One of the things that’s recently been at the back of my mind is the Gorillaz franchise. I think it’s because it was so ahead of its time – an animated virtual band, with an ongoing story and interactive marketing. It is undoubtedly one of the most successful bands of all time.
That’s why I wanted to discuss their work and kick off my first music-focused post. After all, this is a blog that looks at transmedia storytelling, and that incorporates all manner of mediums – including music. When it comes to virtual bands telling multi-media narratives, Gorillaz is undeniably one of the most impressive out there.
By the end of this post, I hope you’ll have a new appreciation for mixed-reality storytelling, music videos, and immersive marketing. But first, what is a virtual band?
VIRTUAL BANDS: A HISTORY
As a definition, a “virtual band” is simply a band where the core group is animated. Although the term is fairly recent, there is a history of fictional artists – the first of which being 1958’s Alvin and the Chipmunks, which saw three high-pitched chipmunks take America by storm with their gimmick, comics, merchandising, and animated series.
Then of course, you have The Archies with their chart-topper Sugar, Sugar (1969). Yeah, the music video is definitely a product of its time, but it embodied a transmedia spirit. Archie Comics began in the 1930s and was about a group of teens from Riverdale. Later, this would be adapted into The Archie Show, with the music video reaching an audience well beyond the target demo.
Later years saw virtual hits like The Muppets, Crazy Frog, Japan’s Hatsune Miku (Vocaloid), and of course, Gorillaz.
There are incredible benefits to managing a virtual band. But perhaps the biggest, is the ability to control and develop a narrative. It isn’t just about the music; it’s about character and story. Best of all, it allows you to get really creative.
Throughout their tenure, Gorillaz has seen a ton of collaborators across all genres. But at its core, it’s about the animated caricatures performing.
Created by musician Damon Albarn and artist Jamie Hewlett, Gorillaz came about as a commentary on the MTV generation – a parody on their lack of substance. They felt that music was becoming too manufactured, and too connected with the celebrity image. So, they decided that if music is to be manufactured, they would do it from the ground up – that’s how we were introduced to 2-D, Murdoc, Russel, and Noodle (each with a weird and unique backstory.)
These members embodied all aspects from grunge, to Britpop, to Hip-Hop, Trip-Hop, J-Rock, Orchestral, Folk, and even Opera throughout their albums. It was an expert deconstruction of genre, and only accomplished through these caricatures – something debatably impossible with real-life musicians.
Most importantly, these characters •exist•. In the early 2000s they even had appearances beyond their music videos on MTV Cribz, Brit awards, and viral campaigns.
They act like real characters, and have even commented on their own music videos; each of which created an ongoing narrative with phases, and the band adopting new appearances as they “grew up.” As a band, this really celebrates that mixed media aspect that thrives in a transmedia world.
Personally, one of the more interesting campaigns “Free Murdoc,” last year. Where you could actually chat to the then-imprisoned Murdoc Niccals with the goal of helping him escape back to the band. It was one of the most innovative uses of a chatbot I can think of.
But it didn’t stop there. With Murdoc incapacitated, his replacement showed up in Humility. Amazingly, it was none other than Ace – of the Gangreen Gang (y’know, from The Powerpuff Girls.) This got Twitter talking and analysing every aspect of their Humility video to see what was up.
This mixed reality marketing was what hooked me on the band when I was younger, and it’s great to see them continuing this philosophy with new technological innovations, and media campaigns.
It’s not just music, it’s a multimedia experience.
RISE OF THE OGRE
One of the most interesting things about Gorillaz is their surreal narrative. I’m not talking about the real-life story of the band’s creation, but the in-universe story. Their “biography,” celled Rise of the Ogre (2006) offers the fictional details how the band met, their real names, and other details about the mystery characters that make appearances throughout the story.
This immersive narrative is something that continued beyond 2006.
For example, you can detail a chronology of music videos throughout Feel Good Inc. to El Mañana to Stylo to On Melancholy Hill, and beyond. Characters, locations, and stories remain consistent throughout the Gorillaz universe … “Gorillaverse?”
If you just watch the music video from Stylo you may wonder why Noodle’s appearance changed after the events of El Mañana – the last time we saw her; and why there’s a robotic replacement.
If you look beyond the music videos, you discover that Noodle’s replacement (Cyborg Noodle) was created by Murdoc after obtaining her DNA from the crash in El Mañana. This is only stated outside of the music videos.
It’s crazy, sure, but the animated nature of the medium allows for this sort of creativity. This is just one of countless examples where band details are brought up beyond the music videos.
What Gorillaz has accomplished, is creating a world across different platforms. Sure, they’re a band. But music is only one element of their identity, outside of online campaigns, videos, and interviews.
BRAND AMBASSADORS: A Lesson in Avoiding Controversy
One of the most unique aspects of these virtual characters, is that they can operate as influencers as well – virtual influencers. In fact, investors are flocking to the idea.
Recently, we’ve seen characters like “Lil Miquela” gain an instagram following of over 1M, and act as a brand ambassador on behalf as a result. Compare this to our social media influencers, and there’s a lot of upside to this business model – namely control.
It’s no secret that both YouTube and Instagram have dealt with various controversies from some of their most prolific stars. Even video gaming company “Blizzard” got in hot water after a gamer vocally supported the ongoing Hong Kong protests. Following their decision to pull him, they were met with a ton of backlash, and even lost Mitsubishi as a major sponsor.
This story is nothing new. The fact is that there’s an inevitable unpredictability when you entrust your brand in the hands of young influencers. But this is where Virtual Brand Ambassadors come in.
Having control over a character, even making them into an influencer, entirely mitigate this issue. There is no unpredictability, whilst these icons retain their futuristic authenticity.
Naturally, Gorillaz has also had their share of brand marketing. Back in 2016, band member Noodle became Jaguar’s official Global Ambassador – complete with a cool mixed-reality commercial.
With the amount of buzz surrounding mixed reality, AR, and the companies growing weary of distancing themselves from social media drama, a smart virtual approach could be the way to go.
THE SCREEN IS EVERYWHERE
I chose to look at Gorillaz because they were the band that best made use of the multi-platform from the late 90s onwards. There were certainly other virtual bands I was exposed to (like the just-as-animated Crazy Frog) but the ongoing evolution and development of the Gorillaz across mediums and genres was something truly unique.
All major artists have used music videos to directly reach the public. We live in a visual age, and YouTube is perhaps the best platform for viewing these videos before you turn to Amazon, Apple, or Spotify for on-the-go listening.
As I’ve stated before, your phone now gives you access to music, videos, games, social media, and more. Naturally, a virtual creation like Gorillaz can exist seamlessly across these platforms.
Perhaps the only one to surpass them in terms of media integration is Vocaloid – a holographic pop star that’s also appeared throughout apps and video games in their Media Mix market.
Economically, it also makes sense. Through an integrated approach, music videos add to story, market a song, and give people a reason to come back to see what the next development might be – each platform has a unique appeal and adds to the experience.
We haven’t seen a virtual band in a long while, but there’s definitely an opening for something truly innovative flourish.
This is something for producers to consider. Whether you’re involved with the music business, film, television, games, or graphic novels, there are so many avenues for creativity.
How could you ever limit yourself to just one?