VTubers redefine the music industry as virtual concerts and idols rise up

Andrew Amos
VTubers Nana Asteria and Bao

VTubing is an inherently creative field, so too music. With the two art forms colliding, influences from both sides are transforming their respective mediums as virtual idols come into prominence and new-age stars find innovative ways to express themselves.

Music has always been a big part of Nana Asteria’s life. Growing up she was “the good Asian kid,” she laughed, going to classes and doing all the extra-curriculars attached to that. There was one problem: she was tone deaf.

“I was not a good singer,” she told Dexerto. “My mum was like ‘God why did you give me a daughter who was tone deaf?’

“Even though my mum knew I was tone-deaf she never put me down. She never outright said ‘oh God, you suck’, so I’m very grateful for that.”

Music wasn’t something Nana thought she could make a career out of. Putting her face out there as an artist wasn’t something she was comfortable with. What music was to her was therapy, “something that healed the soul”. 

But then VTubing came around, and everything changed.

Nana Asteria is one of many talented VSingers ⁠— short for virtual singers ⁠— in the VTubing space. The Australian was inspired, and frankly “peer pressured” as she put it, into tipping her toes in the field after seeing her close friends give the medium a try. So she became the song of the galaxy reincarnate, finding a way to channel her passion for music and share it with the world.

It’s important to note VTubing itself arguably evolved from a world of musical performance. Kizuna AI, the mother of the medium, was a virtual performer known for her big pre-produced productions. Covers and karaoke are in the blood of early VTubers, and that has only grown as agencies and independent talents forged their own ecosystem in the musical world.

Milky Queen, a virtual idol herself, has seen that evolution firsthand. Part of the Mai Princess project ⁠— a three-girl group in Japan that debuted in 2018 ⁠— they were pioneers in the field. Milky had no idea what VTubing was originally, but had always been passionate about music.

“I always wanted to be an actress or a singer,” she explained. “I remember drawing pictures of myself on the red carpet, and this is a type of that right? You’re entertaining people, making music, and I feel like it’s the kind of work I’ve always dreamed of doing. 

“I don’t think I took music that seriously until I got really into Japanese music and singing different things, then learning the language so I could sing better. When I started singing in Japanese, I was like ‘I really enjoy doing this, I want to try and make a career out of this.’”

Many might see VTubing as just streaming nowadays with the rise of the medium on Twitch and YouTube. Big agencies like Hololive, NIJISANJI, and VShojo, while they do musical numbers and have talented performers on their books, are streaming-first. It wasn’t always that way though, with short pre-produced videos being the norm originally.

“When it first started out [VTubing] wasn’t streaming,” she explained. “It was more short-form video content and streaming became the main thing VTubers do in 2019-2020. When I started we were making skit videos, like mini anime videos. It’s interesting how it’s evolved.”

As technology evolved though, not only did it level up the live VTubing experience, but also what a virtual idol could feasibly look like beyond the computerized Hatsune Miku. Soon there were music videos, then there were concerts in real life venues accommodating thousands of fans, watching VTubers perform on stage via screen or hologram.

VTuber music, not just VSinging, isn’t some niche insular community either. It’s breaking into the mainstream conscience as idols take over concert halls in Japan and worldwide and record deals are struck ⁠— most notably Hololive’s Mori Calliope signing with Universal Music.

It’s also more vast than just that front performer. There are producers and mixers working on these tracks. Background music for streams is a must, and some have positioned themselves as experts at that in particular, curating soft tunes to add ambiance to a broadcast. Music videos involve animation and editing work.

The crossover between VTubers and the music field is immense, but it exists for a reason. The medium opens up a world of expression never before seen, and now everyone is taking notice.

Using music and VTubing as a means of expression

No matter who you speak to in the VTuber music space, the latter always came first in their life.

“Growing up I would struggle a lot with expressing myself ⁠— something I don’t struggle with anymore but it’s definitely thanks to music,” Sugi Aoki, a woodland dragon VSinger, said. 

“I found it a lot easier to say the things I wanted to say through song. That really gave me the tools to communicate in every single sense. That’s how I learned to speak English and how to convey emotions a lot better.”

