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AI in music: friend or foe?

by Shaye Frenkel



“AI is revolutionary in the scariest way possible.”

Students in the TIMARA (Technology in Music and Related Arts) program at the Oberlin Conservatory are divided on the issue of artificial intelligence in music. This major has historically been known for quickly embracing new and exciting technology, but they are unsure whether AI has gone too far.

“It's harming artists,” Phillip Chao, a second-year student in the major, remarks. “AI [takes] in images from human artists, without their knowledge or consent, and uses that to ‘learn’ and generate images.” AI needs a model on which to base its algorithm, which opens up the possibility of stealing work from actual artists in order to train it. To him, the technology “could be cool, if it weren't being used to exploit for the purpose of profit,” which highlights one of the main critiques artists have of AI: its exploitative practices under capitalism. He hopes “that if it were a tool people chose to use, it wouldn't be to exploit musicians or do wrongs.”

Illustration by Maia Hadler, Art Director

“AI could be implemented in VSTs [Virtual Studio Technology] and music software,” Chao says; or “perhaps used to automate pitch correction.” In its current form, the technology is ripe for misuse. It further complicates the world of copyright as well. Court battles over the rights to music can already be “very messy and prolonged,” and the inclusion of an artificial element may make things even more complicated.

“AI can be problematic,” said Kayla Shomar-Corbett, another second year TIMARA major. Still, she acknowledges that it already has a place in music creation. She uses it to make remixes, by separating vocals from master tracks and retooling them for her own purposes and has even embraced AI to assist her in writing emails and doing other common tasks.

“There are literal AI popstars, not just vocaloids and synths, but computer-generated musicians,”said Shomar-Corbett when asked about how AI might fit into the music industry. These are nothing new, despite recent fears about them. To Shomar-Corbett, AI is already everywhere and it’s here to stay. “AI is changing art,” according to her, but this shouldn’t be taken as inherently negative. There will always be a “certain aspect of human consciousness” that computers can’t replicate.

“Although entertaining, [the art created by AI] doesn’t really say much most of the time.” This is the fundamental flaw that Shomar-Corbett sees in AI as a tool for creative expression. It can’t do all the work itself. With this in mind, the fears of replacement that many musicians and artists feel may not be anything to worry about yet. They still have an important place even in a world where AI is integrated into their work.

Artificial Intelligence could potentially do a lot of good for artists in the future, but right now it has brought up several issues in the realm of copyright. Drawing back to the idea of AI being used to replicate an artist’s voice, a Twitter user named Roberto Nickson utilized an AI algorithm, trained to replicate hip hop artists like Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West, and made his own versions of songs in their unique styles. He recorded a verse with his voice and overlaid the AI to replace it with the artificially rendered version of the artist, creating an uncanny resemblance to their work. While the finished product is rudimentary and imperfect, the mere fact that it bears a striking similarity to something Kanye West could actually make is terrifying.

Technology like deepfakes, which have been used in film and TV to reconstruct an actor’s face and de-age them, have been around for a few years at this point. They are mostly embraced by creatives as a necessary tool in their work, so one may wonder if the musical equivalent will face a similar fate. Notably, the full negative repercussions of deepfakes and how they may contribute to the circulation of fake news and misleading footage have not been explored in detail yet.

Creatives and musicians alike are divided on the place AI may have in the future of art. Some think that the current power it holds may be too much to reasonably entrust someone with, especially considering how exploitative it has been in the past under capitalism. However, others are cautiously optimistic at how AI may bring new advancements to creative outlets and expand the potential of artists everywhere. The only way to reach a conclusion currently is to wait and see.

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