“Functional” “Dangerous” “Wedge”

A distinction in AI anxiety

In a Bloomberg opinion piece on AI-generated music, writer Lionel Laurent posits a question: “whether functional music is the thin end of a dangerous wedge.” By “functional music,” Laurent says he means “whale song, white noise, anything designed to play in the background.” By “dangerous” he means an existential threat to non-AI (né human) musicians. By “wedge” he suggests that once AI has conquered this ambient realm, it might threaten what must, by contrast, be considered “foreground music” (my term, not his). This would include hip-hop, rap, pop, country, and anything else that music fans pay (putative) attention to rather than merely play in the background. I use the word “putative” because regular old music has long served as background music. The rise of streaming playlists and the decline of liner notes has already done its fair share of damage to music’s place in the so-called attention economy.

Earlier this week, Anna Nicolaou in the Financial Times cited the same corporate anxiety expressed by the Universal Music Group that Lauren mentions in his article. “The company is asking streaming companies to cut off access to their music catalogue for developers using it to train AI technology,” she wrote. Laurent catches one irony that Nicolaou didn’t note: an album collaboration between James Blake and the music AI firm Endel, Wind Down, was released on the label Republic Records, which happens to be a UMG subsidiary. As Laurent explains: “While Wind Down carries Blake’s name and face, and was mixed from his ingredients — he provided individual ‘stem’ tracks featuring drumbeats and melodies — Endel’s technology generated the final product.”

Then again, that example may be less an irony than it an opportunity to draw a distinction. UMG expresses concern not for a threat on musicians so much as for a threat on the property it manages for musicians. From that vantage, the Blake/Endel team-up isn’t an irony or an anomaly, but a model.

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