AI isn’t plagiarising your music

AI generated picture of a band of robots playing a concert

There’s an opinion piece in the Guardian by Naomi Klein which is absolutely correct in so many ways about Artificial Intelligence, its social impact and the reckless, unregulated pace at which it is being developed with oversight by a group of people who have routinely been shown mostly to be a bunch of libertarian sociopaths.

Take, for example, this quote:

“A world without crappy jobs means that rent has to be free, and healthcare has to be free, and every person has to have inalienable economic rights. And then suddenly we aren’t talking about AI at all – we’re talking about socialism.”

Exactly. If you’re going to fundamentally change society, and you’re going to do it rapidly, you need to do it intentionally and design it in such a way that you don’t ruin it for everyone. In fact, since you’re at it, why not actually address some of the problems that were already there. 

Redistribution of wealth isn’t going to solve everything, but in the long list of things you could legislate to fix that would make a positive difference in the world, it’s in the top one.

However, I’d take issue with one aspect of the piece, and it’s this:

In the case of copyrighted material that we now know trained the models (including this newspaper), various lawsuits have been filed that will argue this was clearly illegal. Why, for instance, should a for-profit company be permitted to feed the paintings, drawings and photographs of living artists into a program like Stable Diffusion or Dall-E 2 so it can then be used to generate doppelganger versions of those very artists’ work, with the benefits flowing to everyone but the artists themselves?

And, of course, the same arguments are being made about music. But here’s the thing: that’s not how training an AI works. It isn’t making replicas any more than a country singer-songwriter, who’s clearly listened to a lot of Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton and Merle Haggard, is in the business of generating duplicates.

The AI is, as best as we can ascertain, looking at images, listening to music, reading text and then creating something new.

Now, the words ‘looking’, ‘reading’, ‘listening’ and ‘creating’ are all doing a lot of heavy lifting here, but those are more accurate analogies than, say, forgery.

And while I have about as much disdain for the motivations behind the wholesale swallowing of all scrapeable material off the internet for the economic benefit of a handful of billionaire-in-waiting tech bros as Klein does, I would go so far as to suggest that until or unless the AI generates a ‘copy’, no infringement has taken place.

Yes, it’s learning from your hard work and everyone else’s. And yes, it seems unfair that the people who are going to make money off that aren’t you – but the same principle applies as it did in the recent Ed Sheeran court case.

Obviously, Ed Sheeran has heard the music of Marvin Gaye. He’s probably ingested every piece of scrapeable content that Marvin Gaye ever produced (and isn’t that a lovely turn of phrase, ‘scrapeable content’?) – and a lot more besides. But it wasn’t copyright infringement. It certainly wasn’t theft.

He came up with something new.

Forget ‘originality’ because, like authenticity, it’s a myth, and nobody has a decent working definition for it other than that it’s something apparently magical that humans do. Ed Sheeran didn’t copy Marvin Gaye or replicate his work. He made something that was not the work of Marvin Gaye, but had very clearly been influenced by it. As certified by law.

And that’s the problem. This is not and should not be the battleground. This is not where we’re going to achieve ‘fairness’.

To do that, we need to look back at that first quote. The issue is not that the robots are stealing our work and taking our jobs. The problem is simply how society has organised itself with respect to money, who gets it, and for what purpose. 

More to the point, the problems with AI (and they are many and vast) primarily lie elsewhere. Which is, I think, another conversation for another day – or you could just read the rest of the Klein article.

But just so we know where we’re at – the image at the top of this post is (obviously) AI-generated. It’s based on the prompt “Renaissance painting of a group of robots playing a rock concert to a large audience”. I’m not sure which Renaissance artist the AI could be said to have plagiarised here. If the picture resembles anything, it resembles itself: an AI-generated image, clearly derivative of other AI images.

It’s very literally painting by numbers.

Break in Case of Emergency

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In just a couple of weeks, I’ll be in Portugal running a full-day Masterclass as part of BREAK IN CASE OF EMERGENCY – a two-week hybrid bootcamp for independent musicians and labels, focused on the exchange of practical skills concerning some of the most pressing aspects of today’s independent music industry.

