With over a billion views on TikTok and over half a million monthly listeners on Spotify, FN Meka was a virtual artist / ‘AI rapper’ who seemed to be taking the music world by storm.
After signing a deal with capitol records he was dubbed the “world’s first AI artist to sign with a major label”, only for things to come crashing down days later, after concerns were raised about racial stereotypes, his use of the n word, and him apparently making light of police brutality on his socials.
What appeared on the surface to be a project which was at the forefront of music and technology, instead turned out to be an ill-considered attempt to create a virtual influencer without proper examination of the content being put out there.
In this post we’ll take a look at FN Meka, how he rose in popularity, and how it all went very badly wrong.
Who is FN Meka?
FN Meka exists as a virtual influencer in the same vein as other virtual influencers like Miquela, but he also raps and creates music.
According to a Genius video titled ‘Can A Robot Rapper Make Better Music Than 6ix9ine?‘, FN Meka is an amalgamation of four real-world rappers: IcyNarco, Lil Pump, Trippie Redd, and Tekashi69.
Right off the bat you can see that the visual appearance has been the main focus of the character development, with the character designed to look like an artist from the Soundcloud rap era.
According to the Virtual Humans website he first appeared on the 22nd April, 2019 – waiting 4 months before posting his first Tik Tok video on the 21st August – a delightful video explaining that he has no friends, because he’s ugly and too rich.
In his videos he exudes all the trappings of wealth – fast cars, expensive jewellery, designer clothes. Basically living the life of your everyday rapper, except rather than having to hand the cars back to the rental shop after filming, these ones never actually existed in the first place.
Oh and not to mention his numerous references to crypto, bitcoin and NFT’s thrown in for good measure.
A quick scroll through his videos and you’d be forgiven for thinking that GTA and Fortnite had collaborated on an expansion pack to help reignite their dwindling player base, but no, this is just the crazy world he lives in.
Who created FN Meka?
FN Meka was the brainchild of Anthony Martini and Brandon Le, the cofounders of Factory New, a ‘metaverse media company’ which bills itself as a “next-generation music company, specialising in virtual beings.”
Despite not being able to find many references to ‘factory new’ anywhere outside of their interviews there is plenty of mention of the two co-founders – who actually seem to have a reasonable track record in their respective fields.
Anthony Martini has a long history in the music industry, having previously held a role as CEO of soundexchange, an online music rights royalty place, and is now the Chief Music Officer at Slip.Stream, a music licensing startup.
Brandon Le on the other hand has a background in design, being a concept and visual development artist for AAA game publishers such as Activision Blizzard, EA Games, and Sony.
His brother Chris is the co-founder and creative director of RTFKT, a digital design studio that produces virtual trainers and other metaverse items. RTFKT were bought by Nike and they are sponsors of Factory New.
Together these guys are the driving force behind FN Meka, and their industry experience and connections have no doubt helped the rapper reach the audience that he has, as well as helping them secure the probably lucrative brand partnerships you can see in his videos.
FN Meka plays into the hands of the Tik Tok algorithm, and this is what was responsible for his massive growth. To get to 9 million followers in under a year is a solid achievement.
The fact that virtual influencers are still somewhat of a novelty, combined with his distinctive style helps him to stand apart from the crowd and skyrocketed his growth.
Tik Tok is the main platform that has driven his growth – and it’s from here he pushed to drive engagement across other channels.
Partnering with a virtual rapper, creating music that is powered by AI, with millions of followers must have seemed like too good a deal to pass up.
Enter Capitol records, who must have been seeing dollar signs, and announced the first ever major label signing of a virtual artist. But in the rush to sign FN Meka, it’s starting to look like they might have skipped some of the due diligence you’d expect when making a major signing like this.
Dubious Technology Claims
Even before we get into the bad decisions / offensive behaviour which ultimately brought about the downfall of FN Meka, some of the claims about the artist’s musical background were questionable at least.
Buzzwords like AI, Web3, NFTs, and the metaverse are being used more often in the music industry, and in this instance it looks like it may have been more style than substance when it comes to the technology that powered FN Meka.
In an interview with Music Business Worldwide in April last year, Anthony Martini was asked to explain the basics behind the AI that powered the rapper, and his response was the following:
“We’ve developed a proprietary AI technology that analyzes certain popular songs of a specified genre and generates recommendations for the various elements of song construction: lyrical content, chords, melody, tempo, sounds, etc. We then combine these elements to create the song.”
Music Business Worldwide
It might sound impressive on first read, but it’s actually disconcertingly vague, even for someone with very little understanding of AI this sounds like it’s implementing this technology on a very basic level.
