March 23, 2019

Music AI systems may take over the music creation process from musicians

music AI system computer

Music truly has a way of unlocking our senses and deeper selves. From hyping you up at a rave and gym to helping you study and focus during work, it plays a key role in the everyday lives of many. It’s also a USD 130 billion industry, depending on which sources you rely on. However, music is about to be turned upside down by, you guessed it, AI systems.

Music in the age of AI systems

Wait, music is core to the human experience: how could a machine replace us? We invented it to begin with, right? Unfortunately, we’re already past that point. Ed Newton-Rex founded Jukedex, a musical AI designed to create instrumentals for various end goals. Looking for a new movie score? Look no further. The system is incredibly prolific: it cranked out over 1 million (not a typo) songs since its inception and shows no signs of stopping. New brands have joined since then, likely hoping to get a share of the background music industry which hit USD 660 million in 2017. As systems continue to improve, it’s only a matter of time until we start bumping AI-created music. If that sounds far fetched, Warner Music Group just signed Edel which creates custom mood-boosting sounds. The future is now (old man).

A cause for concern?

It’s no secret that AI systems might take everything over. They’re already terrifying governments with mass unemployment, to the point where we are now seriously considering Universal Basic Income (UBI). AI systems can already make art, so these further developments should not come as a shock. However, all this begs a much deeper and tougher question: are seemingly “creative” fields no longer a haven for humans? Machines already outperform us at a myriad of tasks, but surely they cannot take away what makes us truly unique: our ability to think and execute broadly. In many ways, time will tell just how far these systems will evolve. We’d venture to say that it’ll be far beyond what we imagine.

Taking a step back

Perhaps we assume that our innate creative abilities are beyond where they actually are. If we stick to pop music, many of your favorite hit songs were made using just four chords. The Axis of Awesome brilliantly illustrated this a few years ago with their now-viral video. This should not be surprising: music relies on simple and subtle mathematical formulae that best please our brains. The Greek philosopher Pythagoras (the one with that pesky theorem you couldn’t remember in high school) figured this out a long time ago. Turns out it doesn’t take all that much to please our brains with a nice tune. Given how seemingly simple it all feels, it may be no surprise that we can code this into a neat algorithm altogether. Should this put into question our core creative skills? Not all craft is the same, which is probably why we don’t compare Mozart to Nickleback.

Human history: a silver lining

It pays to know how machine learning systems work. To over-simplify, these programs rely on massive datasets to draw conclusions and hone their skills. Jukedex is the next iteration and uses deep-learning instead. However, music datasets require existing musicians’ work, begging new questions around copyright and royalties. If scientists feed “Crank Dat” into an AI system, Soulja Boy should get rewarded for his contribution.  Therefore, every prior musical piece ever created may play a pivotal role in these system’s development, opening new potential avenues of monetization for artists. More importantly, these systems exist because of human contributions, not the other way around. Humans should feel deep pride in their ability to generate meaningful things over generations. Music continues to stand the test of time, often blooming in our darkest times.

The larger picture

If we’re honest, AI systems will make great music within a few short years, but musicians should not worry altogether. Often times, music relies on great personalities that drive cultures forward. No computer can replace a human being, even though we do love our digital lives and identities. Even if it’s a hologram, seeing Tupac owning a stage feels more meaningful than watching HAL 9000 do the same. Tupac’s music tells a larger narrative of Tupac’s life and his environment (which people can latch on from a storytelling standpoint). Even if a computer were to write relatable lyrics, audiences would need to somehow empathize with a cold machine’s teenage angst. This seems like a stretch at best, but not entirely out of the question. Creatives should also rejoice at the idea that computers can speed up their workflow without impeding on their style. Computers can easily create, but they cannot easily connect. Time will tell if this continues.

House music will never die

Computerized music isn’t anything new. From synth tracks to Daft Punk and Kraftwerk, man and machine have worked intimately together for years. Your favorite trap beats were made on a really crummy sounding drum machine (yes, they meant to imitate those drums). In hindsight, this new wave of machines should not scare us, but rather give us hope to create better and deeper music. Tools remain just that: tools to improve a workflow. Humans will ultimately validate what is “good” compared to what is “bad.” If man and machine already work seamlessly, then (house) music will never die.

Look forward to more great tunes in the future. You can even go buy or steam our very own Delf’s new tracks here and unwind this weekend and enjoy it with beautiful imagery here.

February 20, 2019

Mastercard launches its new sonic logo

Mastercard has new audio sonic branding

Mastercard is once again evolving its branding. Contrary to what you might think, the brand is not changing its logo, which it did not so long ago by removing its own name from it’s famous orange and red circles. Instead, the credit card company is pushing further into branding by creating a new and evolving audio identity. The sound will permeate the brands’ different facets and will feature whenever one transacts with the card. Mastercard developed the jingle in partnership with a group of artists which includes Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda.

 

What’s all the fuss about? 

Mastercard’s sonic rebranding comes at a time where audio has never been so prevalent. Companies like Google and Amazon are already empowering shoppers to buy using voice, so much so that the market is set to hit a staggering US$40 billion by 2020. Amazon broke holiday records recently, due in no small part by its Alexa voice assistant system. Brands are aware of these trends and are rapidly adopting new sounds that listeners recognize subconsciously and become part of daily life.  Beyond branding, audio plays an important role in purchasing behaviour. Economists and scientists have known this for a long time, but these trends will become even more apparent in the coming years due to sonic branding.

 

Audio branding: the next frontier

Whether its Mastercard or Visa, brands will continue to push their offering in new and exciting ways. Audio players across the world are paying attention, including Spotify which recently acquired Gimlet Media and Anchor to bolster its podcast offering. As global brands and players consolidate, we expect to see more Mastercard-like branding in partnership with large audio distributors. Perhaps Apple Music vs Spotify won’t be so much about artists; instead, platforms will compete on who can help brands best pitch their sounds to listeners. As an audio-focused platform ourselves, we look forward to seeing how brands and partners use audio and sound to push their missions further.

