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Will AI Replace The Artist Altogether Or Will It Serve As Another Creation Tool?

Photo of Zach Fuller
by Zach Fuller

In covering tech trends, we try to avoid chasing after the latest buzzwords at MIDiA. Artificial Intelligence certainly ticks the boxes of Gartner’s famed hype cycle model, i.e. technologies that attract VC funding and obligatory media headlines before falling into a trough of disillusionment, often never recovering. AI has been a cornerstone of the computer science dream since the 1950s and the idea of programmable humanity has a history far beyond contemporary science fiction, stretching back to Greek mythology. The technology of course has grander consequences beyond artistic creation, but this is MIDiA, so let’s focus on (for want of a better word), content.

An analogous framework for AI’s potential impact is electricity. Kevin Kelly, the founder of Wired magazine, said it best with: “If electricity brought automation, AI brings cognification.” Think of farms which previously required the owner to plough the land through manual labour. Electricity meant he could now use a tractor and dramatically increase his farm’s productivity, as well as save himself from gruelling physical labour. Electricity also had dramatic implications for music.

Creative: Electricity allowed for music amplification and manipulation. Manipulation via amplifiers and the studio itself led to a plethora of innovation in recorded sound. This included but was not limited to:

Distortion: Link Wray’s Rumble, The Kinks, Metal, PunkTremolo: Surf RockPhasing + Flanging: Psychedelic RockArtificial Reverb: Joy Division, The xxDrum Machines: Hip-Hop and Dance

Second order effects included the three-minute pop song (artists consciously writing short and memorable songs as this fit best with the emerging radio format).

Performance: Amplification took music out of music halls and into wider, open spaces. It allowed music to be recorded and thus gave rise to radio, music venues without a live band and, of course, the recorded music industry. The rise of planes and automobiles meant bands could now tour farther and more internationally than before. The advent of portable music players meant music was no longer restricted to individual spaces (venues, bedrooms) and became something that could travel with you.

AI and music

There is an old interview with Jim Morrison of The Doors talking about the future of music whereby he described a vision: “I can see a lone artist with a lot of tapes and electrical ... like an extension of the Moog synthesiser — a keyboard with the complexity and richness of a whole orchestra, y'know? There's somebody out there, working in a basement, just inventing a whole new musical form."

Whilst many think his prophetic take on music is more in reference to EDM musicians and DJs, it is far more a foreshadowing of an approach to creativity in the AI era: an artist at the centre of electronic creations where they choose which elements suit the given moment. The artist’s role therefore becomes the role of editor, with the AI fielding ideas towards the critical eye and ear of the artist. The artist looks at the world around him and based on data and his own imagination, requests the AI to create certain elements for them which they can accept or reject. This is not radically different to many previous musicians who lacked the ability to play instruments themselves but wrote around the works of their bandmates. An example is Morrissey’s role within The Smiths and later through his solo backing band; and the same for Jello Biafra and The Dead Kennedys. Few would deny that this did not constitute an artistic contribution, so why would the same not apply for AI?

Along with the ‘fake artists scandal’ on Spotify this year, AI has caused concern in certain musical factions that it will replace the musician altogether. To this, I am reminded of another quote by the art historian Ernst Gombrich: “There is no such thing as art, only artists”. People have never gravitated towards artists solely because of their musical output but rather what they represent. From Frank Sinatra to Lana Del Rey, the first century of popular music has equally been driven by visual style and an artist’s sensitivity to the context in which they operate. With AI as another artistic tool, such nuance will not be upended in the short-term.

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