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ASCAP Members Debate AI Benefits, Negatives in Nashville – Billboard

Written by on 22/11/2023


When Dierks Bentley’s band is looking for something to keep it occupied during long bus rides, the group has, at times, turned to artificial intelligence apps, asking them to create album reviews or cover art for the group’s alter ego, The Hot Country Knights.

“So far,” guitarist Charlie Worsham says, “AI does not completely understand The Hot Country Knights.”

By the same token, Music Row doesn’t completely understand AI, but the developing technology is here, inspiring tech heads and early adaptors to experiment with it, using it to get a feel, for example, for how Bentley’s voice might fit a new song or to kick-start a verse that has the writer stumped. But it has also inspired a palpable amount of fear among artists anticipating their voices will be misused and among musicians who feel they’ll be completely replaced.

“As a songwriter, I see the benefit that you don’t have to shell out a ton of money for a demo singer,” one attendee said during the Q&A section of an ASCAP panel about AI on Nov. 7. “But also, as a demo singer, I’m like, ‘Oh, shit, I’m out of a job.’”

That particular panel, moderated by songwriter-producer Chris DeStefano (“At the End of a Bar,” “That’s My Kind of Night”), was one of three AI presentations that ASCAP hosted at Nashville’s Twelve Thirty Club the morning after the ASCAP Country Music Awards, hoping to educate Music City about the burgeoning technology. The event addressed the creative possibilities ahead, the evolving legal discussion around AI and the ethical questions that it raises. (ASCAP has endorsed six principles for AI frameworks here).

The best-known examples of AI’s entry into music have revolved around the use of public figures’ voices in novel ways. Hip-hop artist Drake, in one prominent instance, had his voice re-created in a cover of “Bubbly,” originated by Colbie Caillat, who released her first country album, Along the Way, on Sept. 22. 

“Definitely bizarre,” Caillat said during CMA Week activities. “I don’t think it’s good. I think it makes it all too easy.”

But ASCAP panelists outlined numerous ways AI can be employed for positive uses without misappropriating someone’s voice. DeStefano uses AI program Isotope, which learned his mixing tendencies, to elevate his tracks to “another level.” Independent hip-hop artist Curtiss King has used AI to handle tasks outside of his wheelhouse that he can’t afford to outsource, such as graphic design or developing video ideas for social media. Singer-songwriter Anna Vaus instructed AI to create a 30-day social media campaign for her song “Halloween on Christmas Eve” and has used it to adjust her bio or press releases — “stuff,” she says, “that is not what sets my soul on fire.” It allows her more time, she said, for “sitting in my room and sharing my human experiences.”

All of this forward motion is happening faster in some other genres than it is in country, and the abuses — the unauthorized use of Drake’s voice or Tom Cruise’s image — have entertainment lawyers and the Copyright Office playing catch-up. Those examples test the application of the fair use doctrine in copyright law, which allows creators to play with existing copyrights. But as Sheppard Mullin partner Dan Schnapp pointed out during the ASCAP legal panel, fair use requires the new piece to be a transformative product that does not damage the market for the original work. When Drake’s voice is being applied without his consent to a song he has never recorded and he is not receiving a royalty, that arguably affects his marketability.

The Copyright Office has declined to offer copyright protection for AI creations, though works that are formed through a combination of human and artificial efforts complicate the rule. U.S. Copyright Office deputy general counsel Emily Chapuis pointed to a comic book composed by a human author who engaged AI for the drawings. Copyright was granted to the text, but not the illustrations.

The legal community is also sorting through rights to privacy and so-called “moral rights,” the originator’s ability to control how a copyright is used.

“You can’t wait for the law to catch up to the tech,” Schnapp said during the legal panel. “It never has and never will. And now, this is the most disruptive technology that’s hit the creative industry, generally, in our lifetime. And it’s growing exponentially.”

Which has some creators uneasy. Carolyn Dawn Johnson asked from the audience if composers should stop using their phones during writing appointments because ads can track typed and spoken activity, thus opening the possibility that AI begins to draw on content that has never been included in copyrighted material. The question was not fully answered.

But elsewhere, Nashville musicians are beginning to use AI in multiple ways. Restless Road has had AI apply harmonies to songwriter demos to see if a song might fit its sound. Elvie Shane, toying with a chatbot, developed an idea that he turned into a song about the meth epidemic, “Appalachian Alchemy.” Chase Matthew’s producer put a version of his voice on a song to convince him to record it. Better Than Ezra’s Kevin Griffin, who co-wrote Sugarland’s “Stuck Like Glue,” has asked AI to suggest second verses on songs he was writing — the verses are usually pedestrian, but he has found “one nugget” that helped finish a piece. 

The skeptics have legitimate points, but skeptics also protested electronic instruments, drum machines, CDs, file sharing and programmed tracks. The industry has inevitably adapted to those technologies. And while AI is scary, early adopters seem to think it’s making them more productive and more creative.

“It’s always one step behind,” noted King. “It can make predictions based upon the habits that I’ve had, but there’s so many interactions that I have because I’m a creative and I get creative about where I’m going next … If anything, AI has given me like a kick in the butt to be more creative than I’ve ever been before.”

Songwriter Kevin Kadish (“Whiskey Glasses,” “Soul”) put the negatives of AI into a bigger-picture perspective.

“I’m more worried about it for like people’s safety and all the scams that happen on the phone,” he said on the ASCAP red carpet. “Music is the least of our worries with AI.”

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