How Artists Are Protecting Themselves in the AI Music Era

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Kolawole Samuel Adebayo
Kolawole Samuel Adebayo

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It’s the summer of 2300 and the 02 Arena is filled to capacity. Soft, ambient lighting bathes the dome, casting a glow over the sea of faces eager to see the performance. Suddenly, a deafening roar rocks the arena as the stage erupts in lights and colors to reveal the Beyoncé 3000, a metallic singing machine.

ai music

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A bit extreme, but you get the picture.

In a world where Beyoncé no longer exists, AI generative technology says we could still have her powerhouse vocals on songs she never sang or wrote, for however long we please.

Welcome to the world of AI music.

AI in music too?

From film and television, to influencer marketing, publishing, photography, and now to music, artificial intelligence is taking the creative sector by storm.

The core of AI’s function has always been to make mundane tasks easier and faster, and music professionals have over time used AI-powered tools for that.

For example, music engineers who typically relied on manual techniques to mix and master music can now, with AI, complete the process within minutes instead of hours that may stretch to a few days.

In fact, using a ‘de-mixing’ AI software created during the production of The Beatles’ Get Back documentary in 2021, the production team cleaned up the vocals of the late John Lennon from an old recording.

This extract, as well as input from the remaining three band members, helped The Beatles release ‘Now and Then’ in November 2023, making it not just the last song they played together but also the first (and probably last) Beatles song in this century.

AI has also streamlined music recommendations, analyzing user preferences and listening habits to make custom music experiences for every streamer. Imagine the man hours it would take for humans to do that, for the nearly 620 million streamers there are worldwide.

But this is where it gets disturbing for many in the industry.

AI can now make music from scratch.

Leveraging technologies like machine learning and deep neural networks, AI models can analyze vast amounts of existing musical data to learn patterns to generate music compositions, using the voices of actual singers.

When Ghostwriter created ‘Heart on My Sleeve,’ an AI-generated song featuring the unconsented voices of Drake and The Weeknd, the internet was ecstatic.

This song was so well produced that it was even permitted on the Grammy ballot, before controversies surrounding its legitimacy forced The Recording Academy to pull it down.

Meet the Players

Like Ghostwriter’s debut, AI music generators like Suno and Boomy promise a future where anyone can make great music with nothing more than their imagination.

Suno, for one, allows users to generate music from text; much like a Sora for audio. In March 2024, Suno released its v3 version which allows users to create up to two minutes of radio-quality music from text.

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On Boomy AI, users, generative artists if you will, do not stop at creating music. They also join a global community of generative music artists like themselves, and can submit their pieces to streaming platforms to earn from their work.

In November 2023, Boomy announced a distribution partnership with ADA Worldwide, the independent distribution and label services arms of the Warner Music Group (WMG).

Through this partnership, Boomy artists will be able to leverage ADA’s global network to distribute and market their music across platforms like Apple Music, Spotify, Instagram, TikTok, and more.

Asides these tools, tech giants like Google, Meta, Bytedance, and YouTube are also experimenting with AI music.

Developed together with Google DeepMind, YouTube’s Dream Track for Shorts is the video streaming platform’s AI music generator which allows users create unique soundtracks of up to 30 seconds for their YouTube Shorts.

By simply typing the music idea and choosing an artist from the carousel, the user would get an original soundtrack featuring the AI voice of that artist for the Short. Meta’s AudioCraft which is a one-stop audio tool consisting of three models — AudioGen, MusicGen and EnCodec — also allows users to generate high-fidelity music and sound effects from just text.

And then there’s Ripple by TikTok’s parent company, Bytedance, as well as Google’s MusicLM — all text-to-music platforms.

A battle of the symphonies

However ingenious it may be, music artists are not having it.

“I look at AI the way I look at fire. With fire, you can warm a home, you can create a beautiful home cooked meal but you can also burn a house down with fire,” said Ne-Yo, three-time Grammy award-winning artist, songwriter, and actor in an interview with CNN. “So it is not necessarily that it is a bad thing. It is a bad thing depending on how it's being used.”

He continues, “Show me what positivity is going to come from being able to not only take my voice, but take my writing style, take my whole likeness, my everything and do with it whatever you want.”

And he is not alone in this sentiment.

