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The Deals: Avex Invests in ‘Virtual Artist’ Label Spirit Bomb, Quality Control Strikes Gaming Partnership

A roundup of notable music industry deals from the past two weeks, including Avex USA's investment in Spirit Bomb and Quality Control's partnership with XSET.

Avex USA, the U.S. arm of Japanese music company Avex Inc., has invested in Spirit Bomb, a record label and creative studio that develops virtual recording artists in collaboration with real-life creators.

Spirit Bomb comes from Strangeloop Studios, the creative studio that has designed visuals for musicians including The Weeknd, Kendrick Lamar, TOKiMONSTA and Flying Lotus.

The investment by Avex will give Spirit Bomb a footing in the Japanese market, where the label’s brand of pop-oriented, anime-inspired and “dystopian” virtual artists offer an alternative to the type of virtual characters that tend to dominate in the country. The partnership will also allow Spirit Bomb to develop more virtual artists, build out its music catalog and launch immersive content initiatives, including interactive live streams allowing viewers to influence musical performances in real time. Avex has already enabled Spirit Bomb to fully transition into Unreal Engine for all Spirit Bomb content production and live experiences.

Along with its financial investment, Avex will look to integrate its artists and writers into the Spirit Bomb project as  collaborators and music creators.

Artists including Nosaj Thing, Justin Boreta of The Glitch Mob and Huxley Anne are currently working with Strangeloop on future Spirit Bomb releases. Xen, Spirit Bomb’s first virtual artist, has already played high-profile streams including Burning Man’s Infinite Playa event. The label’s debut release was an EP from new character AntiFragile, while a compilation EP featuring several characters and real-life artists is set to drop in April or May.

“The creativity and futuristic vision of Spirit Bomb/Strangeloop have been striking to us since we first met them,” said Avex USA president Naoki Osada. “They are our great friends, we share a similar philosophy about the future of music, and are delighted to now call them business partners. We believe their successful experience with both big pop stars and cutting edge artists will be a strong factor to bring their forward-thinking vision to a mass audience, in both the Japanese and American market.”

“We want Spirit Bomb to be a creative medium for music, art, and stories to get out into the world,” added David Wexler, CCO of Spirit Bomb. “In an ever more crowded virtual world, a lot of music and meaningful content gets lost in the shuffle. Our characters are vessels for music and creative expression, and we want fans to be part of that creative process.”

In his own statement, Spirit Bomb CEO Ian Simon noted that the company previously worked with Avex in L.A. and Tokyo over a period of several years. “We bonded right away over a shared desire to discover the future of music-based media,” he said. “Their unmatched understanding of the Asian market, and their incredible artist relationships, make them a perfect partner for us.”

Spirit Bomb, whose parent Strangeloop Studios took part in the Tech Stars Music accelerator program last year, previously received an investment from Warner Music Group.

Gaming and lifestyle company XSET and QC Holdings, parent company of hip-hop label Quality Control Music and QC Sports, have signed a wide-ranging strategic partnership that includes an investment in XSET by Quality Control.

In the coming months, the two companies will be partnering on initiatives including content creation, music collaborations, joint recruitment and management of new gaming talent, the integration of QC talent into the XSET roster, exclusive music releases, gaming and lifestyle events, merchandise collaborations, music licensing deals with gaming publishers and more.

“We are beyond hyped to join forces with Quality Control,” said XSET CEO and co-founder Greg Selkoe in a statement. “QC are visionaries and early identifiers of the hip hop and gaming revolution. We have enormous respect for them and are thrilled to be able to tap into QC’s incredible creative abilities and business acumen as we continue to grow together. QC meets their audience in the places where they discover music- and gaming is new music’s newest locale. This relationship crystallizes our existing synergies, and synthesizes a brand new creative and artistic medium.”

XSET was formed with a commitment to diversity and equity in gaming, including elevating the representation of communities of color and women in the gaming space.

Added QC founder and CEO Kevin “Coach K” Lee, “We are passionate to help inner city kids to learn about gaming and other options for them in using their time now and careers in the future. It’s about aligning the QC brand that we’ve built in rap with XSET in gaming to create movements for their future in gaming, to go from geeky to cool and open up that industry to black and brown communities.”

Launched in 2013 by Lee and Pierre “Pee” Thomas, Quality Control has launched such hip-hop stars as Lil Baby, Migos, Lil Yachty and Cardi B. Under the partnership with XSET, the company will premiere a short film featuring Atlanta-based pro Fortnite player Ashton “Astonish” Harris, who joins QC Sports and XSET’s roster as a content creator and competitive gamer.

XSET, which was established just six months ago, has already partnered with multiple brands and luminaries from the worlds of music, gaming and sports, including rapper Swae Lee. It additionally backs several top competitive esports teams, including the all-female CS:GO team.

Virtual venue and interactive digital platform Looped announced Tuesday (Mar. 2) that it has closed its seed round, bringing total funding to $7.7 million.

The financing round is led by Will Ventures, with participation from Rocketship VC, Alpaca VC, Forefront Venture Partners, HOF Capital, Toy Ventures, Intuition Capital, Predictive VC, Ketch Ventures and over 90 angel investors including Live Nation Urban president and Maverick Management partner Shawn Gee, Blueprint Group co-CEOs and Maverick Management partners Gee Roberson and Cortez “Tez” Bryant and singer-songwriter Jill Scott.

