Business

WMG Partners With Genies to Turn Artists Into Avatars & Sell NFT Gear

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Music fans will soon be able to interact virtually with avatar versions of their favorite Warner Music Group artists, thanks to the music company's new global partnership with avatar technology company Genies, announced today (April 30).

Founded in 2017, Genies has already created avatars for the likes of Cardi B (of WMG's Atlantic Records), J Balvin, Rihanna and Justin Bieber. Genies users can create their own customizable avatars, too, and deploy them in social media platforms through Genies' partnership with Giphy.

Under the new pact, WMG will not only develop avatars for some of the artists on its roster, which includes superstars like Dua Lipa, Ed Sheeran and Bruno Mars, but also artist-branded digital wearable NFTs -- like clothing, accessories and tattoos -- for users to purchase and "wear." The items will be sold through a new Genies NFT marketplace in partnership with blockchain technology company Dapper Labs; the makers of NBA Top Shot, in which WMG is also invested.

"We think about engagement as being live, synchronous, video-based and moving away from [social media] handles into avatar creation, where people can reimagine themselves and engage in more personalized ways," WMG chief digital officer & executive vp of business development Oana Ruxandra tells Billboard. "Avatars are a key part of that interaction, so we’re really excited about the Genies opportunity."

Ruxandra adds that as with many emerging technologies -- from livestreaming to NFTs -- the pandemic has accelerated both fans' and artists' interest in the avatar market, transforming what was once a futuristic niche into a viable and exciting offering for the masses. "It’s really gratifying to see fans digging in, artists digging in, and really starting to get this new way of engaging with each other," she says.

Genies' NFT platform with Dapper Labs was announced earlier this week and will launch this summer. The space has already shown promise: Back in February, Shawn Mendes partnered with Genies to sell more than $380,000 worth of digital wearable NFTs on the marketplace OpenSea including a vest and guitar, donating his share to his charitable foundation. In addition to monetizing through wearable NFTs, artists can also sign brand endorsement deals for their avatars.

Genies takes a cut of sales, the exact percentage of which is unknown. Ruxandra declined to specify, saying only that "Our primary focus is always to ensure that our artists are monetizing, and that we’re driving real value for them."

The avatars are also intended to generate indirect revenue for artists by allowing for more creative expression and deepening their interactions with fans.

"Both music and avatars provide humans with the ability to fully express their authentic personalities," Genies CEO Akash Nigam says. "Cultural icons and figures are some of the most expressive people on earth and they should not be constrained by real world limitations. This partnership allows the leaders of culture to fully immerse themselves into the fantastical realm of the metaverse and build new, direct, and authentic connections."

Ruxandra can't yet quantify the exact number of WMG artists who will be avatar-ized, but says that "it's significant." "We're not just throwing a character up on a screen and calling it a day," she adds. "We will be talking to artists, and the ones that engage and really lean forward, we’ll prioritize them."

The investment is a forward-thinking move for WMG that already fits well into the company's other investments. Avatars are a prerequisite to the metaverse, the concept of a shared virtual world which technology leaders have predicted for decades. And it's easy to see how avatars could be applied to other emerging and popular technologies, including not just NFTs but also the world of gaming. WMG is also an investor in online game platform Roblox, where Lil Nas X performed in avatar form and sold digital goods for an audience of 33 million players in November.

Up next? Artists who are entirely virtual. WMG is an investor in Spirit Bomb, a new record label from the team behind media production company Strangeloop Studios which is creating a roster of entirely virtual artists from scratch.

"When I think about these things, none of them are ever separate," Ruxandra says. "It’s all an ecosystem that we’re trying to build."