Why independent artists will win the AI music game

Universal Music Group were fuming when AI mimicked two of their biggest artists – Drake and the Weekend – in a released song. Upon releasing an agitated statement, UMG embarked on a legal whack-a-mole campaign in a bid to put the A.I. cat back in the bag. Despite this, the legal status of the song remains unclear.

Some music business veterans argue the song was functionally no different than a remix – touché – while others decried it as a dangerous new paradigm. While UMG, Drake and the Weekend sit on the dangerous side of the fence, tech-forward artist Grimes and mother of Elon Musk’s child is more welcoming to technological advancements. Grimes, who is not affiliated with any record label, announced she will use that relative freedom to perform a radical experiment called “Elf.Tech.” Using A.I., Elf.Tech allows users to generate a Grimes-style work with their own inputs. In return, all Grimes asks is for tasteful use of their now-open-source talent and a 50% cut on any master recording royalties.

Tellingly, the first prompt on Elf.Tech asks users to connect to an email account or a cryptocurrency wallet. Presumably, the platform anticipates using blockchain and crypto to help enforce the suggested royalty split.

Currently, platforms must obtain permissions from both publishers and labels to play a song—in most instances, the label owns the sound recording while the publisher controls the underlying music and lyrics. As long as this stays in place, AI covers should play to the same rule as a remix, legally. 

Interestingly, the challenges of generative A.I. are similar to that of open-source software. The open-source movement, a reaction to ever-tighter controls over software, promoted the release of source code under permissive licence to foster the tinkering, sharing of ideas, and collaboration seen in the field’s early days. Today, open-source projects range from small hobbyist efforts to large-scale projects such as the Linux kernel, which is deployed in billions of devices around the world.

Similarly,  traditional music publishers and labels thrived in a world where counterparties and IP were tightly controlled. Their moat was legal agreements that could hamstring pirates and, in some unfortunate cases, the artists themselves. As experimentation from pseudonymous creators—including those who deploy A.I.—shifts the balance of power from this model, artists will have to find new ways to engage with the increasing commoditization of their work. In this sense, artists signed to major labels – such as Drake and Weekend – possess less autonomy and therefore malleability to change as independent artists like Grimes. 

The next few years will see more explicit separation of designing versus controlling music production. To that end, Grimes’s experiment is a worthy exercise pushing the limits of a multibillion-dollar business and our burgeoning world of open-sourced talent. 

As the industry continues to change and adapt, artists who aren’t stuck in expensive major deals may be better off as the ability to adapt to these rapid changes remains liberated. 

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