Earlier this year, Holly Herndon, one of music’s most critical thinkers, put out her latest album PROTO
, which received quite a bit of press, not only due to its quality (it’s great!) but also because she worked with an artificial intelligence program (which she named Spawn) on a number of tracks. What I appreciated was that Herndon’s discussion of the technology is that she actively leaned against the marketing framing of artificial intelligence as a means to replace human labor and instead contextualized it as a mere extension of it. Herndon speaking to Jezebel said
That’s one of the biggest problems of AI; it’s this kind of opaque, black box technology, and when we have this glossy press release where it’s like “the machine just wrote this song” you’re totally discounting all the human labor that went into the training set that the thing learns on. That was a really important part of how we set up the project and the way that we did. We wanted the people training Spawn to be visible, to be audible, to be named, to be compensated because I think that’s a huge part of what we’re facing with this thing today.
I found this particularly interesting because new advances in technology tend to be framed as simply a replacement for the human labor force. Outside of music, this leads to a parade of headlines implying
that robots will replace
human workers and that there is nothing that one can possibly do to stop this. Even within music, this is an old trope as back in the 1930s, during the early days of recorded music, the American Federation of Musicians ran a massive advertising campaign
warning against the risk of poorly-recorded music coming to replace good-quality live music. Capitalist hindsight would claim that the union was foolish to fight against such technological change given the outcome of history, but I’ll argue later there’s a perfectly good reason, as a worker and as a society, to more deeply interrogate who truly benefits from such technologies.
In October, on the New Models
podcast, Tom Krell of the How To Dress Well project made an aside about how Spotify’s end goal is simply to get rid of musicians and create entirely A.I.-generated music. The nihilistic future he tosses out is generally agreed upon as if the entire music industry is on a death march towards automating away a basic mode of human expression. That discourse is so dystopian that it’s what inspired me to want to push back.
(I’ll just make a quick aside here — one of my favorite podcasts, Citations Needed,
released an episode last week around the media’s narrative of automation, which I’d highly recommend since I borrow spiritually from a few of its conclusions.)
Frida Garza, in Gizmodo, cited a late 18th century
Wolfgang Mozart “musical dice game” in which numerically-generated pieces of music are strung together for one to perform, like an early version of what would become Krell’s nightmarish muzak vision. Garza more specifically tracked these computer-based music dreams back to a couple of professors at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1957, who experimented with the idea early on. The technology continued to advance over the following sixty years but over the past few years, a couple of flashpoints suddenly appeared at the intersection of artificial intelligence and music.