A terrific article on Medium by Stuart Dredge occupied my thoughts this morning. The title is provocative, but does accurately convey the piece’s thesis — Music Created by Artificial Intelligence Is Better Than You Think:
Human-created music already spans everything from the sublime to the unlistenable. While an A.I. may not be able to out-Adele Adele (or Aretha Franklin, or Joni Mitchell) with a timeless song and performance, it can compose a compelling melody for a YouTube video, mobile game, or elevator journey faster, cheaper, and almost as well as a human equivalent. In these scenarios, it’s often the “faster” and “cheaper” parts that matter most to whoever’s paying.
These ideas mirror what I was saying the other day. A.I. generated music will create significant problems for the library music circuit. But these ‘fast and cheap’ productions will fuel more soulful, distinctive music from those of us who are up to the challenge. I believe the environment will also create increased demand for highly personal music and songs with relatable stories behind them.
And I admit I’m excited about the idea of generative music in public and private spaces. There are many possibilities for this aspect, and my mind boggles. Yep, it’s Brian Eno’s world, and we’re just living in it.
However, there is one part of the article that I have questions about:
Amadeus Code claims to “enhance your songwriting with artificial intelligence” and is squarely aimed at people who are already writing and recording music. Its pitch: “Get unstuck with your songwriting with the power of artificial intelligence and say goodbye to writer’s block for good.”
I don’t have a problem with A.I. as a collaborator. That’s not far off from other creative games we already use, from Oblique Strategies to sample packs to unauthorized remixing. But I am wary of touting A.I. as a cure for ‘writer’s block’ rather than a tool a creator uses with intention.
I fall into the ‘there’s no such thing as writer’s block’ camp. I see it as a crutch, as the lizard brain screaming, as The Resistance. The cure, if we need one, is showing up and doing creative work with consistency and purpose. Selling A.I. as a remedy to ‘writer’s block’ gives more power to the concept. What are we replacing The Resistance with if we turn to A.I. whenever we’re not ‘feeling creative?’ Will there be a danger of letting A.I. tell us too much — giving us the chords, the melodies, the lyrics — whenever we don’t feel like showing up?
I’ll point to Izotope’s Ozone as an example. This software is a mastering suite that analyzes audio and, using an A.I. engine, creates settings for a mastered output. Ozone is an incredible tool. I bought it. I use it. And the company repeatedly emphasizes that what Ozone comes up with is meant to only be a suggestion, a starting place for your tailored tweaks. But I fear the majority of the software’s users probably default to the suggested settings. For some it provides a tempting fallback, an excuse to take it easy and not push oneself.
And that’s my issue. That feeling of ‘writer’s block’ is there for us to push through — to provide a challenge — and many times the result is our best work. I don’t doubt that collaborating with A.I. tools can result in great work. But, if we turn to the technology every time we feel blocked or in a creative rut, then I think we deny a very human aspect of the process. C’mon — we don’t need an easy cure for writer’s block.
Advances in artificial intelligence, and its applications in our working worlds, understandably create tension and fear. There is the feeling that no job is safe and, for songwriters and musicians, the development of A.I. composed songs is a substantial threat. Though these concerns aren’t entirely unfounded, I think we can find a way to evade the robots.
Scott Belsky, Adobe’s chief product officer and co-creator of Behance, writes in Fast Company:
Creativity is antithetical to the way artificial intelligence works. We develop machine learning by feeding in data about the way people react in certain situations. The point of algorithms is to predict what most people will do and execute that expected action. But what makes something creative is the unexpected. […]
For workers who are threatened by displacement, developing the ability to express ideas in a creative way can help them evolve from a threatened job title to one with more security.
All of my artist clients are eager to break into film and television music. Their first impulse is to create music according to spec — that is, determine a set of rules for music that fits a particular context and write to that. For example, music for a happy product advertisement should contain ukulele and glockenspiel, have a bouncy beat, feature lyrics with phrases like “let’s get together and smile.”
If your goal is fulfilling a spec requirement — whether it’s your own imagined rules or someone else’s — then you’ll be outdone. You’ll have to be faster and cheaper than the others who are also delivering to spec. And, in the future, this includes A.I. The answer is to go beyond spec, to provide something more than the rules require. Something personal and unexpected.
“Then how do I create music for movies and TV shows?” It’s as simple as making the best music you’re capable of and creating it in a way that represents you. This music needs to be distinctive to stand out. It should be from the heart. And it could only have been made by you.
Yes, many projects demand specifications. Ukuleles and glockenspiels are all over online product ads. But soon low-priced music libraries will be filled with A.I. created versions of these songs. No one does spec better than a computer, and that signals a race to the bottom. You don’t want to be a part of that race.
Project managers looking for generic music at the lowest price-point are familiar in our industry. But there are also music supervisors looking for music that’s cool and distinctive, as that will make their projects cool and distinctive. They pay handsomely for that piece of ‘cool.’
The dominance of A.I. in the traditional ‘library music’ field will make the difference starker. The rewards will come to those with a story to tell, with music that’s identifiable and capable of connection. Don’t overthink it. Focus your craft on finding a unique voice and a sound that will continue to inspire you. That will lead to your best work — work that others will seek and appreciate. But following the market’s presumed expectations pits you against the robots. I’ve seen that movie — it’s a futile battle.
Nick Cave may have put it best on The Red Hand Files, his brilliant new Q&A blog:
What we are actually listening to is human limitation and the audacity to transcend it. Artificial Intelligence, for all its unlimited potential, simply doesn’t have this capacity. How could it? And this is the essence of transcendence. If we have limitless potential then what is there to transcend? And therefore what is the purpose of the imagination at all. Music has the ability to touch the celestial sphere with the tips of its fingers and the awe and wonder we feel is in the desperate temerity of the reach, not just the outcome. Where is the transcendent splendour in unlimited potential? So to answer your question, Peter, AI would have the capacity to write a good song, but not a great one. It lacks the nerve.