AI In The Music Business: Friend or Foe?

In 2024 we, as fans and creators of music, stand at a crossroads staring directly into the unflinching eye of Artificial Intelligence (AI). If all industries are at the mercy of technological progress, the music business is no different. One astonishing element of AI’s capabilities is its ability to replicate artist voices, to a spookily accurate extent. 

In case you missed it, Drake capitalised on this capability in his recent controversial track ‘Taylor Made Freestyle‘. He used AI to imitate the late great 2Pac, and Snoop Dogg’s vocal stylings without consent. We now have a powerful Drake co-sign for the use of AI in mainstream music. So let’s address the elephant in the room – what in the world does this mean for artists and fans?

How is AI impacting the music industry?

Firstly, AI tools are already in use. The Beatles recently used AI to rejuvenate some low-quality John Lennon vocals for the 2023 single ‘Now and Then‘. The public perceived this as an innovative and harmless use of the technology. Yet in the same year, ‘Heart On My Sleeve‘, a viral song by The Weeknd and Drake dropped. Except, it wasn’t really them – they knew nothing about it. The song was a ‘deepfake’, an AI-generated R&B record that delivered a stratospheric number of plays. Fans couldn’t even recognise it as counterfeit.

It appears record labels are on the fence about AI. On one hand, they are megacorps, desperately scrambling to stay on the forefront of profit-making potential. But they also have artists – and their intellectual property – to protect. They can’t lose out on an AI bot making a better Justin Bieber record than the real Justin Bieber. It feeds into a fundamental modern-day fear all creators have – am I replaceable by technology?

Universal Music Group has called in their lawyers, aiming to get to the root of the problem by suing those behind AI tracks for the use of copyrighted material. It begs the question, should all artists be making sure an AI protective clause is worked into their contracts? We may start to see independent artists, without the advantage of mammoth legal teams, becoming primary victims of AI robbery.

In May, a parliamentary committee urged the UK Government to start forming copyright laws that better protect artists from growing AI capabilities. “It has yet to become a serious talking point [within labels],” Music Publicist Katerina Koumourou states, however, this doesn’t stop her personal concerns. “I find it unnerving that we are seeing such casual misuse and exploitation of an art form that has played such a vital role in people’s lives for centuries.”

Katerina Koumourou, Music Publicist, Twelfth House Publicity

Independent artist Tahn Solo adds: “It’s a slippery slope. Using a computer to replicate someone else’s voice without their knowledge is stealing.”. Solo suggests AI is a disrespect to artists – “It gives people who don’t truly value the skills we have spent years honing [the idea that] AI can write better songs. [It can’t] convey real emotion in the same way a human can.”.

For artists, it’s more than just protecting themselves from someone commercially profiting off their work. It’s protecting themselves from others benefitting off their likeness. It’s deeper than losing out on the money earned from a couple of million streams using their voice, it’s losing control of their narrative. 

“Using a computer to replicate someone else’s voice without their knowledge is stealing.” – Tahn Solo

Could AI be advantageous for artists?

With an ever-saturated music landscape, budding artists and producers plugging in an AI ‘feature’ by a mainstream artist could be the smart move that puts them on the map. Why shouldn’t this creativity be encouraged? The hype of the bigger artist gets the initial play, but listeners stay for the new artist. 

I point to the last track on rapper J. Cole’s seminal ‘2014 Forest Hills Drive‘ album – ‘Note To Self‘. Here, he calls out all artists who never cleared a sample for him. “If you made the f****n music, and you made the art / And you put it into the world / I should be able to use it however I want.” Adding, “You was inspired by the world, allow the world to be inspired by your s**t.”. 

I’m not suggesting AI deep fakes and sampling are on the same level. However, perhaps we should adopt the same sentiment here. Once music is released into the world, you could argue it’s free game to reproduce it for whatever purposes it serves.

When sampling got popular, it likely felt like a loss of agency for artists. They couldn’t control how their art was enjoyed. Nowadays, however, sampling is celebrated. Most of the current top 40 hits are samples – repurposing the past is simply the new hit-making method. Key movers and shakers in the music business agree, pointing to past tech advancements that were controversial upon release but are now commonplace. One example is Photoshop. Nowadays, we accept that what we see on magazine covers might not be reality. However, we accept, consume, and enjoy it nonetheless. What makes ‘digitally retouched’ music different?

Imogen Heap, an artist always at the forefront of musical innovation, has already used her AI voice model (ai.mogen) for remixes. This move was described by her team as ‘savvy’. Artists may see AI as a way to save time and make money. Grimes is publicly encouraging her voice to be used if she can financially benefit.

The future of the ‘musician’

Despite its money-making potential, there is no doubt that this technology should be worrying for artists. Machine Learning is rapidly advancing. New music can be generated for decades without an artist having to step into a studio ever again. Artists could be featured on records with collaborators they’ve never heard of, singing or rapping words they’ve never said, orchestrated by tech wizards they’ve never met.

Perhaps streaming services will have ‘Made by AI’ playlists, or have to find innovative ways to notify listeners when it’s Ariana Grande or AI-Ariana Grande. As a music fan who loves to see my favourite artists connect, I worry about the ease, speed, and cost-saving artists can glean by using an AI version of their collaborator rather than the real person.

Suggesting that human artists in the future won’t exist feels like a work of science fiction, but consider the following: AI artists will be cheaper for record labels, easier to manage, and perhaps simpler to market. Seasoned Talent Manager and Consultant Ross Wilson believes labels will soon be representing bot artists: “They will – it’s moving towards that. I love AI, it’s a great tool. But that’s all it is – a tool.”

But other industry insiders disagree – publicist Katerina Koumourou adds “I couldn’t represent an AI artist. [It’s] too impersonal.”. She believes human artists are the ‘heart’ of the music industry, and the protection of their agency should be a top priority.

The ethical dilemma of whether we need a human behind the music for it to feel good is up for debate, especially in the TikTok era where authenticity isn’t a priority. Wilson adds “[AI brings] better work flow and ideation to help execution”. However, he admits there is a massive concern around the law turning a blind eye to artist protection.

Final Thoughts

There is a morality issue at play here, a fundamental devaluing of the human touch. A cynical opinion would be that we, as fans, allowed this to happen. Do mass audiences not care about artistry anymore? Singer/songwriter Hozier recently suggested that since AI doesn’t create based off human experience, it cannot be considered art. This is a sentiment I share, despite how open I am to new technological possibilities.

Fans also need to be mindful of cultural appropriation which AI facilitates. We can’t delay the inevitable, but the industry must put the brakes on exploitation, cultural appropriation, and disrespecting artists who have passed away – cluttering catalogues with flippant posthumous remixes.

There was a time when artists made money from making a hit record, but that is an outdated model in 2024. The money in music for artists is diminishing – unless they capitalise on other revenue streams. This includes brand deals, merchandise, or concert sales. The next millionaire music mogul will be someone who uncovers a way to profit off of AI – working smarter, not harder.

Music is an integral part of the human condition, it unites and challenges us. By listening to a record, we are connecting with the creator and the creator is connecting with us. “The whole point of music is to explore human experience and the nuances within our existence.”, Koumourou proclaims. She likens AI-made tracks to the fast food of the music industry, which can never truly nourish fans or replicate the feeling we get from experiencing live music by real people. 

This is what is missing in tech-made tracks. This is what makes us, and will make us hold our favourite records so close to our hearts in the future. There’s no doubt AI is the future of music, but it’s how we consciously shape that future that counts today.

Read more opinion pieces here.

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