“In a crowded virtual venue market, Looped clearly stands out from the pack,” said Will Ventures managing partner Brian Reilly in a statement. “Their focus on product innovation sets them apart, and it’s enabled them to establish industry-leading talent, partners, and traction. Their products will change how creators engage with their fans by increasing access and facilitating authentic connections. We’re excited to support Looped in their mission to bring creators closer to their fans all over the world.”

Launched in Oct. 2019, Looped enhances the interactive fan experience with real-time widgets including merch, polling, games and one-on-one video chats with creators. Since launch, the platform has hosted virtual events for such A-list artists as Billie Eilish, Shawn Mendes, BTS and Dua Lipa.

Compton-based rapper and singer Kalan.FrFr and his label First Class Entertainment have signed a partnership with Roc Nation.

Under the deal, Kalan will release his debut album TwoFr 2 on Mar. 12. The album is a sequel to the 2018 mixtape TwoFr, which featured such tracks as “Fine Ass” and “Naked.”

Kalan recently hit No. 10 on Billboard’s Top L.A. Emerging R&B/Hip-Hop L.A. Artists 2021 chart. Last year, YG hopped on a remix of his track “Right Wit It.”

TwoFr 2 track “Scoring” recently earned airtime during a Los Angeles Lakers NBA playoff game last fall and is currently impacting urban radio. Another track, “Get In,” features Stunna 4 Vegas, while “No Love” features Mozzy and Cypress Moreno.

Sony Music Middle East has signed a recording, licensing and distribution deal with Egyptian artist, producer and TV personality Hamaki. Under the agreement, Hamaki will release multiple singles and an album in 2021.

The company has additionally reached a multi-year, multi-artist production agreement with Arabic music producer Hamdy Badr and his Cairo-based production company Craft Media. Badr, who works at Hamaki’s music producer, will help scale Egyptian pop music via multiple projects with both established and emerging talent under the deal.

In the Arab world, Hamaki is known for hits include “Rasmak fi khayali,” “Kol youm men da,” “Ya Sattar,” “Oddam El Nas,” “Mel Bedaya” and “Wahda Wahda.” Also a TV personality, he served as a coach on Season 5 of The Voice Arabia and The Voice Kids.

Founded in 2003, Craft Media has worked to launch such Egyptian music stars as Hamaki, Maya Diab, Pousi and Mahmoud Al Lethy and produced Middle Eastern iterations of TV shows including The Voice and The Masked Singer.

Motown Gospel has signed singer-songwriter Kelly Price in a joint venture with Price’s Sang Girl! Inc. Her new EP, Grace, is due on Apr. 2.

Price’s 2006 album, This Is Who I Am, hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Gospel Albums chart and broke the top 10 of the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart. She has been nominated for a total of nine Grammys.

Digital distributor DistroKid has partnered with Twitch to offer qualifying DistroKid members “who have shown a level of dedication and success in music” the opportunity to join the Twitch Affiliate Program.

The Twitch Affiliate Program, which is open to Twitch streamers who meet specific qualifications, allows affiliates to build a community and earn an income on the Twitch platform. According to a blog post, “DistroKid worked with Twitch to extend their Affiliate qualifications to recognize the work that DistroKid members have put into creating music & building fans across music streaming services.”

Twitch affiliates have the ability to earn money on the platform via channel subscriptions, ads and virtual goods known as Bits.

Texas-based country artist Sammy Sadler has signed with BFD/Audium Nashville. Sadler’s forthcoming album, which is slated for May 7, will be preceded by singles including a cover of “Church On The Cumberland Road” feat. Shenandoah’s Marty Raybon.

In 1989, Sadler – then on the cusp of releasing his debut album – was injured in the incident known as “Murder on Music Row,” during which a gunman shot and killed Cash Box magazine chart director Kevin Hughes. After taking a decade to heal both physically and mentally, Sadler released a string of albums, toured across the U.S. and released a book about his experiences.

“Sammy Sadler is one of Country music’s greatest discovered/undiscovered gems,” said Chuck Rhodes, general manager, BFD/Audium Nashville. “Crystal clear vocals and a dynamic entertainer, Sammy has partnered with some of Nashville’s greatest Country legends for his newest project 1989 chronicling hits from the year he survived the ‘Murder On Music Row.’ I am so proud to be connected again with Sammy in 2021 and cannot wait for Country music fans far and wide to experience this amazing album.”

Sadler has additionally signed with 117 Publicity and Platinum Circle Media for publicity and digital, respectively.

Keep Cool/RCA Records has signed singer-songwriter Marzz, whose debut track “So Frequently” was recently released. Superstar producer Timbaland discovered Marzz after catching wind of her freestyles and covers of songs by artists including Teyana Taylor and Ella Mai.

According to a release, the video for “So Frequently,” directed by Mahaneela and animated by Robin Eisenberg, “pays homage to Marzz’s love for anime while reflecting on the memories of a former girlfriend. The rising star proudly embraces her sexuality, once hidden due to her religious upbringing, hoping to extend her message of love and acceptance to those struggling with their true identities.”