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AI-Composed Music Is the Next Frontier – But We Can’t Be Naive About the Human Cost (Guest Column)

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In the recent article “What Happens To Songwriters When AI Can Generate Music,” Alex Mitchell offers a rosy view of a future of AI-composed music coexisting in perfect barbershop harmony with human creators — but there is a conflict of interest here, as Mitchell is the CEO of an app that does precisely that. It’s almost like cigarette companies in the 1920s saying cigarettes are good for you.

Yes, the honeymoon of new possibilities is sexy, but let’s not pretend this is benefiting the human artist as much as corporate clients who’d rather pull a slot machine lever to generate a jingle than hire a human.

While I agree there are parallels between the invention of the synthesizer and AI, there are stark differences, too. The debut of the theremin — the first electronic instrument — playing the part of a lead violin in an orchestra was scandalous and fear-evoking. Audiences hated its sinusoidal wave lack of nuance, and some claimed it was “the end of music.” That seems ludicrous and pearl-clutching now, and I worship the chapter of electrified instruments afterward (thank you sister Rosetta Tharpe and Chuck Berry), but in a way, they were right. It was the closing of a chapter, and the birth of something new.

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Is new always better, though? Or is there a sweet spot ratio of machine to human? I often wonder this sitting in my half analog, half digital studio, as the stakes get ever higher from flirting with the event horizon of technology.

In this same article, Diaa El All (another CEO of an A.I. music generation app), claims that drummers were pointlessly scared of the drum machine and sample banks replacing their jobs because it’s all just another fabulous tool. (Guess he hasn’t been to many shows where singers perform with just a laptop.) Since I have spent an indecent portion of my modeling money collecting vintage drum machines (cuz yes, they’re fabulous), I can attest to the fact I do indeed hire fewer drummers. In fact, since I started using sample libraries, I hire fewer musicians altogether. While this is a great convenience for me, the average upright bassist who used to be able to support his family with his trade now has to remain childless or take two other jobs.

Should we halt progress for maintaining placebo usefulness for obsolete craftsmen? No, change and competition are good, if not inevitable ergonomics. But let’s not be naive about the casualties.

The gun and the samurai come to mind. For centuries, samurai were part of an elite warrior class who rigorously trained in kendo (the way of the sword) and bushido (a moral code of honor and indifference to pain) since childhood. As a result, winning wars was a meritocracy of skill and strategy. Then a Chinese ship with Portuguese sailors showed up with guns.

When feudal lord Nobunaga saw the potential in these contraptions, he ordered hundreds be made for his troops. Suddenly a farmer boy with no skill could take down an archer or swordsman who had trained for years. Once more coordinated marching and reloading formations were developed, it was an entirely new power dynamic.

During the economic crunch of the Napoleonic wars, a similar tidal shift occurred. Automated textile equipment allowed factory owners to replace loyal employees with machines and fewer, cheaper, less skilled workers to oversee them. As a result of jobless destitution, there was a region-wide rebellion of weavers and Luddites burning mills, stocking frames and lace-making machines, until the army executed them and held show trials to deter others from acts of “industrial sabotage.”

The poet Lord Byron opposed this new legislation, which called machine-breaking a capital crime — ironic considering his daughter, Ada Lovelace, would go on to invent computers with Charles Babbage. Oh, the tangled neural networks we weave.

Look what Netflix did to Blockbuster rentals. Or what Napster did to the recording artist. Even what the democratization of homemade porn streaming did to the porn industry. More recently, video games have usurped films. You cannot add something to an ecosystem without subtracting something else. It would be like smartphone companies telling fax machine manufacturers not to worry. Only this time, the fax machines are humans.

Later in the article, Mac Boucher (creative technologist and co-creator of non-fungible token project WarNymph along with his sister Grimes) adds another glowing review of bot- and button-based composition: “We will all become creators now.”

If everyone is a creator, is anyone really a creator?

An eerie vision comes to mind of a million TikTokers dressed as opera singers on stage, standing on the blueish corpses of an orchestra pit, singing over each other in a vainglorious cacophony, while not a single person sits in the audience. Just rows of empty seats reverberating the pink noise of digital narcissism back at them. Silent disco meets the Star Gate sequence’s death choir stack.

While this might sound like the bitter gatekeeping of a tape machine purist (only slightly), now might be a good time to admit I was one of the early projects to incorporate AI-generated lyrics and imagery. My band, Uni and The Urchins, has a morbid fascination with futurism and the wild west of Web 3.0. Who doesn’t love robots?

But I do think in order to make art, the “obstacles” actually served as a filtration device. Think Campbell’s hero’s journey. The learning curve of mastering an instrument, the physical adventure of discovering new music at a record shop or befriending the cool older guy to get his Sharpie-graffitied mix CD, saving up to buy your first guitar, enduring ridicule, the irrational desire to pursue music against the odds (James Brown didn’t own a pair of shoes until he 8 years old, and now is canonized as King.)

Meanwhile, in 2022, surveys show that many kids feel valueless unless they’re an influencer or “artist,” so the urge toward content creation over craft has become criminally easy, flooding the markets with more karaoke, pantomime and metric-based mush, rooted in no authentic movement. (I guess Twee capitalist-core is a culture, but not compared to the Vietnam war, slavery, the space race, the invention of LSD, the discovery of the subconscious, Indian gurus, the sexual revolution or the ’90s heroin epidemic all inspiring new genres.)

Not to sound like Ted Kaczynski’s manifesto, but technology is increasingly the hand inside the sock puppet, not the other way around.

Do I think AI will replace a lot of jobs? Yes, though not immediately, it’s still crude. Do I think this upending is a net loss? In the long term, no, it could incentivize us to invent entirely new skills to front-run it. (Remember when “learn to code” was an offensive meme?) In fact, I’m very eager to see how we co-evolve or eventually merge into a transhuman cyber Seraphim, once Artificial General Intelligence goes quantum.

But this will be a Faustian trade, have no illusions.

Charlotte Kemp Muhl is the bassist for NYC art-rock band UNI and the Urchins. She has directed all of UNI and The Urchins’ videos and mini-films and engineered, mixed and mastered their upcoming debut album Simulator (out Jan. 13, 2023, on Chimera Music) herself. UNI and the Urchins’ AI-written song/AI-made video for “Simulator” is out now.

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