The future is here, the ghostwriters are on the storm, and fake Drake is all too real.
Earlier this month, a gloomy hip-hop track created with the help of artificial intelligence to jarringly replicate the voices of Canadian superstars Drake and the Weeknd went viral. Heart on My Sleeve was posted online by an anonymous producer using the name Ghostwriter who appears only as a person with a sheet thrown over their head.
The track was quickly removed from major streaming services after Universal Music Group (UMG) issued a statement warning against “infringing content created with generative AI.”
That is not the end of it, though. In fact, the original TikTok posting of the song came with an ominous note from Ghostwriter: “This is just the beginning.”
To put it another way, robot music is here to stay.
It is not known if the complete song was created with AI, or just the vocals. Heart on My Sleeve draws on the fondness Drake and the Weeknd have for rhyme-based misogyny: “Talkin’ to a diva, yeah, she on my nerves/ She think that I need her, kick her to the curb.” It creepily concentrates on singer-actress Selena Gomez, who has dated the Weeknd (and Justin Bieber, also mentioned in the song).
Toronto gets a shout-out, but mentioning it by that name is amateurish: The city is “The 6″ in the hip-hop vernacular. The song is listenable and comical enough to be considered excellent parody. Because fake Drake carries a tune much better than the real thing, we know it is not authentic Drizzy.
But the track is real enough and so is the concern that surrounds it. Will artists be replaced by machines? Not likely. Is using AI technology to base new music on copyrighted melodies and lyrics a case of intellectual property theft? Seems likely.
UMG, the biggest of the so-called Big Three music companies, represents stars including Taylor Swift, Harry Styles, Drake, the Weeknd and Justin Bieber, as well as Gomez, for that matter. The label recently told music streaming platforms to block artificial intelligence companies from training their machines to scrape data from recordings. “We will not hesitate to take steps to protect our rights and those of our artists,” UMG wrote to unnamed streaming services, according to e-mails obtained by the Financial Times.
Man at odds with artificial intelligence is a long-running nightmare traditionally considered by science fiction writers and champion chess players. Now it is the music industry that faces the threat.
Last month, influencer Roberto Nickson shared a video explaining how he employs AI tools to uncannily replicate the sounds of Kanye West. “And just like that,” he tweeted. “The music industry is forever changed.”
Nickson pointed out that his efforts are embryonic, that AI will only get better, and that in the future songs by your favourite artists will be indistinguishable from the real thing: “You’re not gonna know whether it’s them or not.”
That is not inherently a bad thing. Bestselling author James Patterson employs ghostwriters to help with the prolific output released under his name. His readers don’t seem to care, and neither does his publisher. It’s all transparent and above board.
Facing an unstoppable advance of technology, it would be foolish to try to stop it. (As the record industry did in fighting digital file sharing instead of embracing and monetizing the trend themselves.)
A group called the Human Artistry Campaign, representing dozens of international arts-licencing organizations including Music Canada, has outlined a set of principles to deal with the future that has already arrived.
The thrust of their proposals is that technology has long empowered human expression, that AI must be subject to free-market licensing for the use of original works, and that creators and copyright owners must retain exclusive control over determining how their content is used.
In 2009, Juno Award-winning singer-songwriter Dan Mangan released the single Robots, about humans acting like robots. Today’s scary reality is robots as humans, and that AI might be more efficient at doing what flesh-and-blood songwriters inherently have always done.
“As I understand it, AI emulates human articulation by scraping an immense library of documented human articulation,” Mangan told me. “This is exactly what songwriters do, albeit within their own more narrow and biased spheres of historical influence.”
Mangan does not feel AI-generated copycat music should be banned, but that it should be regulated with the same kinds of intellectual property considerations already on the books. “If someone types ‘a song like Drake’ into an AI generator, they are certainly intentionally ripping off Drake.”
In the 1968 sci-fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, the dying computer HAL sings the diddy Daisy, taught to it by its creator. The computer continues to sing as its memory banks are being removed, slower and sleepier, before it is finally disabled completely.
It was the end of the movie, but not the end of the story. “Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do.” We cannot stop AI, we can only hope to contain it.