On 22 May, I’ll be speaking (all day!) about Emerging Technologies in Independent Music, with a particular focus on AI, Blockchain, Web 3.0 and Metaverse technologies. I’ll discuss the ways that independent artists, labels, promoters, venues and other independent music participants can use those technologies effectively, and I’ll also be talking about their wider cultural, economic and socio-political implications. 

In other words, we’re not going to simply focus on which buttons to press and what levers to pull in the hopes of making extra cash (though that will come into it, of course), but we’ll also come to an understanding of what it means to use these technologies, how to think about them both as tools and the environments within which independent music takes place – and how not to get overwhelmed by an incredibly steep and exhausting learning curve.

It’s about coming away with a critical toolkit that we can apply in our day-to-day practice that makes the most of the technologies available, while engaging with the deeper issues that these changes also force us to address.

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I imagine I’ll also be visiting my favourite shop in town while I’m there

The event is taking place in Aveiro (which, if you’re interested, is a city I made a short documentary about last year). It’ll also be available online with live streaming of all activities, so you can watch from anywhere. I’ll be there in person, along with some of my favourite people from the worlds of music technology and innovation.

In addition to the Masterclass, I’ll be joining an evening panel with Miguel Carvalhais (Crónica) and Terry Tyldesley (Kitmonsters), moderated by Tiago Abelha (Viral Agenda) about Technological Innovation & Disruption in the Music Industry.

Terry’s Masterclass the following morning on Technology, Creativity and Entrepreneurship in Music will also be pretty unmissable.

Other highlights of BREAK include a workshop with Matt Black (Ninja Tune) and Lucas Palmeira (Imaginando) on Creative Sound Processing, a Music Rights masterclass with Nuno Rodrigues (Arda Academy), Designing a Music Marketing Plan with Amber Horsburgh (Deep Cuts) and Independent PR for Independent Music: an International Context by Melissa Taylor (Tailored Communication).

This is all incredibly useful stuff.

You can register for all of this. Grab one of the few remaining tickets to be there in person, catch all the phenomenal live shows and hang out with us in Aveiro… or you can sign up to join us for free online!

International Sound Awards deadline

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The deadline for the International Sound Awards has been extended to 26 May 2023. That means there’s three weeks left to submit projects.

Here’s the link to apply.

I can recommend entering this if you have an interesting sound or music project that fits one of their categories, which range from product to development, marketing to art. 

Some of the people I work with at MTF Labs have been recipients of this award in the past. Four MTFers won the ISAbell awards and more were highly commended runners up.

Pictured above (seated L-R) are Vahakn Matossian (Human Instruments), Tim Palm (DJ Arthro) and Tim Yates (Drake Music and Hackoustic) who won for their brilliant accessible music product LoopFree, which was invented in the #MTFLabs in Stockholm 2018 and further developed with the support of an MTF Prize awarded by KTH Innovation.

Standing is Mordechai Braunstein whose CyMagic project brings the experience of music to deaf children and educates about the science of sound and vibration. An early version of CyMagic was tested at MTF Stockholm, then developed and showcased at MTF Pula in 2019.

Rani Dar (Play This Wall) and Viktor Löfgren (Thrive – Youth and Integration) also had projects selected as finalists and runners up, which was a remarkable achievement.

#MTFLabs: Blockchain

Blockchain technology has received a great deal of media attention recently. It’s a technology that’s been at the core of new and innovative startups, and has been championed by Imogen Heap, Benji Rogers and others as a way to make the music business more fair, transparent and sustainable.

In the week leading up to Music Tech Fest Berlin at Funkhaus, the festival is inviting some of the best minds in the field – from well-known artists and labels, music streaming and cloud hosting organisations to scientists and academics from the world’s top institutions – to participate in a 5 day blockchain laboratory to conduct experiments and explore the possibilities for music using the technology.

#MTFLabs: Blockchain is not simply a discussion or a seminar, but a hands-on testbed for innovation and experimentation. There are some fundamental questions to be explored and some exclusive technologies to be tested – and of course, the central figures in the public blockchain music conversation will be involved and represented.

It’s not just about music.

