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AI in Music: Following in the Footsteps of Auto-Tune's Controversial Journey

As AI algorithms compose new melodies, many wonder if those tunes can be celebrated as the next verse in music's evolution or condemned as a refrain of auto-tune's legacy?

Photo by Derrick Treadwell / Unsplash

This new kid on the tech block has taken many breaths away, as it enables unprecedented levels of creativity: from Grimes’s AI ventures to budding artists on SoundCloud. While the grumps of the industry wrestle with questions of authenticity, originality, copyright, and the future of musical innovation. Here’s our attempt to find out whether it’s a melody of progress or the refrain of past debates.

The new frontier in music

With the AI market projected to swell from $100 billion in 2021 to an astounding $2 trillion by 2030, the crescendo of generative AI in music mirrors this explosive growth. In 2023 alone, the global generative AI music market hit $294 million, with predictions of reaching $2.6 billion by 2032, fueled by smartphone proliferation and tech leaps. Yet, this surge isn't without its discord, with a mix of anticipation and skepticism.

Among the pioneers, Grimes stands out, venturing into AI with her Elf.Tech collaboration, offering her digital voice to fans for their own musical creations. This bold move resulted in over 15,000 beta phase compositions, with Grimes offering a 50% royalty share for online shares. Meanwhile, David Guetta's experimentation with AI for Eminem-like vocals underscores AI's potential to both innovate and stir controversy within music creation.

YouTube's initiatives, like the AI Music Incubator, further highlight the industry's turn towards AI. This program, in partnership with Google and Universal Music, seeks to foster ethical AI music creation while simultaneously clamping down on unauthorized AI renditions of artists.

As nearly 60% of musicians weave AI into their work, the parallels with autotune's tumultuous introduction to the music scene become increasingly apparent. Once met with disdain, autotune eventually became a staple in genres like rap. History invites us to ponder: Will AI enhance musical artistry or overshadow the human touch in music creation? Are we witnessing the early steps of AI in music on the way to becoming as integral and accepted as autotune once was?

Echoes of the past — autotune's legacy

Autotune's journey from controversy to staple mirrors today's AI debate in music. Initially met with skepticism and critique, autotune's introduction into the music scene sparked debates over authenticity and talent—echoes of which resound in today's discussions about AI-generated music.

At the dawn of the new millennium, hip-hop and R&B artists began experimenting with autotune, not just for pitch correction but as a stylistic choice, thereby influencing the sonic landscape of contemporary music. Early resistance likened autotune to a cheat, diluting the rawness and authenticity that fans craved.

However, tracks like T-Pain's vocally modified hits and Kanye West's emotionally charged "808s & Heartbreak" album leveraged autotune to explore new vocal territories and emotional depths, challenging the purist's perspective on music production.

The narrative evolved further between 2011 and 2015. Artists like Future and Travis Scott pushed boundaries, using autotune not just for pitch correction but as an instrument in its own right. This era cemented autotune's place in music, making it indispensable for creating the distinctive sounds of rap, hip-hop, and beyond.

Yet, autotune's path to acceptance was fraught. It clashed with Western ideals of authenticity and faced backlash for enabling celebrities with minimal musical talent to pursue music careers. Critics argued it masked true vocal ability, sparking debates about artistic integrity.

However, perceptions have shifted. Autotune's prevalence in hip-hop, R&B, indie, and rock has softened earlier criticisms, making it a tool for artistic expression rather than a crutch for the talentless. Today, its use signifies a blend of creativity and technological innovation, challenging musical authenticity.

This evolution mirrors the current discourse around AI in music. Skepticism and excitement collide as we grapple with questions of authenticity, originality, and the future of music creation. Just as autotune eventually found its place, AI's role in music will likely follow a similar trajectory, from controversial tool to accepted collaborator.

Might be interesting: How something like AI might impact the future of sampling and how artists create music.

AI's crescendo in music production

AI in music is here, reshaping creation, composition, and even vocal modulation.

The leap began decades ago, but today's AI, like Google's Lyria, crafts songs that leave industry veterans like Don Was in awe at AI composing songs with the nuanced style of legendary artists to Paul McCartney resurrecting John Lennon's voice for a Beatles track. Imagine an AI trained on your favorite artist's entire catalog, ready to collaborate for a fee. The possibility excites and unnerves in equal measure.

Yet, reactions are mixed. Nick Cave dismissed an AI-generated lyric as "sucks," while Sting believes "The building blocks of music belong to us, to human beings." The RIAA warns against AI's potential to infringe on artists' rights, spotlighting the industry's ambivalence.

However, many artists are open to AI's embrace. Almost 60% are using AI, and two-thirds would trust it with mastering. AI's role in music is expanding, from generating instrumentals to aiding in remixes and even crafting personalized soundtracks.

AI's accuracy in mixing and EQing offers DJs and producers a safety net against mistakes and a tool for creativity. Yet, it's not about replacing human artistry but enhancing it, ensuring music's evolution remains a collaborative dance between man and machine.

YouTube and Meta's ventures into AI music tools further underscore the technology's growing influence.

As the Grammys open doors to AI music, it's clear: AI's role in music seems to be celebrated, and the tech is here to stay.

AI music tools in 2023

Today's landscape is rich with AI music tools. From services like Endel and that tailor soundscapes to enhance mood and productivity to platforms like Voicify that enable the creation of AI-driven cover songs, the diversity is staggering. For those seeking unique, royalty-free tracks, tools like Beatoven and Soundraw are changing the game, allowing for customization by genre and mood. Among these innovations, LALAL.AI stands out for its cutting-edge ability to extract and separate vocal and instrumental tracks with unprecedented clarity.

The array of tools available is impressive, with Futuretools, a popular AI tools directory, listing 95 in music and voice modulation and Clutch reporting 70 AI music generation services.

Despite the surge in AI tools, their search popularity hasn't eclipsed that of autotune during its peak years from 2009 to 2012. However, the impact of AI on music is profound, extending far beyond what autotune achieved.

ALT: comparison of autotune software and AI music tools on Google Trends
According to Google Trends AI music tools never achieved the same popularity as Autotune software. 
Suggested: "The creative potential of randomness is often underestimated" — Data Scientist on AI in Music

The future: AI's role in music evolution

Will AI in music become as ubiquitous as autotune, seamlessly woven into the fabric of music production? Or will it redefine creativity in ways we're just beginning to understand?

In the next 5 years, we might see AI not just composing background music for videos but writing chart-topping hits with algorithms fine-tuned to predict viral success. Fast forward 10 years, and AI could be hosting live concerts, using real-time feedback from the audience to adjust the performance on the fly. By 15 years, the notion of an "artist" might expand beyond humans to include AI personas with their own fanbases, blurring the line between creator and creation.

The most mind-blowing scenario could see AI not only creating music but also evolving its own genres, and styles, and perhaps even developing a form of musical "consciousness," challenging our very conception of artistry. What happens when an AI writes a symphony that moves humans to tears or crafts a song that becomes the anthem of a generation? Will we still search for the artist behind the art, or will we celebrate it for what it is, irrespective of its origin?

Yet, as AI's role in music expands, so too will the debates surrounding it. The controversy is inevitable. Will AI composers pay royalties to the algorithms that "inspired" their creations? Could a hit song composed by AI challenge our notions of copyright, asking us whether a melody dreamt up by a machine can be owned at all?

In this brave new world, the super controversial question isn't just whether AI will become standard in music production but whether the essence of music, the emotional connection that resonates with the human spirit, can genuinely emanate from silicon and code.