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  • Mal McCallion

AI in Music: Impersonation or Inspiration?


Two converging stories this week, both pretty powerful, covering AI in music.


The first comes from Tennessee, long known as the birthplace of country music and the launchpad for musical legends, which has become the first state in the US to legally protect musicians’ voices. Supporters say the goal is to ensure that an artist’s voice can’t be replicated without their consent, supposedly covering AI generation but leaving a lot more to be settled too.


In the newly-signed statute – the painfully contrived “Ensuring Likeness Voice and Image Security” or “ELVIS" Act – vocal likeness will now be added to name, image and photos as a property of an individual, and therefore copyrightable.


This seems fair enough in principle – but will it be the death knell for Elvis impersonators, from Vegas to Tokyo? At what specific point does a soundalike become a prosecutable voice thief?


But we may be moving away from the idea of a music star anyway – at least that’s what an outcome could be if Suno AI has its way. This is a new, generative AI music platform that will create music simply from text prompts.


Here’s rock magazine Rolling Stone creating a song, just from the words ‘solo acoustic Mississippi Delta blues about a sad AI’. Give it a listen, it’s incredible.


The aim, says Suno’s founders, is to ‘democratise’ music writing, taking it away from the years of study, trial and error and painful soul-searching that has always been required to conjure-up the musical creative process. Others – professional musicians mainly, but not only them – see it as tech bros once more encroaching onto an eternal human trait, the desire to create melodic sound that entertains and enlivens. This way, they fear, is death by digital duplicate.


It's always interesting to look back at how an industry has responded to huge leaps in tech in the past. Bands that carefully crafted each note clutched their pearls tight as Electronic DJs, who couldn’t play a thing, curated bangers and sold out stadia. The arrival of streaming, particularly Napster, caused huge ructions in the 2000’s … until it didn’t.


 

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Singer-songwriters that bled each song into existence wailed and gnashed, as manufactured boy- and girl-bands topped the charts for being honed to within an inch of their young lives. Synthesisers, electric guitars, all were greeted with horror by their predecessors who just wanted things to be done authentically – which basically meant with the fresh tech that became available in their respective times, that likely gave them their career breaks on the shoulders of the previous giants.


Could it be possible that, were the Beatles themselves around now, they'd be using AI? Well, we already have that answer, don’t we?


I think Suno’s amazing and am looking forward to what it can do to inspire people to make more incredible music. Go back and listen to that Rolling Stone track once more. It is quite eerie, for sure – but so were photographs the first time people saw them. Guess what 'authentic' portrait painters made of them ...


This genie is similarly not going back into the bottle. The ELVIS Act will leave the building, strung-out on a diet of frivolous lawsuits and distracting minutiae about octave levels and lyrical tics. And future generations will raise nanobot-augmented eyebrows at our collective panic about what will be, in the end, just another couple of steps forward in humanity’s creatively melodious journey.


 

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