Is AI Going to Destroy Music?

Is AI going to destroy music? 

Will lyric-writing bots, and track-making bots have an orgy and put songwriters out of business?

There are two important reasons why this is a non-issue.

Reason #1

Everyone is always scared of new technology. It always seems to spell the demise of music, and then give it 10 years, and it turns out that it wasn’t the anti-christ, it was like all other technology: a tool to use, to give you an outcome that wasn’t available before.

And like most of the new technologies, it’s always the people that use it in some way that it wasn’t intended to be used that end up creating something new and beautiful.

People ridiculed Suzanna Ciani, the electronic music pioneer who invented the vocoder. David Letterman publicly made fun of her for inventing something that made “people sound goofy”. Oh, David.

Pioneers aren’t afraid of it. They embrace it, and treat it playfully like a new instrument, because that’s all it ever is.

AI is auto-tune going by a different name.

Yes – autotune can make anyone sing a perfect melody, but it turns out that humans still like hearing other humans sing, because we’re all human.

People thought T-Pain ruined music (Usher told him so to his face on an aeroplane), but you know what? He didn’t ruin music. Music is still great. And there’s so much more of it than there was before. And also? As T-Pain himself says, he didn’t get successful because of autotune. 

He got successful because he is:

  • A great singer
  • Who found and embraced a signature sound; and
  • Wrote damn good songs
  • And worked so so hard

Which leads us to…

Reason #2

People respond to art not really because of the output. The ‘thing’ itself is kind of an avatar for all of the humanness that is poured into it, which is what people really respond and connect with. 

As Man Booker Prize winning author George Saunders says, “If a work of art is overflowing with energy, and with human life and it’s been beautifully organised to contain that energy and present it, that’s actually what sends us out of the theatre or out of the book happy.”

Same is true with music. 

So please don’t worry or despair. Keep making art and writing songs. Robots can’t (yet) auto-generate human connection. In that sense, I agree with Nick Cave. In another sense, however, I do believe it is the people who embrace a new technology rather than deriding it that will end up as the new captains of the ship.

End rant.

Why do we bother making art?

It’s a question that haunts me. According Maslow, art should be something that we only bother with once we have secure housing, food supply, love, care, and support…and yet. And yet—there is something so patently untrue about this. Art is made despite a lack of these things; often because of that lack.

John Green, discussing the Lascaux Caves, says in his excellent book, ‘The Anthropocene Reviewed’:

The paintings were made a time in early human history, when every healthy and capable person would have needed to contribute to the basic survival of themselves and their clan. And yet, still made art. Almost as if art is essential…

In a book I talk a lot about, ‘Art and Fear,’ David Bayles and Ted Orland say:

Through most of history, the people who made art never thought of themselves as making art. In fact it’s quite presumable that art was being made long before the rise of consciousness, long before the pronoun “I” was ever employed. The painters of caves, quite apart from not thinking of themselves as artists, probably never thought of themselves at all. What this suggests, among other things, is that the current view equating art with “self-expression” reveals more a contemporary bias in our thinking than an underlying trait of the medium.

Motivations for making art are more complicated today than they ever were, because of money and media, which has turned art into a tradable commodity. Even 200 years ago, it was less complicated. Art was so tied up for the most part with the Church that the ‘purpose’ for it was clear: art was in the service of God, not in the service of oneself.

Bayles and Orland again:

Making art now means working in the face of uncertainty; it means living with doubt and contradiction, doing something no one much cares whether you do, and for which there may be neither audience nor reward.

While that may be true, there is a paradox at the heart of this – we make art for our own “self-expression”, but it is still a political act. There is still a social value not just in a good product, but in the act of doing something that does not equate neatly to a limited notion of value that reduces people to dollar value.

By Scott Wrigg. Instagram: @scottwrigg

I make art (in my case, writing songs, writing articles, and making videos) for a curdle of reasons. Yes, it’s self-expression. It’s also a way to make money (at least part of it, but all the other ways I make money rely on the very fact that I’m an active songwriter, so in essence, entirely to make a living). But it’s also something more. It’s a contradiction. I would (and do) write songs regardless of whether I would make money from them. I do it as an almost aggressively spiritual act. The kind of ‘muscular’ spiritual act that I think Krista Tippett talks about on her podcast, On Being (one of my all-time favourite podcasts, by the way). It’s not spiritual in the sense of touching the ‘divine’. It’s spiritual in the sense of the painfully awkward act of doing something in the face of uncertainty; uncertain of the very reasons why I do it.

I have started to read ‘The Practice’ by Seth Godin, and was moved when I read:

Let’s call it art. The human act of doing something that might not work, something generous, something that will make a difference. The emotional act of doing personal, self-directed work to make a change that we can be proud of. We each have more leverage than ever before. We have access to tools, a myriad of ways forward, and a real chance to contribute. Your part matters. Your art matters.

Art matters. I’m not sure why it does. But it really, really does.