Spawn Songs: How AIs Find Their Voices

If you, like me, follow news about AI in music, you’ve probably seen an image like this:

Or this:

No humans here. Just AI, in robotic form, ready to take full control of the creative tasks of producer and composer. In fact, images intimating such a future have been circulating since the early 20th century. Compare the following image from 1930, from a campaign by a musicians’ union against the substitution of recorded music for live musicians in theaters:

deathofmusic robot_at_the_helm

It’s easy retrospectively to laugh at worries that mechanical reproduction would bring the destruction of art. But we should not be so blasé as to think that it all turned out ok. Yes, the substitution of recorded music for live musicians in theaters threatened the livelihood of countless instrumentalists across the nation. But the representation of recorded music as a robot wresting control of musical culture ignored the many people and new kinds of creative labor involved in producing recorded music. We are left to wonder “what if”: what if the energy poured into a simplified, sensationalist image of mechanical substitution had instead been directed to fueling a more robust public discourse about recording’s new configurations of people and tools, and their implications for musical authorship, ownership, and compensation? Perhaps what some now regard as among the greatest injustices in the history of recorded music – the shadow status of session musicians whose creative contributions were integral to the iconic sound of hit songs, for instance, or the infamous Bridgeport Music, Inc. v. Dimension Films 2005 blanket ruling against unlicensed sampling, which failed to fathom the creative labor of hip hop musicians – might have played out differently.

Similarly, today’s robot representations do not capture the realities of AI. As Mary Gray and Siddharth Suri demonstrate in their new book Ghost Work: How to Stop Silicon Valley from Building a New Global Underclass, the AI systems in our lives depend on many largely hidden human workers. Think of search engine results, social media feeds, recommender systems – these “rely on a shared pool of on-demand workers amassed by on-demand platforms” (xvii), and these on-demand platforms “allow humans to power many of the websites, apps, online services, and algorithms most consumers think are automated” (170). By selling their services as powered by the magic of AI, companies (and the media hype surrounding them) conceal an underlying dynamic: that as we ask AI to do more, we are generating “new needs and different types of human labor to fill those needs” (xviii).

Recognizing the human labor involved in AI systems, the “humans in the loop” as Gray and Suri put it, calls for fundamentally reimagining what AI is – conjuring not autonomous robots that eliminate humans from the picture, but rather networked systems in which people play a constant, dynamic, essential part. It calls, in other words, for changing the image of AI in popular consciousness.

Re-enter music. Although music has long been shadowed by fears of robot take-over, musicians are also adept at taking in the world around them and reflecting it back in ways that can wake us up to new (and old) realities, helping us apprehend our world differently not just at intellectual but also at emotional, visceral levels.

This past summer, Holly Herndon released PROTO, an album made in collaboration with other human musicians and Spawn, her name for a collection of vocal models created using machine learning techniques. Herndon also calls Spawn her “AI baby,” and the use of AI in creating the album has driven its media coverage. But Herndon’s work resists reduction to “now AI can compose music too!”-style headlines. When asked by Jezebel’s Hazel Cills how to think about the people behind AI, Herndon responded:

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.

The track “Evening Shades (Live Training)” illustrates this desire for public recognition of the people and labor required to make Spawn work. Through the alternation of a full-voiced human choir with Spawn’s oddly filtered and stuttering efforts to repeat back the same phrase, the track makes audible some of the process – some of the human labor – involved in training Spawn to “sing”:

Rather than picture AI as a robot, then, listening to PROTO can help us imagine AI as a gathering of people and machines – a collective endeavor in which many humans work together with algorithmic systems. What if we were to start our discussions of AI from such an understanding – might we better grapple with the implications for authorship, ownership, compensation, with how to recognize and value the many “humans in the loop?” What if…?


Further reading:

David Turner, “AI isn’t going to replace your favorite band,” Penny Fractions newsletter, November 6 2019.

Cherie Hu, “Slave to the ‘rithm? Not so fast: Everything you need to know about the deal between Endel and Warner Music,” Water & Music newsletter, March 25 2019.

Melissa Avdeeff, “Artificial Intelligence & Popular Music: SKYGGE, Flow Machines, and the Audio Uncanny Valley,” Arts 8/4 (2019).

The Reason for the Teardrops on My Guitar

Yesterday The Washington Post published “Why My Guitar Gently Weeps,” an interesting story on the electric guitar that looks at the pervasiveness of guitar culture in the 60s-80s, the decline that started with the introduction of drum machines and continues today with laptop-based music production, and how the guitar industry is dealing with the dwindling market for their signature instrument.

The article is subtitled “the slow, secret death of the six-string electric,” and cites real evidence that things aren’t what they used to be. But it also contradicts its own narrative. Or rather, it would contradict its own narrative if it recognized something simple: girl guitarists count too.

Instead, the article opens with a guitar dealer’s plea, “what we need is guitar heroes,” and proceeds to discuss guitar heroes as creatures of the past. Having established the non-existence of present-day guitar heroes, the article ends with a revelation: Taylor Swift has been inspiring girls to learn guitar. According to Philip McKnight, who ran a guitar academy in Arizona, the percentage of female students at his academy went from below 10% before 2010 to around 60% after 2012. Taylor Swift was the number one reason these girls gave for picking up the guitar.

Rather than see in this phenomenon the makings of a come-back story, or at least a ray of hope for the electric guitar, however, the finding is belittled. Fender CEO Andy Mooney is quoted as the authoritative word: “I don’t think that young girls looked at Taylor and said, ‘I’m really impressed by the way she plays G major arpeggios. They liked how she looked, and they wanted to emulate her.'” The “death of the electric guitar” narrative is allowed to stand, even though it’s now been shown really to be a story of fewer boys inspired by Eric Clapton or Eddie Van Halen (who, the assumption seems to be, are in it for authentic reasons of the music as opposed to mere looks).

Rather than let Mooney’s dismissive comment stand, the author might have spent more time with McKnight. For something McKnight has also pointed out – but that goes unmentioned in the Post article – is that while there are more girls playing electric guitar, they are ill-served by the guitar industry. As he explains in this video:

we noticed that we didn’t have any products for them. And what we really noticed is this industry has a strange kind of philosophy called shrink it and pink it. In other words they take every guitar and they just make it smaller and pink…and then they go, ‘that’s for a girl!’ which is stupid….but the more important thing is that, they’re not even acknowledging that girls really are the same guitar players they just maybe have slightly different tastes.

“Why My Guitar Gently Weeps,” unfortunately, confirms McKnight’s assessment: there is still a failure to recognize girls as equally valid and valuable guitar players, who maybe have different tastes. Likewise, with a few notable exceptions – like the ergonomically-friendly St. Vincent signature guitar from Ernie Ball – little progress has been made in the way of product development. So it seems the guitar world, and especially the electric guitar industry still have opportunities to learn – and with that, maybe also to grow.

Read more about the significance of women in the history of the electric guitar at Play Like a Girl, by Alicia Borromeo.

Audiovisual Returns

An excerpt from my book, Haydn’s Sunrise, Beethoven’s Shadow: Audiovisual Culture and the Emergence of Musical Romanticism (University of Chicago Press, 2016), has been published at the blog Musicology Now. You can read it here:


eighteenth-century audiovisual culture (clockwise from top left): peepshow, magic lantern show, shadow-play, phantasmagoria