Over 200 artists joined their voices in an open letter organized by the Artists Rights Alliance demanding that “tech platforms stop devaluing music.”

The likes of Aurora, Arya Starr, Billie Eilish, Calum Scott, Camila Cabello, the estate of Frank Sinatra, Nicki Minaj, Sam Smith, Stevie Wonder, Zayn Malik and many more joined to “...call on all AI developers, technology companies, platforms and digital music services to pledge that they will not develop or deploy AI music-generation technology, content or tools that undermine or replace the human artistry of songwriters and artists or deny [them] fair compensation for [their] work.”

Although they acknowledge that “AI has enormous potential to advance creativity,” there are lines that must not be crossed. Lines that would “...steal professional artists’ voices and likenesses, violate creators’ rights, and destroy the music ecosystem.”

It’s not just artists crying out against this creeping takeover. Multinational music corporations like Universal Music Group (UMG) continue to advocate for this at every opportunity.

When Ghostwriter’s AI-generated single hit the internet, it was available on several streaming platforms like Spotify, Apple Music and YouTube, garnering over one million streams across all platforms.

UMG soon issued a strongly worded statement, demanding music stakeholders to choose which side of history they want to be on. The options being, “the side of artists, fans and human creative expressions, or [the] side of deep fakes, fraud and denying artists their due compensation.”

Although there is no telling if UMG issued official notices for the song to be taken down from these platforms, it was, mere hours after the statement was released.

Being what is unarguably the world’s largest music company, UMG has continued to lead the music industry’s response to AI. Building on its artist-centric initiative, UMG is working on remuneration models that ensure artists are paid more from streaming platforms, signing key partnerships to ensure that happens, and also cutting ties as needed.

Notably in January 2024, UMG pulled its music from TikTok on the premise that the video-sharing platform is “...building a music-based business, without paying fair value for the music.”

But that’s not where it ends.

Understanding that legislation is just as –if not more– important in this fight, UMG contributed significantly to gathering over 150 rights holders in the creative economy to form the Human Artistry Campaign.

This coalition is intended to be the principal advocate in conversations surrounding the ethical applications of AI in creative work as well as safeguarding artists’ rights.

Thankfully, this has all landed on the legislative desk in what is now known as the NO AI FRAUD Act, short for No Artificial Intelligence Fake Replicas and Unauthorized Duplications Act.

This bill, introduced by Reps. Maria Salazar and Madeleine Dean, is designed to establish a federal framework to “protect Americans’ individual right to their likeness and voice against AI-generated fakes and forgeries.”

As David Israelite, President and CEO of the National Music Publishers Association says, “AI deepfakes and voice cloning threaten the integrity of all music. Music creators face enough forces working to devalue their work - technology that steals their voice and likeness should not be one of them.”

And we agree.

Finding the Silver Lining with AI Music

When AI music isn’t trying to be the next Michael Jackson, it’s actually pretty useful.

In addition to helping music businesses streamline their production processes, AI-generated music could completely transform the content creation and marketing.

Whether it’s a fun video advertisement, a podcast, or just a regular Instagram reel, adding the right soundtrack is one surefire way to elevate the content.

But licensed music doesn’t come cheap.

Even though there is no set price, a business owner can expect to part with a few hundred (or even thousand) dollars for one song.

With AI music generators, that barrier is pretty much non-existent, as business owners get to not just customize their own music but also get it royalty free.

It completely changes the game.

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What happens now?

Much like the agreement reached by the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) after they both went on a strike in 2023, the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) reached an agreement in 2024 that provides its members with not just streaming royalties but also extra protection from AI.

Without a strike though.

Among others, this deal would guarantee that no score of music is produced or distributed without a human being. So even though a computer creates it, someone (that someone being the musician whose work is used to prompt the system) must earn from it.

With these systems in place and a federal law in the oven, it would seem like human artists may yet win this round against the unethical applications of generative technology.

But like Ghostwriter’s manager said in an interview with Billboard, their stunt was to show the world what was possible and now.

“All [it will take is] for industry to define an equitable arrangement for all stakeholders in order for people to see the value in [this] new form of creativity. I think we [agree] that we had an opportunity to show people the value in AI and music here,” they said.

And they did.

It’s now left for the players in the industry to decide how this story progresses.

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