The following post comes from Eamonn Forde (embedded photo), long-time music industry journalist and author of The Final Days of EMI: Selling the Pig. UK-based Forde’s the new book, Leaving The Building: The Creative Afterlife of Music Estates, is out now through Omnibus Press.
There is a great, possibly apocryphal, quote attributed to Nick Cave.
“I’m always near a stereo and I’m like, ‘What the hell is this junk?’ And the answer is always the Red Hot Chili Peppers.”
Which brings us to his last great set of quotes. In the January edition of his Red Hand Files newsletter, he responds to a letter from a fan, Mark from Christchurch, New Zealand, who commissioned the ChatGPT bot to write some lyrics “in the style of” Nick Cave.
Cave tiredly replies that he’s been getting stuff like this since November when he started ChatGPT. He calls the Cave-esque lyrics “replication as parody” and then really rolls up his sleeves.
“Perhaps over time it can create a song that on the surface is indistinguishable from the original, but it will always be a replication, a kind of burlesque,” he says, arguing that “algorithms don’t feel and [d]ata doesn’t suffer” like real artists do to write their lyrics, calling what he does a “blood and guts business” that a machine can never come close to.
“What makes a great song great is not its close resemblance to a recognizable work,” he continues. “Writing a good song is not mimicry, replication or pastiche, quite the opposite. It is an act of suicide that destroys all that one has strived to produce in the past […] [T]his song is nonsense, a grotesque mockery of what it is to be human.”
There’s a lot more, and it’s all exciting and beautifully written, as you’d expect from someone like Cave.
However, he spoke as a lyricist reacting to AI-generated texts. If the best lyricists strive to be poets, always reaching for something beyond, then AI-generated lyrics will always be desperately lacking.
Cave is probably just as withering and damning about AI-generated music, seeing it as a toothless, bloodless, meaningless simulacrum.
But – and without wanting to provoke a Red Hand Files newsletter aimed at my head – is there still a certain place for a certain type of AI-generated music?
To answer this, we will need to break down the different types of music. Cave engages in the debate, as he absolutely should, from the perspective of the profound power of music: music as a vehicle for emotional explanation and human connection. His starting point is music as the apotheosis of art, but a) a lot of music won’t live up to such high expectations, and b) not all music should even attempt to achieve this kind of transcendence.
Indeed, following Cave’s argument about artistic hierarchy, he ignores the fact that a vast amount of human-written texts (not his) are absolute rubbish or tasteless/pointless nonsense. But that’s OK. And maybe, just maybe, AI can help improve the output of some of the shockingly bad songwriters out there who have publishing deals. (I won’t name names, but there are thousands of them. You hear them every day.)
So the AI can become a cover for terrible songwriters, holding back the flimsy structure of songs they’ve somehow cobbled together without proper architectural rigor. AI may even become a complete replacement for a pitiful copywriter whose job is beyond all help and hope. Is the result necessarily bad?
Lyrics aside, there’s an argument to be made that AI music composition has its place. A small place, but a place nonetheless.
No doubt composers will argue that this makes them out of work, but that depends on what the music is supposed to do. It’s not exactly MU trying to ban the synth in the 80s, but music can sometimes exist as a sonic space that has no great artistic aspirations. It is nothing more than the sound it makes.
Perhaps we should think of music as existing in two very different configurations.
1) Functional/utilitarian music
There to perform a separate role where the music is in the background and which only works when it is in the background. It is music that has no utility, power, or beauty outside of that particular use case. The music is only there to fill the silence. It is very different from library music, which has its own creative form and can be adapted to different use cases.
2) Art/aesthetic music
It is music written to connect with people and distill human emotion, capturing and expressing something that exists beyond words. At its height, this is the “blood and guts business” that Cave is actively engaged in. Sometimes it’s wheezing, but at least it grabs onto something more.
These two types of music could, as long as we understand the differences and how and where they can or should be used, coexist.
The level of creativity/ingenuity involved in the latter will never be replaced by machines. But the context of use of the former is very different from the aesthetic basis of the latter.
It’s really a case of a divide between music as hyper-industrialized on the one hand and music as highly artisanal on the other.
This, of course, should not give AI-generated music carte blanche to infiltrate DSPs as part of a terribly up-to-date con game.
Songwriters who already feel they are being purged, belittled and obliterated in the digital age might argue that AI music isn’t just taking food off their table, it’s taking away the crumbs. And setting fire to the table. This is the thin end of the miserable wedge for them.
But AI is not replacing them. It is (or should be) only used to place temporary sound wallpapers that do not depend on a skill, craft, or art. No songwriter worth his salt would want to create music devoid of these qualities. This is music that is less “blood and guts” and more “tasteless and ruts.”
AI music is really just a new form, maybe even a lesser form, of Muzak.
Just as Muzak was a homonym, we need a new name for this utilitarian sound to separate it from the music that seeks to move or soothe your soul. For the sake of argument, let’s call it MusAIc.
Or, as a nod to Brian Eno and his experiments on Ambient 1: Music For Airports, which he wanted to be “as ignored as they are interesting,” we could call it Proxy MusAIc.
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