Five Seven Five: Day 4 – AI and Autotune: The End of the Musician?

This post is part of a collection of thoughts I’m putting together as a companion to Five Seven Five, a stand-alone book that uses haiku I wrote as input to an AI art generator. It was a super-fun project to build. You can get it by backing my kickstarter. Or you can pre-order it at several online retailers.

Fun or not, though, the use of AI in any endeavor is filled with intrigue. So as I came closer to launching the project I decided I wanted to explore the bigger picture of how AI is impacting our world, and specifically the creative world I dwell in.

Originally I was going to jump into ChatGPT, today—something that infringes on my own territory of the written word. But I ran into a video in which music producer Rick Beato discusses the use of Autotune in music, how that’s a bad thing to begin with, and how it’s created a slippery slope to an AI dominated field. I thought that was a good segue into other discussions, so I thought I’d push my ChatGPT ideas off a day and move to music instead.

Back when we were young men, my brother moved to Los Angeles in order to chase his dream of being a Rock and Roll star. He semi-made it, I guess you’d say. He hasn’t made his living doing his art, but like me he’s still hacking away at it. He’s a guitarist, and plays in several bands, including Gabble Ratchet (a Genesis tribute) and Pretties For You (an Alice Cooper tribute).

We’ve been working on a multi-media collaboration that I expect to announce more directly soon. It’s been a total blast.

Back in the day, though, we played music together and for a brief while I had ideas along the same lines he did. Play music. Make a million bucks. Retire in luxury.

I say that because, since I’m straying outside the boundaries of my own form of art, and since I’m discussing the potential impending doom (or not) of artists in that field, it felt like I needed to say that I’m connected to musicians in personal ways. I haven’t got worn treads and battle scars, but I have walked at least a few steps in their shoes.

Assuming you’re not going to watch Beato’s video, here’s my hot take.

  • AI are already beginning to remove the need for humans in the loop.
  • People don’t notice when something has been digitally altered.
  • Cher’s use of autotune in “Believe” changed everything because that effect is now on essentially every song you hear today. There are artists who have built their whole careers on autotune—even those who can actually sing.
  • Once everything is digitized and managed, it becomes fodder for AI—which is then able to algorithmically create new works. And hyper-editing is the modern approach.
  • Again, the general listener know the difference, and frankly don’t care.
  • Really the only question is: who gets paid for it? Who are the song writers? The programmer? I don’t know.

It’s the last two items that I want to talk about here.

I can focus on Beato’s general disdain for the use of technology in creating the sounds of modern music because I can agree with his viewpoints. Like most people, I grok the music of my younger years more than I grok others. Digitized music doesn’t sound the same as “mine.” Of course, that’s ignoring the idea that my age was full of synthesized stuff, and that I grew up as multi-track recording was allowing musicians to create songs even if they were separated by continents. My dad likes his music best, and feels the same way about technology, but ignores that a lot of his early stuff was listening to the first distortion of music that came with electrification—and, of course, the stealing of black music to support it…but that’s a different topic for a different time.

The point here is that, as far as the music is concerned, people want what they want, and the process to create it is not particularly relevant.

This is Rick Beato’s point, and it’s the point of a lot of doomsayers. If no one can tell the difference, and no one cares, it all comes down to that financial question—who gets paid, and more important, who does not.

But here’s a thing…

Kids today do care about the artist who make their music. They care a lot.

As all kids have since the arrival of pop music, the young’uns of today live vicariously through the celebrity of musicians. Think about that a bit.

If every voice you hear on popular music is autotuned, and artists are managing to make money with them, then what’s the dig? At that point it’s just us old purists bitching about the kids these days and wishing they’d get off our musical lawn. There is a lot of that in the Beato video. Despite the fact that he says the music is well-produced, It’s clear he just does not like the sound he’s hearing. But the relevant question here is this: Do kids today eschew the artists who create those sounds, or are they simply finding stuff that makes their world rock, then ignoring the artist?

I think they are associating themselves with artists—though that is always a dangerous path, too. It’s not always the content that’s the point. Societies are built on shared loves and shared hates.

And, to go down another path, the definition of a musical artist has expanded today.

It’s easy for us oldsters to ignore (or just miss) that there are, for example, DJs who now make their living curating and mixing music for events. People go to concerts specifically to hear those DJs. That’s a profession that basically didn’t exist in the form it exists today. Those are roles literally created with modern technology. If they spin AI created music, they spin it. But they are still the humans (today, anyway) that draw the crowds.

At smaller fields of view, this idea that the AI has killed musicians also sidesteps the popularity of such things as tribute bands (who draw not inconsiderable crowds). And it sidesteps the crowds of people who come to watch live artists play. My general feel about the whole of the field of commercial musicianship is that this is a period where you make your money grinding it out on the road rather than sitting in a studio—like it was before the 1960s or 1970s.

If no one cared about hearing music played by those people, would they still pay hundreds of dollars to come to an event?

Perhaps they would. Perhaps they’d shell out that kind of money to listen to a CD live. But I seriously doubt it.

There is no question that the injection of AI into the game will affect the environment that musicians play in. It already has. But that’s happened every time a new wave of technology has appeared, and I just don’t see too many teeny-boppers—who have swooned over new celebrities since Elvis and the Beatles turned into Taylor Swift, BTS, or … whoever—getting excited to see a hologram or whatever form an AI concert might take.

I could happen. Sure, I guess. But I admit I struggle to see that.

In some form or another, humans will need other humans to be involved in at least some of their art.

So, while I totally buy that it’s true that no one cares about the process that creates the media they are consuming, I don’t see that it’s true that the AI will totally kill the field of human endeavor in the arts. At least I can’t see it so strongly that it becomes the overall answer.

I think there will always be human artists, and always be humans who will consume it. The variable is how much. The question is where the lines will be drawn.

Or …the question boils down to Rick Beato’s last comment.

Who gets paid?

For better or for worse, we live in a capitalistic world. So, at the end of the day, the main thing that matters in this conversation regarding art and the AI is whether artist who make their living today, and those who come along behind, will continue to be able to feed themselves with it.

I think this is the root of all angst when it comes to AI in any usage. Will these learning algorithms put creative people out of business? Will they be forced to other jobs to avoid starvation?

I think the better question to ask is not will they or won’t they. I don’t believe this is a binary answer. It’s not “yes,” artists will starve, or “no” everyone will be fine. In my book, the better question to ask is: How many creative people will be forced to quite their artistic endeavors and go do something else?

I expect I’ll get into that tomorrow when I head back to my own safer ground of text and Chat GPT.

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