Before anyone knew it, it was mid-September.
Newcomer status only lasted for a year. After the new season of the new talent contest that kicked off in June, Fang Zhao had disappeared from the newcomers’ chart for nearly a season. The chart was filled with new songs. Last season’s entries were replaced by new singles.
Nonetheless, leading the charts were still the two virtual idols, Xun Huai and Fei Lisi. They just swapped their previous songs for new ones.
Fang Zhao had long been forgotten. Perhaps some still remembered that hit song from last season, the dark horse that emerged toward the end of the season, but the internet suffered from amnesia. In an era of a rapid change, memories were shortened, and the masses were at the mercy of the constant influx of new things.
Fang Zhao sat in the huge terraced auditorium listening to the lecturer outline the evolution of virtual idols and offer insight into the charisma of hit virtual idols.
"Virtual reality is an art. By expanding reality with virtual imagination, the real and the virtual feed off each other…"
The classroom with a capacity of several thousand was sparsely filled, only about a tenth full.
Fang Zhao jotted notes by hand on his notebook. He stayed away from electronic gadgets.
A few of the students in the classroom recognized Fang Zhao. As a distinguished alum, he was a regular topic on internal message boards. Some of the students who didn’t know the full story were wondering why he was auditing the class. When they were told the reason by fellow classmates, they felt bad for him and threw him sympathetic glances.
To imagine what other outstanding alums from his class were up to and contrast that to Fang Zhao auditing an unpopular class by his lonesome self—what could they say? However talented he was, he couldn’t stave off a formidable streak of bad luck. It really was such a pity.
After the class ended, the students departed in groups of two or three. Fang Zhao also collected his belongings and was planning to head back to the office.
"Fang Zhao." Chu Hong approached from the lectern and interrupted Fang Zhao.
"Are you able to follow my lectures?" Chu Hong asked. He wasn’t being patronizing. It was just that he knew that his class was quite off-beat, plus Fang Zhao had never completed coursework on virtual idols before. He wasn’t sure if he was going too fast for Fang Zhao. Chu Guang had briefed him on Fang Zhao. He had to at least make a gesture.
"I’m OK," Fang Zhao responded. In fact, he had already covered the bulk of Chu Hong’s lectures in online classes. He was auditing to get more insight.
"Feel free to ask me any questions. I heard from Chu Guang that you’ve been busy with your virtual idol project. How is it coming along?" Chu Hong asked.
"Not bad. We’re almost done."
"Good to hear."
Chu Hong held back. In any case, he wouldn’t get too many answers if he probed. Projects like this were confidential and couldn’t be shared with outsiders, so Chu Hong didn’t ask specific questions about his progress. He just asked Fang Zhao if he wanted general pointers from a scholar who specialized on the topic and shared thoughts on what stood out about the hit virtual idols of the day.
"Virtual idols these days, first and foremost, they have to be good-looking. That’s basic. You’re aware of this, right?"
"Yes, of course." Fang Zhao nodded.
"Then what does your virtual idol look like?" Chu Hong was quite curious what a virtual idol designed by an outsider, a composition major, would look like.
"Can’t say it’s good-looking," Fang Zhao responded.
If he was being so diplomatic, that meant it was ugly. Chu Hong was troubled. If even its looks were in question, what could he do to help?
When Fang Zhao left, Chu Hong sent Chu Guang a text message. "That classmate of yours, Fang Zhao. How’s his virtual project idol coming along? Have you seen what it looks like?"
Chu Guang happened to be free, so he initiated a videoconference when he saw the message.
"I heard the project is almost done and the virtual idol may be launched soon. As for what it looks like, I haven’t seen it. Boss Du has been quite vigilant about keeping it under wraps and won’t entertain questions about it," Chu Guang said.
"Then it probably won’t end well." Recalling that Fang Zhao had said the virtual idol wasn’t good-looking and considering he was a producer new to virtual idols, Chu Hong wasn’t optimistic.
"People within the company aren’t bullish either, but Boss Du has been acting weird. He’s often holed up in his office with two other department heads. Their discussions can last two or three hours."
"Regardless of what they’re up to, you should be preparing your song for the last season, no? I heard from your mother that she hired her old teacher to tutor you. This one should take the No. 3 spot, no? Just yesterday, your mother was complaining that, if not for the two virtual idols, you’d be shooting for the top spot." Chu Hong smiled.
Chu Guang responded in a relaxed tone, "No. 3 shouldn’t be a problem."
It wasn’t just Chu Guang. Everyone else in the industry was paying close attention to the final season of the year.
The final season of the year was about to kick off. Singers that had done well in the three previous seasons were eyeing a good finish to the year. A strong finish on the New Pioneers Chart in the final season could translate to a higher end-of-year bonus.
A rough pecking order had been determined by the preceding seasons and the major labels had reallocated their budgets accordingly. The top performers saw their marketing budgets beefed up and the underperformers received less backing.
Both Neon Culture and Tongshan True Entertainment were planning on giving their virtual idols an extra push in the final season. Their first movies were coming out and promotional campaigns were already under way. All eyes were on the final battle.
Even the popular webcast "Prairie Fire" had proclaimed that the final season was a duel between Tongshan True Entertainment and Neon Culture. Which of the two virtual idol newcomers—Xun Huai or Fei Lisi—would claim final victory?
The program had coined the phrase "Yanzhou Derby," suggesting a clash of titans between Yanzhou’s two strongest entertainment companies.
But Silver Wing supporters went "hehe" when they saw the phrase.
What about us?
So the so-called "Big Three" of Yanzhou was just bullshit? Had Silver Wing disappeared?
Under fierce attack from Silver Wing supporters, the pundits explained that "Yanzhou Derby" referred to the two Yanzhou labels that produced the best virtual idols, nothing more.
But anyone with a brain would realize that it was an intentional slight. The phrase would suggest to the ordinary masses who didn’t know the industry well that the only major record labels in Yanzhou were Neon Culture and Tongshan True Entertainment.
But there wasn’t much Silver Wing could do. Virtual idols were indeed their Achilles’ heel—and it was a brutal wound that bled badly.
Some media outlets even started a bet called "Eye on Yanzhou Derby," encouraging punters to submit their picks for the top spot on the year-end new talent chart.
As the buzz around the contest heated up, the two major virtual idol newcomers, Xun Huai and Fei Lisi, saw their stock rise even further, just as their companies had expected.
Amid a sea of speculation from industry insiders and outsiders, September passed and October loomed. The final season of the year was about to begin.
Without any warning or advance advertising, Julian launched a full-court press when the clock struck 8.
The newcomers were ranked according to marketing budget. At the outset, they all received the same backing and were launched in no specific order—whoever was ready first debuted first. After taking part in the new talent contest, budgets were allocated based on performance and by company discretion. The better your prospects, the more exposure you got.
The priority list for the final season of the new talent contest:
No. 1: "Divine Punishment," performed by Polar Light, composer Polar Light.
No. 2: "The Lavish Dance," performed by Enoch, composer Chu Guang.
Chu Guang was dumbfounded when he saw the list. This was not what had been discussed. How come he was ranked second? His main competitor, Rong Zheng, was pushed to No. 3.
Where did No. 1 come from?
How did it merit the top spot?
Who was Polar Light? At first glance, he thought there was a typo in the top spot.
Chu Guang was even more pissed off when he saw the "music video" label after "Divine Punishment." He thought only he and Rong Zheng were given the music video treatment, because they did well in the previous season. How come this newbie who parachuted in got a music video?
Then he noticed the singer and composer were the same, and factored in the music video…
It was a f*cking virtual idol launch.