Both are a means of communication and expression. Music is a very traditional art form, passed down through centuries with each generation ⁠— and even within a generation ⁠— adding some personal twist to it. It’s used to tell stories, evoke emotion, and as an artistic joy everyone can take part in. 

It gives you the liberty to be yourself, and VTubing affords a very similar ability. It can enhance the musical experience for some creators, who might not be confident showing their face on stage, or even in a video. Hardly anyone has experienced that euphoric feeling more than Bao, a popular whale VTuber known for their music work. Previously under the moniker Hikaru Station, they found success in the mid-2010s YouTube cover era along with plenty of original work, but VTubing leveled up the creativity.

“I think VTubing has opened so many doors for me in terms of creative expression,” she said. “Before I was just a voice online, someone you recognized in a song. But now I’m a personality and that in itself allowed me to fully connect with my base in a way I never could before. Sometimes a song can’t capture everything, so that’s where streaming comes into play.”

“I think the cool thing about VTubing is that it meshes with so many kinds of communities on the internet. The medium itself becoming so accessible allowed a lot of creative people online to fully flesh out their online personas in a way that we’ve never been able to before. Integrating that with content creation as a whole made people realize how limitless VTubing is.”

Everyone has their own perspective on what this creativity can look like. 

It can be a story-building exercise, and you can bend the rules of reality a little bit like Nana Asteria: “VTubing expanded my horizons far more than I could ever do as an IRL person. It allows me to have a sense of anonymity ⁠— and this is breaking the fourth wall here ⁠— but it allows me to be something that I’m not. I’m a song of the galaxy!”

It builds on what was possible in real life, and allows creators to show a different side of themselves: “It’s the most successful people who are the shyest,” Sugi Aoki mused. “It’s great we get to show our full potential because even if I’m shy, I know there’s potential. Before VTubing I would always try a way to do it but it would never be good enough.”

And ultimately there are so many avenues of expression, Milky Queen added, that it’s not just musicians who can take part because of all the moving cogs in this new age industry that fosters previously unimaginable creative expression.

“It’s similar to someone who loves writing ⁠— you can write a story, but you can put in so many creative elements. You’re making music, artwork, videos of your character. There’s so many different areas. People who are good at a very specific thing, or those good at lots of different things, can utilize all those skills. I think that’s one of the reasons why it draws a creative crowd.”

How VTuber music differs from traditional forms

VTuber music isn’t necessarily a genre, but it has its roots and influences.

Some come from Western spaces, branching out into the animated realm. Others are idol fanatics, living out their dreams of being part of a group ⁠— just virtually. The vocaloid and utaite scenes of online Japanese music culture have also played their part, coalescing into one massive amalgamation of talent from various backgrounds, all feeding into a diverse industry.

Within it though, you still have creators making music from every genre under the song, from your pop to your metal and even some EDM thrown into the mix. In that way, VTuber music isn’t so different from what we traditionally know music as. But the sheer diversity of backgrounds, interacting in a homogenous space, makes it special. 

wasi is a music producer who works in the VTuber space. While not a virtual idol himself, he has collaborated with big talents working on the production side, and even handcrafted a few stream background tunes too. He has seen people transition from the vocaloid and utaite spaces into this new one.

Previously, wasi has existed in a very underground scene. People do it for the joy of music, not to really make a living. That commercial viability is now within scope though because of the appreciation of all sides of creative that VTubing spurred on.

“With their team members behind them, VTubers have been able to bring their content to the next level,” he said. “In turn, creators get much-deserved recognition and compensation for their services. Many creatives have been able to turn their hobby into a living through the VTuber community.

“It’s a symbiotic, interdependent, and reciprocal relationship. But with the level of fervor and dedication I see in the community, it’s never purely transactional. So much heart in each and every project, always striving for the highest ⁠— the spirit of VTubing is unquestionably built on the passion and the love for the art.”

The virtual side of things does throw some interesting curveballs into the mix. For starters, it becomes a bit more difficult to hold a physical concert. That’s slowly changing though as idols start creating virtual and real-life sets for themselves to hold live shows in. You don’t have to book out a stadium, but you can invite people onto a VR stream with a manicured stage and your model there, front and center. 

