This isn’t the first time the music industry establishment has been faced with a potentially existential threat in the digital age.
Back in 1999, during the height of a period of astronomical growth in the industry, Shawn Fanning and his team of hackers turned the industry upside-down when they launched Napster, a file-sharing computer service that allowed users to download and share music without compensating the music’s rights holders.
Despite the establishment eventually forcing Napster to shut down after two years of legal action, a string of other online-piracy services emerged soon after.
And as soon as one service was taken down, other new services sprung up like stubborn weeds.
While the industry would eventually bounce back after a decade of rampant piracy that saw music sales plummet, the fear has always been lingering that some new innovation able to disrupt the entire industry could emerge at any point.
Now, following the viral artificial intelligence (AI) generated vocal clone of Drake and The Weeknd, some are projecting that AI may very well pose the industry’s biggest challenge since Napster.
Perhaps sensing the inevitable, over the past week Universal Music Group, the largest and most successful music company in the world, has been highly critical of the viral release cloning the label’s two biggest acts.
Titled “Heart on my Sleeve”, the song in question went viral last Friday and raked up millions of streams across digital streaming platforms within a few days.
On social media platform TikTok, which helped propel the song’s virality, “Heart on my Sleeve” had roughly 10 million views.
The song was initially removed from Apple, Spotify, Deezer and Tidal on Monday and Tuesday, and a link to the song on YouTube now reads, “This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by Universal Music Group”.
In response, the label issued a press release to media in which it said all platforms have a “legal and ethical responsibility” to prevent the use of services that infringe on an artist’s rights.
At the centre of this debate is exactly that: the legal and ethical responsibility these platforms have to act on AI-generated music.
Fisani Nyandeni, a former PR manager at Sony Music Entertainment Africa, spoke with IOL and warned that this may be quite complicated.
“The AI discussion with the music industry and music business is no longer something from a dystopian future, it’s a current reality and one that isn’t regulated but needs to be, sooner rather than later.
“Whenever I am part of this discussion, my mind automatically wonders what the copyright implications are? If my voice is AI-generated without my permission, what is my legal recourse?
“What happens if I am signed to a major (label)? What is the risk of AI creating their own compositions and who owns that?
“But, it’s not all negative, AI also presents opportunities for artists: Can an artist trademark/digitally protect their voice, rhyme style, cadence etc to protect from AI-generated compositions?”
Copyright and trademark laws are typically quite complex and it’s unclear how artists will be able to protect themselves.
While neither Drake nor The Weeknd had responded to the song at the time of writing, Drake posted “This is the final straw AI" on Instagram after coming across a fan-made video in which he appeared to be rapping the Ice Spice track “Munch (Feeling U)”.
While Universal Music Group also revealed that it has been doing its own innovation around AI for some time, it warned that such releases breached their agreements with digital streaming platforms (DSPs) and were a violation of copyright law.
“The training of generative AI using our artists’ music (which represents both a breach of our agreements and a violation of copyright law) as well as the availability of infringing content created with generative AI on DSPs, begs the question as to which side of history all stakeholders in the music ecosystem want to be on: the side of artists, fans and human creative expression, or on the side of deep fakes, fraud and denying artists their due compensation.”
They added that despite this they were encouraged by the engagement from their various platform partners on these issues.
Profound, a South African DJ and producer who’s worked with award-winning artists such as Riky Rick, Emtee and Khuli Chana, shared that while he too has concerns, he also sees opportunity in this.
“It’s quite scary from a copyright and legitimacy perspective, as we can see. In the world of video, people are using deepfakes to incite propaganda.
“However, deepfake has provided entertainment value for us in music. Look at Kendrick Lamar's music video where he commemorates black idols.
“In music, as much as AI is being used to gimmick famous artists, I think it presents amazing opportunities for posthumous releases, and the songwriting industry has bigger potential because they can create demos in the voices of the potential artists.
“I do also think that major labels are going to work very hard to protect their artists against unethical practices.”
Despite the potential challenges, Profound also says that AI just simply cannot replace human creativity and involvement.
“I don’t think it’s much of a threat for musicians, primarily because in our current era of music the majority of song success is based on social media marketing.
“So, for example, a Drake AI song can go viral, but the roll-out of a smash hit like ”God’s Plan“, along with its music video, will always out-do the social luck AI has.
“I believe artists will still be able to out-compete AI trends because of the leverage they have in marketing.”
Nyandeni added that the music industry is playing catch-up and warned that AI is here to stay.
“AI is not going anywhere, we’re only at the beginning of AI. In five years, this current iteration of AI will be viewed as the 3310 of AI.
“What does iPhone 14 equivalent look like and what does that look like for the music industry, music business and the consumer?”