As artificial intelligence (AI) evolves on an exponential scale, questions are arising about how this technology will reshape the not-so-distant future, and that future includes the electronic music industry.
In fact, electronic music stands to become the industry that AI will most directly impact out of all music genres. But what that means for the future of electronic music as a whole is still up for debate. Nonetheless, big changes are closing in, and music producers are at the center of everything.
Scrolling through any social media comment thread about AI reveals that people generally react to this technology with either excitement or fear, and when it comes to electronic music some are debating whether AI could even put music producers out of work.
While this speculation sounds extreme, some producers feel their careers are indeed under threat and others are already exploring ways to adapt.
Former music producer-turned-trailblazing digital multimedia artist Jason J. Snell is one creator who is tackling the tech evolution head-on by reimagining new ways for humans and tech to collaborate.
Snell’s experimental EEG-generated music project known as Primary Assembly is one remarkable example. This novel medium allows human creators to plug themselves into the cyber world through biosensors that translate a person’s physical state such as movement, heartbeat, and even brainwaves into sound.
As described in further detail below, Snell’s story of ingenuity offers a unique perspective on the future of human-AI relations in the music industry, and it suggests that carving out a scenario in which the two can coexist comes with both true challenges and true opportunities.
Most importantly though, it begs the question of whether the features of generative AI technology that people find most troubling lie in the tool itself or rather in the human values that shape how it’s used.
Better. Faster. Stronger.
“I think there’s a realistic fear of being replaced,” Snell explains, speaking to EDM Maniac over Zoom.“When you look at generative AI programs like Midjourney, (a generative graphic design AI program), a piece of art that would have taken an artist days or weeks to make now takes 10 to 20 seconds.”
Snell knows from personal experience what it’s like to have his hard work blown out of the water by AI. In an earlier stage of his career, Snell developed a generative AI app that essentially functioned as a virtual music procurer.
The program composes tracks based on a simple set of instructions and sound samples. While initially impressed by the program’s ability to make beautiful music, it wasn’t long before the technology started to outpace him.
“The AI was better than me!” Snell exclaims with a chuckle as he goes on to explain that the program was in fact so successful that some of the AI’s tracks ended up catching the attention of an experimental German record label…and beating Snell to it.
This was a monumental turning point that would forever alter his career. “I’ve abandoned the idea of creating music, putting out albums and that being my income. I’ve pivoted towards other technologies to be creative.”
Bypassing The Business
The pace at which AI can produce music is not the only way this technology can outpace humans. It also bypasses the intricate nuances that go into the creative process of writing music as well as the economic and relationship-building aspects of traditional music production.
When experiencing a live set from the dancefloor, it’s often easy to miss what’s really going on behind the decks. The music that enthralls our bodies is built on endless hours of human labor in which producers collaborate to compose sounds, melodies, and beats for DJs to mix.
For Snell, this creative process is as irreplaceably human and important as earning a means of living. But for creators with a different agenda, AI can generate a disproportionate advantage:
“That whole experience can be bypassed through AI. I can tell an AI that I want to make tracks in x-y-z genres, and I want it to sound like a specific track, but in a different type of flavor, and then they can crank out unlimited albums without ever having to work with a musician or own a piece of gear. That whole process gets sped up, and since the data models use existing work, it’s inherently extractive or exploitative of all previous artists because those previous artists don’t get any sort of royalties.”
AI Apocalypse Or Renaissance?
… So is there any hope for the humans who want to stick to the old ways? This question hangs heavily as many producers look to the future, but it’s unlikely that AI will render human producers obsolete.
After all, music is art and there will always be artists who choose the creative process over numbers. Furthermore, early studies suggest that the public generally prefers human-made music to AI-generated tunes, and it’s within reason to assume that EDM fans would rather see their favorite DJs and producers perform than listen to a “robot” spin the decks on festival stages (Daft Punk are actually humans if you weren’t aware).
Nonetheless, staying relevant in the face of automation requires human adaption and creativity. That’s how a potential existential crisis became an opportunity for Snell, and it started with finding a way to bring humans and tech together rather than pitting them against each other.
“I think that with this onslaught of AI, it’s really important for me to show that there’s a different way to create that is embodying rather than disembodying. That’s when I started working with biometrics,” Snell explains, describing the early stages of his developing new high-tech creative projects like Primary Assembly.
Snell’s early work under the project used dancers and wearable biosensors to turn human motion into sound. Over time, Snell has optimized his programs to become ever more versatile. The latest design uses Bluetooth EEG scanners to read brainwaves, which are then converted into data that feeds directly into commonplace sound design software like Ableton, allowing the user to generate music in real-time without ever touching an instrument or piece of equipment.
In short, Primary Assembly allows Snell to make music with his mind.
One could say it sounds like science fiction and Snell seems to agree: “ It felt like a superpower. Like I was Professor X from X-Men,” he recounts through a wide-eyed gaze. “I could do something with my brain and then play a note on the synthesizer without touching it.”
While this technology isn’t geared for producing festival-stage performances yet, Snell envisions a future full of possibilities, and even now, Snell’s trailblazing ingenuity puts an empowering spin on the creative potential of technology:
“What’s really remarkable about it is that it’s a totally different way for me to create. You’re able to take consciousness, which is normally invisible, and make it visible. Creating music this way feels more vulnerable because there’s no filtering the biometric input your body puts out. If I’m using my heart literally as the beat of the music and I’m nervous, everyone knows that. I felt like for a long time I was sort of hiding behind a laptop or a drum machine and I was craving a way to take off the armor. This technology has allowed me to find a space that enables me to do that.”
The Future Is Up To The User
Whether novel tech like AI will make or break the future of music production is subjective. But the fact is that technology is a tool, and like all tools, only human intent determines whether the tool will work for us or against us.
AI has a remarkable ability to simplify daily activities and speed through tasks that can save people precious time. This capability offers many potential benefits, yet it’s also the attribute that Snell and a number of other tech-based creatives see as a threat.
The core issue, Snell argues, is that in a culture that often emphasizes speed, productivity, and profit across all industries, Generative AI can be used to run humans off the road in pursuit of growth.
Societies across the globe have struggled with this issue since humans first started bringing new technologies into the workforce, and the electronic music industry now faces the age-old dilemma on an unprecedented scale.
The good news is that some industry authorities like Universal Music Group and the Human Artistry Campaign are already organizing to protect human artists against exploitation through AI, and Snell’s ingenuity offers an example of how human producers and AI can effectively work together.
The catch is, these efforts can only be successful through a deliberate choice to value human needs first. The future always comes down to human choices.
The power to determine whether AI will dance alongside its human companions rather than push them off stage rests in our own hands.
Inspired by: edmmaniac.com