AI Could Usher in a New Era of Music. Will It Suck?
Michael Sayman has worked at Facebook, Google, Roblox, and Twitter. At 26, the software engineer has already published a memoir, App Kid. But until he began work on his latest project, he’d never built a website. “I made it in five hours over the weekend, out of frustration that there wasn’t anything like this,” he says. “Now there’s nearly a million streams on the site.”
Sayman’s site is AI Hits. Ever since it launched in April, it’s been aggregating a controversial new musical … thing: songs created with artificial intelligence tools that mimic, with chilling accuracy, mainstream stars like Drake and Kanye West. The conversation around AI music has largely been frenzied and shot through with hand-wringing over What It All Means and What It All Portends. But Sayman is an AI optimist. So he built the Hot 100 for AI tunes.
AI Hits sifts through the mushrooming detritus and ranks the tracks per their collective streams on the various platforms on which they’re posted, linking out to the tracks directly (unless, of course, they’ve already been taken down by the time you click). With its notable fealty to the real thing, the Drake-mimicking “Heart on My Sleeve” became the first “hit” of the AI music era, and various versions of it dominate AI Hits. (Sayman points out there’s even one featuring AI-generated Joe Biden vocals, for some reason.) AI versions of Ariana Grande, Travis Scott, Juice WRLD, SZA, and Lana Del Rey are all also represented on the chart.
In conversation, Sayman uses the term “voice” to refer to the artist being mimicked, and he uses the term “artist” to refer to the username of whoever created the song. This use of nomenclature may seem small, but it is significant. It’s a step toward the creation of a shared lexicon around all this stuff. The landscape of AI music is endlessly, discursively messy, but as Sayman points out, we’re all present at the outset of a conversation that will unspool over years. “How do you search? Who are the creators? How do you attribute labels to them? What do those revenue splits look like?” he says. “And how does that even work, when you can make a hundred remixes of the same song?”
That latter question, over the legality of the practice of AI music, is central. Spotify quickly took down “Heart on My Sleeve,” and UMG, Drake’s parent label, has pushed the company to purge thousands of other AI-made songs. On a recent podcast interview, Ice Cube urged Drake to directly sue the creator of “Heart on My Sleeve,” and he has tweeted that he finds the idea of generating a song in the style of a dead artist without the approval of the artist’s estate to be “evil and demonic.” But when looking past AI’s potential for legal or ethical blunders, other artists, from pioneering musicians like Holly Herndon to legacy acts like the the Pet Shop Boys, are bullish on AI as a creative tool. It could even unfurl a whole new genre of music.
Sayman believes AI can create a more democratic, open-ended music industry. “The record labels used to hold all the power—they were in charge of distribution, resources, production quality. We’ve seen social media replace distribution and discovery of music. Now we’re seeing AI expand production quality, so there’s opportunities for more people to get involved in the music creation process. More Drake singles! Instead of having two or three producers, he can have millions of producers working on those songs!” He laughs. “I’m half joking.”