meta, as the post has since disappeared from LinkedIn. Perhaps we’ll get a behind-the-scenes story for Zuck 3.0?
— Janko Roettgers
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