February 8, 2019

Independent radio stations have long provided a platform for true musical exploration, and we need them now more than ever

Times are unpredictable for independent radio: with arts funding in low supply, and the looming competition of streaming sites like Spotify and Apple Music, the future of independent radio stations is uncertain at best. Under this pressure, indie radio stations have been dropping like flies, stalwarts like Berlin Community radio are closing their doors: “We reached a dead end and spirits have fallen low after losing all funding in 2018. We realize for many this comes as a shock and surprise but unfortunately, as it is, BCR is not a sustainable model.” While streaming platforms clearly take the top spot when it comes to music discovery, Jeff Ihaza theorizes that independent radio may be the way forward.

Music discovery beyond the algorithim
However, even under this pressure, enthusiasm for online radio and the potential for listeners seems huge. Stations like NTS based in London, and Brooklyn’s Half Moon Radio garner up to a quarter of a million listeners every month. Away from the input of algorithms, DJs can play a massive variety of music, and this may be the future of music discovery.

The historical context behind indie radio
Independent radio surfaced at a time when official–and legal–radio wouldn’t play less-known genres. Pirate radio can be credited with the rise of techno, grime, garage and more. It seems that in 2019, alongside the seemingly ubiquitous use of algorithms that narrow the possibilities of true exploration, the desire for independent radio could see a resurrection.

See more of Jeff Ihaza’s thoughts over at Pitchfork.

January 31, 2019

Exploring the mysterious world of "tapers"

Tapers are music fanatics that go along to performances with enough extra time to get to the middle of the front row. This is not, as Wired’s Jarnow notes, to get their hands on exclusive merch or even a fist bump off the artist. It’s in order to get a high-quality recording of the performance. Using a selection of rare and professional audio equipment, “tapers” capture high-fidelity recordings of live performances before uploading it to sites like NYCTaper.com. Regardless of what genre you choose to listen to, somewhere on the Internet exists a library of exclusive performances and recordings of them, all made available by the mysterious community of tapers.

Permissions
It all sounds illegal, but it’s not–most of the time. Jarnow’s article focuses on a taper called Eric Pier-Hocking, who’s a proud taper and does most of it completely legally. Before a performance, he greets the artists—many of whom know him through his taping—and make sure to get their permission to record before beginning. For an artist such as Daniel Bachman, a guitarist who features in the article after having had a recording taped by Pier-Hicking, taping actually helps him. High-quality recordings of his performances act like adverts for Bachman, who admits that he regularly records other artists’ shows for his own use. That said, other tapers record illegally, using a multitude of technology often developed within the taping community itself. Some of this technology allows tapers to tap into the in-ear monitor systems of artists which can be combined with audience recordings to create immersive (or invasive) experiences.

Thoughts
In an age when our music listening habits are being changed drastically by streaming sites, tapers are sticking to their guns wholeheartedly. As opposed to the average to poor quality afforded by the likes of Apple Music and Spotify, tapers produce recordings for audiophiles. Combating the widespread lack of artist information available on streaming sites—which rarely include songwriting, for example—tapers note every last detail, “often posting obsessive data about mic placement, signal chain, tape lineage, song performances, audio imperfections, and other ephemeral and contextual information.”

Recordings are hard to find, filtering through a network of audiophiles, each as obsessed by detail as the others. The process is entirely decentralized and noncommercial; the antithesis of discovering a song by an artist you know nothing about completely by chance through Spotify’s ‘new music’ playlist. It’s encouraging to see that regardless of how simple and quick technology makes our lives, some will not let it dilute their culture. The passion for quality and detail shown by tapers is far from being broken by the ease of technology.

January 17, 2019

Songs are getting shorter to maximize streaming revenue

Between 2013 and 2018, the average song on the Billboard Hot 100 fell from 3m50s to 3m30s, with 6% of hit songs lasting 2m30s or less in 2018—this is up from 1% in 2013. By measuring when the 5th, 10th, and 15th songs of several artists’ albums begin, Kopf shows a strong trend towards making shorter songs:

  • From Kendrick’s good kid, m.A.A.d city to DAMN.the 5th track came 7 minutes earlier, while the 10th track came 13.5 minutes earlier.
  • Drake’s Scorpion featured tracks that were 11% shorter than Views—but overall his albums are getting gradually longer.

Why?
Despite streaming channels’ infamously low payments per stream, artists get paid the same amount for a stream of any length, so, if you have an album packed with 20 2-minute-long tracks, you’ll be bringing in twice as much money in the same amount of time as an album containing 10 4-minute-long tracks.

Technology changes culture
As well as shortening the length of songs, as shown by Kopf, streaming sites are accused of heavily affecting the genre of music released by artists. Instead of sharing each single user’s subscription fee between the artists that user listens to, all subscription fees are pooled and shared between all artists. This means that artists who have dedicated but niche followings do not reap the benefits of their devoted fans. An obvious response to these problems is to make shorter songs of a more popular genre, driving out more experimental genres that focus on musical development.

Thoughts
It seems sad to say that technology is affecting the way that artists make and release music, but maybe it isn’t newly depressing. Kopf notes that technology has always had this effect, between the 1920s and 1950s the length of a song was between two and three minutes because that’s the length that an early phonograph could hold. Technology inevitably shapes our world. The fact that the payment model chases niche artists and genres out of business is a more pressing issue, but maybe this presents a space in the streaming market for a monetized streaming platform aimed at independent and more experimental artists.

See more analysis on Quartz courtesy of Dan Kopf.

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