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Zebra Labs Raises $5 Million to Help Chinese Celebrities Enter the Metaverse • TechCrunch

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In June, Chinese pop-punk singer Woky Zhang released a music video in which he meets a virtual character in a hyper-colored animated world reminiscent of Pixar films. With silver Gen-Z hair, a yellow and black sports jockstrap, and baggy pants, the avatar is belting out hip-hop to Zhang’s light tunes.

A virtual character is not a disposable creation; instead, Zebra Labs, which created the video, is turning it into reusable intellectual property that can be bought as NFTs in markets and appear in other virtual instances like video games. The startup is waiting for the return of the bull market to launch the NFT project, Scarlett Lee, founder and CEO of Zebra Labs, tells TechCrunch.

Zebra Labs’ goal is to “create intellectual property that is deeply integrated with content” and “manage virtual idols like celebrities,” Lee says. Some of the avatars he creates are based on real-life stars, while others are original characters. To generate revenue, Zebra Labs cultivates an audience for its idols through short films, images, and social media posts, and in turn monetizes the fan base. He also gives paid licenses to his virtual idols to partners.

Li, who previously helped organize some of China’s biggest music festivals, believes that NFT, which is already widely used to authenticate IP rights, could be used to better engage fans. “When you reach 30, you lose interest in learning music, so a virtual environment can encourage visualization [of music] again.”

NFTs also give aspiring musicians a more direct path to profit. In China, music distribution is dominated by music streaming giants owned by Tencent and NetEase. These platforms tend to distribute user traffic to musicians who already have a large following, “so to make a good living as a musician, you have to have a million followers,” Lee says. “NFTs can change that.”

As a veteran of music festivals, Lee is excited about the prospect of online concerts. She has been compared to Ariana Grande Fortnite concert, in which the singer descends on the picturesque island in a virtual manifestation of herself, complete with a shimmering silver dress and sparkling white ponytail. Zebra Labs is in talks with several game firms to launch virtual concerts for Chinese artists in a Minecraft-like game and meta universe platform by 2023, Li says.

Zebra Labs recently raised $5 million to advance its vision of a metaverse. The funding came from Chinese gaming company NetDragon and Japanese conglomerate Sumitomo. Bringing in a Japanese investor, Lee said, could help the startup learn from the country’s long history of IP management, exemplified by the success of virtual idols such as Hatsune Miku. The company is also backed by SOSV, a VC firm known for its accelerator network.

Following the collaboration with Vokey Zhang’s music video, which has garnered nearly 40 million hits on various online channels, Zebra Labs has five other artists. It also plans to release Zhang’s digital doppelganger by the first quarter of 2023.

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