Teenage influencer Noonoouri has 400,000 followers on Instagram and has starred in fashion campaigns for Dior, Balenciaga and Valentino. Now, she’s been given a recording contract by Warner Music and is releasing her first single.
If you don’t know who Noonoouri is, you might wonder why I’d be writing about this. But what makes it a first for Warner is the fact that Noonoouri doesn’t exist – she’s a metaverse avatar – and her voice is created by artificial intelligence (AI).
You can take a look at the video here. For a music company like Warner, it’s easy to see the appeal. Noonoouri, the creation of artist Joerg Zuber, won’t get worn out from touring and promoting her music, and she can be restyled in seconds to keep in step with changing teen trends. And if she makes it to superstar status, she won’t start making diva-like demands or demand an enormous pay rise.
While Noonoouri has mostly been silent since her career kicked off in 2018, for the first time, fans can now hear her sing. The voice was created by taking a recording of a real human singer and then using AI to create a voice that is unique to the virtual performer.
More specifically, the technology involved is generative AI. This is a class of AI algorithms that can take data and use it to create something new. It’s the form of AI-powering tools that have taken the world by storm in 2023, like ChatGPT and Stable Diffusion. Only here, instead of creating words or pictures, it’s been used to create a singing voice.
While generative AI tools for creating text and images are widely available, applications are also becoming available for more difficult tasks such as creating videos and music. It doesn’t seem like Warner or Noonoouri’s teams have publicly stated what technology they used - it could be something available to the public, or they could have developed and trained their own AI algorithms for the task.
The song itself, on the other hand, was very much created by humans. Although they don’t appear to be credited, Warner is reported to have said that they will be paid royalties the same as any other songwriter. It also features German producer and DJ Alle Farben.
According to The Telegraph, royalties will be split between Farben, Warner, and the creator.
To me, this marks a natural progression of a trend that's been running through music for some time. AI is routinely used to filter images and create video effects, and singers use Auto-Tune to algorithmically enhance or distort their voices.
Most of us are aware that when we watch a music video, it’s very likely there will be elements that are not exactly real.
Here we are seeing an artist who is not only entirely computer generated – her voice is entirely her own and hasn’t simply been dubbed over by a human actor.
Noonoouri is one of 35 virtual influencers to have been given verified blue check marks on their Instagram account. What’s interesting to me is that virtual celebrities and influencers are being increasingly accepted – perhaps by younger generations in particular – as an everyday part of the digital landscape.
Research is finding that these characters, on average, help brands achieve higher engagement rates versus campaigns where human influencers are used.
However, there are real fears from musicians that the emergence of virtual artists and performers might make it harder for them to earn a living.
In the UK, the Musicians Union has lobbied parliament to create legislation protecting musicians’ copyrights. They are asking for the right to be paid when their work is used to train AI algorithms, as well as the right to prevent it from being used in the first place.
It’s also interesting to see that Noonoouri is pitched as being politically active – she has spoken out on issues including veganism, animal cruelty, anti-racism and LGBT rights.
Which does raise the question of whether or not it’s possible for a computer-generated avatar to be effective in this manner. Can she take mindful actions that further the causes that she claims are close to her digital heart?
Does her effectiveness even stretch to decisions about companies and brands she is associated with in her role as an influencer? Or is she simply paying lip service in order to project the image her creators want the fans to see?
From what I've seen so far, these questions are largely unanswered. What’s certain, however, is that the phenomenon of the “virtual influencer” is unlikely to go away any time soon.
A whole generation is now entering adulthood that never knew the world before the internet. To them, the boundaries between the virtual online world and the physical real world are far less distinct than they are to anyone born before the turn of the century.
Noonoouri may have found her voice, but what I think will be really interesting will be the day she finds her personality. It seems inevitable that one day, she'll be able to make decisions – about her activism or just about her music style – independently of her creator or record label.
In the meantime, I believe we can expect to see many more Noonooris as generation-Z and beyond make it clear that they are just as happy to take fashion and lifestyle advice from AI as they are from any human influencer.