#MTFLabs: Blockchain is a perfect example of how fundamental technologies derive from, or are driven by music tech. The Blockchain itself continues the theme of decentralised (or peer-to-peer) data sharing by first-generation MP3 sharing platforms like Kazaa (which in turn gave birth to Skype) or generic file distribution tools like BitTorrent. Innovation comes from all directions: but music technology is a cultural force, driving progress in verticals from fintech to automotive.

Music Tech Fest Berlin is also partnering with Hack in the Box – a security hack event in Amsterdam to ensure the best minds in Europe come together to progress, to question and to innovate in the realm of blockchain music.

The results of #MTFLabs: Blockchain will be showcased and demonstrated on the main festival stage at #MTFBerlin, 27-30 May at Funkhaus – and will also be examined and discussed in more depth at the #MTFResearch symposium on Monday 30th May. The results will also form the basis of policy briefing material for the European Commission, and be fed back into the wider industries and startups as open innovation to move the technology forward.

Music Beyond the Digital Age

I was in Stockholm today presenting at a course run by SOM – the Swedish association for independent music. A group of record label owners had been assigned my book to read, and I was invited to come and talk to them for a couple of hours. By all accounts, not only had they read it, they seem to have enjoyed it – and one or two made a point of saying it had been helpful to them, which was lovely to hear.

Of course, it feels like I wrote Music in the Digital Age a lifetime ago. My presentation to the label owners was called Music Beyond the Digital Age – partly because so much of my thinking has moved on and developed since then – but also because so has the media environment we live in.

When I first started writing and speaking about music online, the world was very different. It was around the year 2001, give or take, and I had recently given up researching and writing about VR on the grounds it was so terribly old fashioned. I was more interested in developments for music and radio in the digital domain. This was before iTunes, before Facebook, before iPhones, before YouTube, Twitter, Sonos, Spotify, Soundcloud, Bandcamp – even before MySpace…

Google was only a few years old and most of us were still using Alta Vista. Hell, most of us were still using fax machines.

It was, of course, a good couple of years after Napster had revealed a fundamental problem in the model for music industries in the digital age. It triggered a catastrophic knee-jerk reaction in the recording industry that labelled everyone who likes music a criminal, attempted to break everyone’s music players (and computers in the process) and not only completely sucked all of the money out of the sector but also paved the way for the worst industry PR decision since the Ford Motor Company advocated running over pedestrians for not driving cars (that never actually happened of course, but it would kind of be in the same ball park if it had).

A decade or so year later, at the time I started writing Music in the Digital Age, it was actually still the digital age.

I’d say we’re at the point of transitioning into a new period.

For the record, the Digital Age – at least for music – started almost 35 years ago when CDs were released onto the market (remember that CDs are a digital format – despite the nonsense you hear about ‘digital vs physical’ as if CDs are one and not the other). Now there’s some pretty compelling evidence to suggest that it’s drawing to an end. Not that digital technologies are going away. We also still have books, writing, spoken word and television sets – so I wouldn’t unnecessarily worry about the ‘death of’ anything here if I were you.

All the same, this is hugely significant. We’re at the beginning of a 6th Media Age – after the Oral, Scribal, Print, Electric and Digital eras. That process of development is speeding up, for sure – though the idea that we’re approaching a ‘singularity’ is an over-simplistic and unimaginative reading of what’s really going on. A longer conversation for another time, perhaps…

I have some theories about what it means that we now live in what you might call a ‘post-digital’ world. It took me a couple of hours to explain what I meant by that earlier today, so I won’t try to condense it into a single blog post. I wrote an essay you can download when I was first exploring the concept if you’re interested in the idea – and there’s certainly a book in it if I ever get the time to sit down and write it.

But it was a really nice way to spend an afternoon, sharing these ideas that come out of my work with the Music Tech Fest (which has been hugely influential on my thinking and has provided me with endless case studies) as well as my encounters with everything from neuroscience to literary criticism, cryptography, art history and cultural theory.

I got to spend a very nice time with a really engaged and interested bunch of independent record label owners from across a whole range of genres, and we talked about things they probably don’t often get an occasion to talk about – from William Blake to Star Wars, Lego Bricks to Artificial Intelligence.

And it was so refreshing to hear a question I hadn’t heard asked in a very long time: ‘So… should I delete my MySpace page?’