The Recording Academy is making a grave mistake in allowing the AI-performed song “Heart On My Sleeve” to remain Grammy eligible. The song was apparently submitted for Grammy consideration by its “creator,” an anonymous social media user calling themselves Ghostwriter977. According to Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason Jr., “I knew right away as soon as I heard that record that it was going to be something that we had to grapple with from an Academy standpoint, but also from a music community and industry standpoint.”
“When you start seeing A.I. involved in something so creative and so cool, relevant and of-the-moment,” he continued. “It immediately starts you thinking, ‘OK, where is this going? How is this going to affect creativity? What’s the business implication for monetization?’”
And herein lies the error in that thinking: Because in nearly every instance in which the implications of new technology have been “considered,” rarely has the potential harm given tech cheerleaders enough pause to prevent legitimate disaster. In the just the past three years, we saw election tampering through social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter (Nazis!), the collapse of the NFT/cryptocurrency bubble, and housing and transportation crises exacerbated by apps like Airbnb, Lyft, and Uber (to say nothing of the exploitation and abuses inherent to the workings of apps like these or the massive delivery infrastructure of Amazon).
But let’s just stick to how tech has impacted the music industry for now. Last year around this time, I wrote that the virtual rapper FN Meka, which was allegedly created through AI and voiced by a human performer, presaged an incoming industry push to make performers and writers alike obsolete. I hate to say “I told you so,” but it’s beginning to look like the next phase of that push is peeking over the horizon. While “Heart On My Sleeve” is unlikely to earn a nomination — there’s little about it that’s truly innovative aside from its use of a burgeoning technology that many of us only barely understand — legitimizing it will undoubtedly inspire future imitators.
With listeners’ attention spans already stretched to the limit by a near constant deluge of new content from artists who themselves can barely keep up with demand in the struggle to remain relevant, how are any of us going to contend with robots that can churn out as many new songs as quickly as prompts are written? Computers don’t need to take vacations — and let’s be honest here, they don’t need any inspiration or real-life experiences, either. They can just trawl our tweets (posts, TikToks, whatever) and “create” songs algorithmically programmed to crawl inside our brains and get stuck there, tickling our cortexes with mathematical precision.
Now, as Mr. Mason points out (perhaps inadvertently), this won’t be a problem for anyone on the business side of the equation. A sleepless machine churning out an endless stream of content is a perfect money generator in the streaming economy. The labels will, of course, see infinite profits in investing in these technologies, because we’ve seen CEOs pull out the same playbook in industries like auto manufacturing, construction, and even now, in the ongoing struggle between the movie and television studios and their writers and actors. They’ll drive profits by cutting overhead — meaning labor — trying to squeeze blood from stones.
We see the problems with this approach, even if the CEOs never seem to. Elon Musk thought he could run Twitter (I am NEVER calling it “X”) with a skeleton crew of devoted loyalists; the site barely runs, and this plan has been executed with all the forethought and thoroughness of a game of Calvinball. Label heads might see AI music as a great investment initially, but as they realize that entire departments become superfluous as a result, they’ll cut those jobs too — right up until they’re being asked to perform basic administrative duties by themselves, with no idea how exactly to manage the “artists” whose inner workings they have only a baseline understanding of.
If this seems like catastrophizing or slippery slope rationalizing, just look at every other time a new technology has rumbled the foundations of the music industry. When .mp3s came along, there was mass panic until the innovation of the 360-degree deal — a proposition that took more wealth out of artists’ pockets and sent it up the pyramid to the shareholders and CEOs. As Spotify became the default source for fans to enjoy the music they love, labels not only worked out favorable deals to ensure they got the bulk of the revenue, but also bought parts of the platform itself to get paid both ways. And as TikTok became the music discovery watering hole of the digital age, labels swooped in to monetize that too.
All of this came at the expense of the artists who actually create the product that drives the profits. How many artists have complained in the past two years that they’ve been pushed to “go viral on TikTok” instead of making music (the answer: a lot)? How many stories have we seen about artists losing money as their slices of streaming get thinner and thinner? And that’s not to mention the peripheral industries, the managers, the lawyers, the promoters, the touring bookers, and the venues, all losing out as the streaming space gets more and more crowded with viral one-hit wonders and wannabe superstars whose attentions are being pulled in a thousand different directions — sync licensing, sponsorship seeking, merchandising, and social media management/monetization — just so they can make rent.
Imagine that this is all a house of cards built on one shaky foundation: human creators relating human experiences to human listeners. Streaming and social media have already sent tremors through this foundation by gaming algorithms and creating overnight stars with few credentials and even less credibility. But adding AI to the equation just might kick that foundation out entirely, taking the entire industry with it. And it all starts with seemingly insignificant moves like considering AI songs for awards that committees already rarely get “right” in the eyes of fans.
Legitimizing work like Ghostwriter977’s — whether they truly wrote the song or not — wouldn’t just hurt the artists it imitates, although Universal Music Group was quick to issue a takedown request for “Heart On My Sleeve,” since it would clearly violate likeness rights in a sane society. It would also hurt practically every other artist in the industry, devaluing their work for what’s basically a novelty. Then, like dominos, dozens of peripheral industries could fall, until the only thing left is the AI. Then, when the bubble inevitably bursts, all that’ll be left is deafening silence.