AI and Commercial Music

Todd Hayen

Del Bigtree recently devoted a segment on his popular program, The Highwire, on the advent of AI in commercial music. Del created a theme song for The Highwire on one of many AI creation websites, the one he chose is Suno.com. See this segment here.

So, what do you think? Pretty impressive, huh? I have been quite impressed with the recent slate of AI genius—ChatGPT, and now Suno.com. I am a composer myself, so this sort of thing would be very distressing if I were still in the music creation biz. Now it is not really threatening to me, just sad. It is sad how human development of a skill, often taking a lifetime, is reduced to a few seconds of computer calculation. Of course, without the years of human output ahead of the computer algorithm, there would be nothing there to be impressed with. Monkey see, monkey do.

But still. It is a bummer. But what is the appeal to art, and in this case pop music, anyway? I don’t think there has ever been a hit song without a popular performing artist behind it. I remember when I was in the music biz and heard day in and day out, “If you want to have a hit record or a lucrative career, you have to tour.” In other words, you have to have a presence as a human being to sell records. No one buys a record just for the music. Can any of you name the actual creators of pop music hitting the charts? The songwriters of your favourite tunes over the years? Not likely, unless the artist singing the song wrote it themselves, which of course is common, but if they didn’t, it is not typical for people to know the actual composer/songwriter—it could just as well be Suno.com as any human being, who cares.

Still, does this mean popular performers will go to Suno.com now to get their latest hit to sing and promote? I doubt it. But who knows what is in store for us? As long as humans are humans, I still think people will need to put a face to their favourite songs, a human face, not a computer one.

However, the operative phrase here is “as long as humans are humans.” Whether humans stay humans is debatable. Maybe it will be cyborgs in the future choosing their songs to listen to, preferably created by their high-tech cousin Suno sometime in the not-too-distant future.

Who knows . . .

I think as far as a threat to popular music goes, AI pop tune creation probably will fizzle out much like a fad does. The record industry is already suffering quite the “transhuman” dilemma with other music-making technologies that dehumanize the process. Regarding commercial music, this all may be just another nail in the coffin, so I may share Del’s concern. And, of course, once people lose interest in other humans doing creative things, the day the music dies may be just around the corner. Music’s death (and the death of human art in general) will occur for a lot of reasons, not the least being the demise of humans to even give a crap who or what creates.

Actually, that is the real problem. Along with this AI craze comes a bunch of human beings who have been desensitized to what art even is. The music Del gave as a sample was totally devoid of any soul or obvious human integration. I don’t doubt that most people would not even notice this deficit. Del didn’t (well, maybe just a little bit). This has often been the case with commercial music even when humans made it, and well accepted as well (lack of soul). Commercial music, created for commercial purposes, does not really need a human face. It has a utilitarian function, and as long as it accomplishes that function, then who cares? Unless, of course, if it is completely synthetic, with no human behind it at all, maybe it will subliminally be dysfunctional. That is always something to hope for—that humans subliminally notice the lack of soul.

What we generally consider “real art” today probably will not be as affected by all this AI insanity. At least not to the degree Del is concerned. He is right about lost jobs regarding commercial artists. Not only in music, but everywhere a product is created up until now requiring human hands. He even mentions lawyers, any sort of writer, and other professionals who may first succumb to this “artificial intelligence” replacement. It is the intellectual revolution compared to the industrial revolution.

I once led a seminar with the topic: “Is film music commercial art and not true art?” This was back in the mid-’80s. My argument was that film music was really a collaborative effort, not only driven by the visual medium which the composer had nothing to do with creating, but also creatively influenced by other artists in the medium such as the film’s director. It is even influenced greatly (very much so in my day as a film composer) by non-artists such as producers, accountants, and their families. How then could it be true art? (BTW, I do believe it is true art.)

When we get into even more commercial endeavours, such as theme songs and Fried Chicken commercials, the “artist” becomes even more removed from the end product’s efficacy. Of course, people enjoy working with people more than they enjoy working with machines, but that quickly will fade away, just like every other similar situation where in the past humans and humans worked together to create something. Gone with the wind.

Regarding “real art.” Well, these men and women are not fully protected either. Not so much because people would be just as happy going to the MOMA in NYC to look at computer-generated art (certainly as a novelty that has already happened) but because “real art” simply will not be appealing to non-human zombies—which is where humanity is headed. Until then, however, Suno AI may not affect Taylor Swift or Beyonce for a bit more time (although it is debatable if either of these artists, or their music, is human.)

In listening carefully to Del’s AI-generated theme song, it is rather easy to tell it is a bit off—the lyrics in particular. The style of music he chose (I think just a basic classic rock style) also is rather easy to re-create. Considering that nearly two decades of the pop music of the 50’s and 60’s stuck to only a few easy chord progressions. Most songs are rather formulaic in their constructions of verses, choruses, and bridges. Drumbeats are similar, instrumentation licks and fills are also very formulaic.

Commercial music is not difficult to emulate (fake) by rote (great commercial art is determined by how well it sells, or fits the product it was designed to fit—which in my opinion also takes great talent and human ability). It just used to take a lot of time for a composer to put all these elements together. And in the old days the creator of such music was also reliant on a lot of other performing artists to produce the music—such as drummers, guitarists, and bassists, not to mention singers. Don’t get me wrong, pop music can be art (so can commercial music, it just doesn’t need to be, to be successful—at least not consciously so). And pop/rock composers, and artists, can be artists. It is just that the music construction blocks can be assembled without a lot of artistry involved.

This is true for any art, actually. What the common person has now defined as “art” can be easy to emulate. True art cannot. Even pop music is considered by many to simply be commercial. I am reminded of a famous quote by the eminent composer and conductor, Pierre Boulez. He was quoted once (by his biographer, Joan Peyser) comparing a “smash hit” heard on the radio as “mass shit.”

I am, again, more concerned that the agenda will create, through transhumanism, a subspecies of being devoid of any soul quality at all, thus making “non-human” music perfectly fine to use in commercial applications. Of course, it stands to reason that the ultimate de-humanization project will create humans incapable of connecting to any sort of art, regardless of its maker. But that is an end-stage development. Maybe we have a few years before that final goal is attained—a few years where us zombies will still have a tiny scrap of humanness left, just enough to enjoy a beat and a decent melody. When we stop dancing, we can then say we finally made it to oblivion.

Todd Hayen PhD is a registered psychotherapist practicing in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He holds a PhD in depth psychotherapy and an MA in Consciousness Studies. He specializes in Jungian, archetypal, psychology. Todd also writes for his own substack, which you can read here


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Categories: AI, latest, opinion