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News August 14, 2023

Why The Music Biz Needs to Rethink AI: Op-Ed

Harry Hayes
Why The Music Biz Needs to Rethink AI: Op-Ed

Love it, fear it, you definitely can’t ignore it. AI (or AGI) and ChatGPT is triggering a shake-up to the business and tech worlds in a way none of us recall, and few of us truly understand.

It’s exciting, and deeply existential. Loaded with ramifications, ethical dilemmas, with arguments for and against, the outcomes are blurry, uncertain.

AI at its best will help those buried in spreadsheets, reports and writing mind-numbing social media copy and marketing plans to relieve their workload. It’ll allow for more creative-thinking and strategy, by letting the virtual assistant do the monotonous work. 

Flip it around, and the barrier to entry could tighten for interns and emerging talent. It could eliminate jobs, that entry-level work hacked out faster, cheaper. And without healthcare and annual leave built in. 

Ours is a capitalist society. One that doesn’t do a great job of empathising with our fellow humans. AI will heighten this attitude and wedge a gap between the very rich and the people underneath. As businesses pursue profits, we risk a complete disregard for the passion and humanity of those who work tirelessly to better for a better world. 

No doubt there are new and emerging startups, exploiting the buzz for AI products and selling the dream to a network of keen investors ready to make a tidy profit. The gold rush and subsequent deflation of Web3 and NFT hype is a recent case study in how profits over functionality can bastardise an objectively incredible technology. 

CSIRAC, the CSIR Automatic Computer

The music industry, as always, is ripe for disruption.

We have already seen examples of AI’s potential impact, from the fake Drake/Weeknd song “Heart On Your Sleeve,” to the Kanye West and Taylor Swift covers on YouTube.

It appears to be an innocent and a lighthearted way for fans around the world to hear their favourite songs by their favourite artists. On the other hand, where’s the consent? It doesn’t quite sit right. 

It’s inevitable that the initial pushback by major labels and artists will soon be seen as a major opportunity. The torrent and piracy era of Napster and Limewire in the early 2000s saw the music industry panic, almost overnight losing control of the flow of content and their ability to sell music.

As history tells us, streaming platforms offered labels a life raft. 

With thousands of search results already appearing on YouTube for “Ed Sheeran ai cover,” this appears as an existential threat.

Reframe the problem, consider the situation a new marketing opportunity for artists and labels.

Imagine, a hardcore Pinkpantheress fan — who isn’t fond of Ed Sheeran — might hear Ed’s AI cover of “Boys a Liar” and think “actually I don’t mind this”. Then off they go to discover Ed Sheeran, streaming his music and watching his videos. Could there be a major label certified release of “Official Ed Sheeran AI Covers” in the next 12 months? I could see it. 

Grimes has kicked things off, having opened up the free usage of her AI voice for official releases.

In exchange she gets a portion of the revenue. On May 19, 2023, popping up on Spotify’s New Music Friday was Kito’s new single “Cold Touch” feat. GrimesAI (an official Mad Decent release). Clicking through to GrimesAI page, the official bio reads:

It feels abstract. The song was written by high profile artists Fred Ball, Leon Vynehall, Kito and Nina Nesbitt, and sung by GrimesAI.

Which begs another question, around songwriting and the publishing industry. Will emerging talented songwriters and artists soon be able to showcase their songwriting and hook-writing prowess, sung by AI SZA or AI Olivia Rodrigo?

Australian artist Mason Dane recently posted a TikTok where he used a Drake AI generator to sing his original song “YOU’RE MINE.” It sounded like a good Drake song. It showed Mason Dane’s skillset in song structure, lyricism and hooky-ness. This could be a new frontier and opportunity for unknown writers to truly display their talents to A&Rs and publishers around the world.

Covering songs has long been a strategy for artists to get attention and build trust with new audiences. Now the “reverse cover” could do much the same, democratising the process for those trying to build their careers. 

In an industry built on resourcefulness, creativity and collaboration, I worry that AI and its promised benefits will further remove humanity from the equation.

The recent announcements of Spotify’s AI-generated playlist art tool or Meta’s AI text-to-music generator MusicGen immediately threaten the careers of experienced creatives, in the name of efficiency and affordability.

Therein lies the dilemma of AI in the music industry. If it helps get from A to B quicker, that will allow for more creativity, space and time for artists and their teams.

If AI is inevitable, then let’s push for AI being used in “addition to” rather than “instead of.”

Let’s not replace people, but give them a tool to do better work, and focus on the things that matter most.

Harry Hayes is a music marketing specialist, writer and analyst, and founder of digital and music company Caught Off Guard.

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