Breaking down what he has said, I’m not even sure the AI is being used to create the music, merely being used to help understand the chords, melodies and tempos being used in popular rap songs. They then combine these elements to create the song.
The whole thing just screams smoke and mirrors, and looks like they are overplaying how much of a role AI actually plays in FN Meka’s output.
There’s probably more going on in the backend that I give them credit for, but I’ve heard the term proprietary used in the wrong way so many times that it just screams suspect.
So the music might not be fully AI, but most rappers aren’t producers, so why does that matter – maybe his voice is the bit that uses AI?
Well the article covers that, stating…
“As of now, a human voice performs the vocals, but we are working towards the ability to have a computer come up with and perform its own words – and even collaborate with other computers as “co-writers”.
Music Business Worldwide
So it’s pretty much other people rapping.
It’s disappointing that they haven’t even attempted to use any form of voice synthesis. This is something that already exists in many shapes and forms to even the average user via different plugins on the market. I’m sure it wouldn’t have been a major leap to work on developing a specifically synthesised voice, but perhaps things moved too quickly and they wanted to get things going while they still had an early mover advantage.
From a label perspective, I’m already seeing a couple of red flags which would make me want to investigate more, especially if I was about to sign this artist, but then again the record label is interested in the final product, not how it was made.
Perhaps AI is just a phrase that’s been easily adopted and the team have just decided to run with it as it makes the whole thing a lot more interesting. You can’t really blame them as ‘AI rapper’ sounds so much better than just ‘animated rapper’.
Even with the potentially misleading marketing hype that surrounded FN Meka, you could see why Capitol would want to sign an artist with tens of millions of Tik Tok followers, and an already established fanbase, there was probably some easy money to be made, as well as all the press that surrounds being ‘first’ in a particular area.
But in the rush to sign him and push that first single out, they failed to spot some of the issues that would come back to bite them in such a speedy and dramatic fashion.
FN Meka might have used some elements of AI to create the music, but ultimately it was a team of humans that was responsible for the content that was being put out.
Some of that content was insensitive or offensive, with the rapper being accused of perpetuating black stereotypes, using racial slurs and posting other offensive content such as distasteful references to police brutality, all despite actually being the work of a non black creative team.
While this behaviour had occurred prior to being signed by Capitol records, it seems that the announcement of the deal was that catalyst that turned the spotlight on the rapper and brought into question how appropriate these behaviours were.
Once he officially entered the music industry in a big way, and crossed over into the culture of hip hop, it highlighted some of the more sensitive topics.
As the activist group Industry Blackout mentioned when calling out Capitol records – Gunna, who appears on the record with FN Meka, is currently incarcerated for using the same language in his songs.
So why were these behaviours not picked up on by the Factory New team, or even capitol records? Well it’s likely that they were discussed, but perhaps not having been met with a large critical backlash on anything that had been done so far was seen by the team & record label as reassurance that nothing was wrong.
Maybe no one even considered that what they were doing was inappropriate in any way, after all, even FN Meka’s life advice is ironically for fans of his to ‘stay woke’.
In the rush to sign the artist and get the media coverage, Capitol Records invited the industry to look a little more closely at what FN Meka was, and the problems that came along with him.
Where does he go from here?
At the time of writing this he has been removed from all DSPs, his Instagram account has been set to private, but his Tik Tok account is up and running (albeit with some of the more offensive videos removed).
The details of the deal with Capitol records are not known, but it’s likely that they have more control over the music, which explains the removal from the streaming services, but the social media accounts are presumably still in the hands of Factory New, who despite calls to remove the profiles and cancel the virtual artist, probably don’t want to kill their Golden Goose just yet.
Instead they might try to ride out the controversy, tidy up some of their previous post history and see where the dust settles at the end of all this. One thing is for sure, with his music career halted he’s going to have to focus a lot more on pushing out those NFTs and brand partnerships in order to make some money.
How does this affect the future of virtual artists?
In many ways Capitol records’ mistake will no doubt speed up the world of virtual artists. As a result of the backlash, many more people are now more aware of them, which will no doubt drive increased interest across the industry.
They will also hopefully be more aware of the pitfalls and mistakes that can be made in this area, hopefully leading to a more thoughtful approach by the teams behind these future artists.
There are many more virtual artists emerging as we speak, and I hope to cover some of these in more detail in a future video.
So that’s the story of FN Meka so far. A virtual artist who rode the coattails of emerging technology to grow a massive following and get signed to a major label, only to see it fall down as a result of the flawed human team behind the scenes.