If you have the budget, you can do a full-blown stadium production with holograms and the like. Mostly only major VTuber agencies like Hololive have been able to fully realize this yet, but it is the future ⁠— one that Milky Queen has lived out, performing at a virtual concert in Yokohama, Japan.

They had a holographic stage setup at a VR theater, being on stage as a virtual performer: “The holographic stuff was so cool, and you could combine real people with it. Everyone was standing together. It was an amazing experience to be a part of. 

“I’ve always enjoyed watching VTuber concerts where you can see everyone with their glow sticks in the real space, but then you have the virtual space with the holographic stuff so we can be together there with the audience. It’s a nice combination.”

It’s not just the concerts and lives differentiating VTuber music from other fields. There’s smaller things in just how the community has built itself. The amalgamation of backgrounds and influences affords it the space to collaborate on a truly global scale, but not have to worry about the logistics of being in the studio at the same time.

“I collab with people all over the world and it’s so nice to make friends from all these different places,” Milky Queen continued. “Sometimes I don’t know anyone from a specific country but now I know a VTuber from there! That sharing of cultures is a fun thing, VTubing is so fun from that aspect.”

Ultimately though, it’s music at the end of the day. It’s meant to unite people, and the only major difference ⁠— and it doesn’t even matter too much ⁠— is that it involves a 2D persona.

“VSinging and regular music creation is really only separated by whether or not a persona is involved and if the persona is actually representing a singer or the producer or both,” Bao stated. “I think a lot of people [like utaite on NicoNicoDouga or YouTube] were technically VSingers before the term became popularized.”

The future of VTuber music

For as glorified as the VTuber music space can be, especially when you see big names on big stages, it’s a cutthroat industry. Creatively, people can find their own goals and succeed. But if you want to make a living, it’s a lot more difficult than it looks ⁠— much like any form of content creation.

Indie creators have it even harder without agency backing.

“As an indie, we have part-time jobs or full-time jobs, university, a household to take care of,” Nana Asteria said. “Once you’re under a big corporation it could be considered a full-time job. You have benefits, resources, professional assistance. 

“For indies it’s about time management, knowing the right people to commission for mixes, instrumentals, animators, and sometimes you don’t know. If you’re really shy, it’s hard to reach out. For companies, you have a manager who can help you find these people and make a decision. It’s a lot easier, but it’s not impossible as an indie. I’ve done it, and you just really need to step out of your comfort zone, be willing to make mistakes, and ask for help.”

However the space is only going to keep growing as people outside of the VTuber circle latch onto its potential: “The anime figure, the face, the brand brings it a lot of attention,” she continued. “If done with the right marketing and the huge backing of existing music companies like Universal and Sony, there is huge potential. Companies love that.”

“People are going to realize there is huge potential in entertainers and what they’re doing and it could become something more. There’s a huge cross-cultural market between games, anime, singing, and VTubing which I think is really amazing.”

And as much as singers get the majority of praise in the space, it needs those other helpers behind the scenes like producers and other creatives. That’s a “budding community” right now, wasi says, and it’s only going to get bigger as the projects scale up.

“I get especially excited when they play instruments or produce music on stream,” he said. “I’m also seeing VTubers gradually getting involved in multimedia projects, such as in collaborations with games, anime, and 3D traditional live streamers.”

There are the usual barriers to cross over. There’s the hurdle of getting people to recognize and accept VTubing ⁠— something which is easy to do in the online realm but gets progressively harder the more ‘mainstream’ it becomes. The aforementioned resource struggle is another.

Like it or not though, the VTuber music community is only going to expand as people use the medium as this enhanced form of expression. And truthfully, people don’t get into VTubing or music for the money. It’s all about the art form and bringing joy to others, and that’s all these virtual idols want to do.

“I want to help people feel the way I feel about music,” Sugi Aoki stated. “I remember a couple of months ago talking to someone and they said music didn’t make them feel anything. That was crazy to me. I’ve lived this life, and the way I feel about music I’ve felt that my entire life. 

“But I also want to have a space that’s safe for people. Life is tough and there’s plenty to worry about, so I want a space where people can go and vibe to some music and have fun. It sounds a bit basic, but it’s really all I want. I don’t care for numbers or anything like that. I just care about having a positive space, and everything else will come when I achieve that.”