Last month’s Dreamville Festival in Raleigh attracted a dream lineup. In addition to founder J. Cole, more than 100,000 people paid to hear live performances from 50 Cent, Sza, Nicky Minaj and 22 other artists over two days. Figures on the economic impact of the festival aren’t in, but it’s expected to be bigger than 2023, which generated an estimated impact of $145 million in ticket sales and visitor spending.

Dreamville is part of a fast-recovering music scene in the US. Taylor Swift’s billion dollar tour may get the headlines, but across the state and the nation, some 2.5 million musicians, sound techs, roadies, promoters and producers make a living generating and performing music. Arenas, bars and coffee houses make healthy portions of their profits from people paying to see humans perform music.

But three days after the Dreamville Festival closed, a new AI bot called Udio launched, taking what has been a behind-the-scenes competition between Suno.com and about 20 other smaller platforms to a new level. The entry of Udio, founded by members of Google’s DeepMind team, with investments from venture capital behemoth Andreesen Horowitz, marks the public start of what will be a much more visible fight for supremacy. “The arms race is on,” Rolling Stone declared. By the end of the arms race, we may be marking April 10, 2024, as “the day the (real) music died.”

If you haven’t used an AI music bot, here’s how they work (with some variations):

  1. Enter site
  2. Create an account
  3. Type in a prompt describing the style of music you’d like and a description of the content you want in a song
  4. Press enter.

Depending on the platform, in somewhere between a few seconds and a minute, the AI generates (typically) two songs fitting your specifications, including, on some platforms, original AI-generated cover art.

Right now the technology is free, new and addictive to experiment with, in the way ChatGPT was in its early days. In the past few weeks, I’ve asked one of the music platforms to write birthday songs in three different genres for my twins, to serenade my sister-in-law as she recovered from surgery and to imagine a fusion between gospel and heavy metal.

But the companies aren’t getting investment to be a party trick. Mikey Shulman, the co-founder of Suno (now in partnership with Microsoft), imagines an eventual subscriber base of 1 billion people, each paying $10 a month to have the service. That’s a revenue goal of $120 billion a year.

That kind of money is going to come from the existing human music business.

The exact day the music dies may eventually be argued about, but the way it dies is more predictable. Early casualties in the war are likely to be those who write background music for commercials or corporate videos or movies; studio drummers are becoming victims of drum tracks. But over time it has the potential to migrate up the artistic food chain. Why pay for a hotel room in Raleigh for Dreamville when you can get an AI to write your own dream music? Why pay Taylor Swift to tell you about her breakup when an AI can write you a song in any genre about the specifics of your own breakup?

As the threat to human music grows, battle lines are forming quickly, pitting not just AI music companies against each other, but head-to-head against the human music business. David Ding, CEO of Udio, claims to have worked at “every stage of development” to make sure that the platform “benefits both artists and musicians,” but doesn’t explain how a technology that replaces human creators is going to help them. Mikey Shulman at Suno touts the new technology as an instrument of freedom. Creating music by algorithm, he tells Rolling Stone, makes for “wildly democratized music” that will right “the lopsided imbalance between music listeners and music makers.”

Meanwhile a group of more than 200 musicians representing the “Artist’s Rights Alliance” has published an open letter calling on AI music sites to “pledge not to develop AI music generation technology, content or tools that undermine or replace the human artistry of songwriters or artists or deny them fair compensation for their work.”

Don’t hold your breath waiting for that pledge.

Sure, there have been and will continue to be lawsuits: already the music industry is claiming the AI music creators trained their machines using copyrighted material, violating FCC “fair use” guidelines.

And the battle over music will be fought in parallel with battles over AI creation of TV and movie scripts and visual arts (as the bots improve, will we even be able to distinguish between AI Dali and Salvador Dali?).

What do we lose if human music dies?

I can quickly think of three things:

Jobs: Nationally, music is an integral part of the arts and culture “industry,” which makes up 4.3% of US GDP, with a $1.1 trillion dollar annual economic impact. The music industry alone supports 2.5 million jobs.

New ideas: Human musicians can challenge us to think differently, not just about musical ideas, but about how we see the world. We are already able to narrowcast our news feeds to avoid hearing different perspectives, and we can retreat to homes that wall us away from people who look or think differently. This new technology enables us to make sure we never hear any musical ideas that challenge anything we already know.

Collective experiences: There’s just something joyful about listening to a new album together with friends in your apartment; discovering a new favorite at a small bar; or jumping into a mosh pit with 1,000 strangers who all happen to share your love for an older performer. In an era of bespoke music, we will miss that.

But those are just some initial thoughts from me. To save time, I asked the AI Suno.com to write the music and lyrics for what I described as “a soulful song about the dangers of AI’s writing music vs. humans.” In about 10 seconds, it generated “The Soulful Lament.” You can hear it here and read it below. Just remember it’s all created and sung by an AI, and performed with no hint of irony:

Late at night/ I sit alone at my piano

Thoughts racing through my mind/ Don’t know where to go

Those AI machines/ They’re taking over the show

But can they truly feel the music in their soul?

(Verse 2)

Pour my heart out/ Every note/ Every chord

My music’s my voice/ It’s the story I’ve stored

But now they say the robots/ They’re bringing something new

But can a machine capture/ The pain that I’ve been through?

(Chorus)

Oh the danger of AI’s/ They’re creeping in so sly

But I’ll keep singin’ my truth/ Won’t let ‘em pass me by

The passion in my heart/ The stories in my veins

No AI can ever replicate/ My soulful strains.

It’s really not bad. And it’s horrible. “No AI can ever replicate/My soulful strains”? Don’t count on it.

About the author

After a career as a reporter, government worker and university administrator, Leslie Boney runs the website boneconnector.com.