As I listen to James Blake’s latest album, Wind Down, on my way to meet Oleg Stavitsky, co-founder of Endel, a Berlin-based audio-technology company, I can’t help but notice how the melancholic, piano-led ambient tracks echo my mood.
Stavitsky tells me that it may not be a coincidence, as Endel’s technology generated the final product of the album.
Its sound engine, trained on thousands of in-house stems, creates personalized “soundscapes” for listeners by adjusting to externalities such as listeners’ heart rates, the temperature, or the time of day.
Functional music, which includes whale songs, white noise, and anything designed to play in the background, garners 10 billion streams per month, according to Stavitsky.
Endel has more than two million monthly listeners across all streaming platforms and has struck a playlist partnership with Amazon.com, and released an “AI Lullaby” with Canadian electronica artist Grimes.
However, record labels are starting to worry that functional music is the thin end of a dangerous wedge.
AI-assisted music composer Benoit Carre says that while there is no “big red button” to generate ready-made songs, artificial intelligence tools can already create song snippets in various genres, imitate the styles of individual lyricists, and adopt the vocal timbres of particular singers.
After sleepwalking into the last big disruption of MP3 file-sharing two decades ago, labels are responding with sound and fury to what would ordinarily be dismissed as muzak.
Universal Music Group NV recently asked that streaming platforms crack down on AI services scraping artists’ back catalogs to train their machines.
When analysts at Exane BNP Paribas downgraded UMG earlier this month citing the potential for AI disruption, the stock lost EUR 2 billion ($2.2 billion) of market value in a single day.
While AI is a socially disruptive technology that needs guardrails, there is also something more self-serving and performative about this “war on white noise.”
UMG is less worried about the future of humanity than protecting a music-streaming model that’s already distinctly unequal.
If functional music features prominently on platforms like Spotify Technology SA, it’s because it serves as leverage in negotiations with music labels, whose collective market share is under pressure.
The real issue is for those lower down the food chain.
“It’s going to get a lot harder to cut through the noise,” says Stavitsky.
Denis Ladegaillerie, head of Paris-based music company Believe SA, says AI could help musicians, but equality and diversity will need even more protection in a global music market where curation algorithms already encourage winner-takes-all listening habits.
“There is a real issue here for regulators,” he says.
Music’s disruptive future, therefore, risks looking a lot like its past: noisy and unequal.
Record labels aren’t entirely wrong in asking streaming platforms to clean house in favour of more “human” music.
But this is also a good moment to think up fairer ways to distribute the streaming spoils and keep new human artists emerging.
If whales are about to become a musically endangered species, what hope is there for the rest of us?
The article explores the intersection of AI and music, with a particular focus on the rise of functional music and the threat it poses to the music industry.
Endel’s technology generated the final product of James Blake’s latest album, Wind Down, and garners over two million monthly listeners across all streaming platforms.
However, record labels are starting to worry that functional music is the thin end of a dangerous wedge, as AI-assisted