An AI hit of fake Drake and The Weeknd rattles the music world

NEW YORK – For Drake and The Weeknd, two of the most popular musicians on the planet, the existence of Heart On My Sleeve, a track that claimed to use AI (artificial intelligence) versions of their voices to create a passable mimicry, may have qualified as a minor nuisance – a short-lived novelty that was easily stamped out by their powerful record company.

But for others in the industry, the song – which became a viral curio on social media, racking up millions of plays across TikTok, Spotify, YouTube and more before it was removed last week – represented something more serious: a harbinger of the headaches that can occur when a new technology crosses over into the mainstream consciousness of creators and consumers before the necessary rules are in place.

Heart On My Sleeve was the latest and loudest example of a grey-area genre that has exploded in recent months: homemade tracks that use generative AI technology, in part or in full, to conjure familiar sounds that can be passed off as authentic, or at least close enough.

It earned instant comparisons to earlier technologies that disrupted the music industry, including the dawn of the synthesizer, the sampler and file-sharing service Napster.

Yet while AI Rihanna singing a Beyonce song or AI Kanye West doing Hey There Delilah may seem like a harmless lark, the successful arrival of Heart On My Sleeve on official streaming services, complete with shrewd online marketing from its anonymous creator, intensified alarms that were already ringing in the music business, where corporations have grown concerned about AI models learning from, and then diluting, their copyrighted material.

Universal Music Group, the largest of the major labels and home to Drake and The Weeknd, had flagged such content to its streaming partners in April, citing intellectual property concerns.

But in a statement last week, the company spoke to the broader stakes, asking “which side of history all stakeholders in the music ecosystem want to be on: the side of artists, fans and human creative expression, or on the side of deep fakes, fraud and denying artists their due compensation”.

Artists and their labels are confident, at least for the time being, that the social and emotional component of fandom will separate the work of the real Drake from a fake one, even if an AI version can nod at his emotional preoccupations and musical tics.

But whether superstars could have their pockets picked, or become altogether obsolete in favour of machines that can imitate them, is only one side of the equation.

Royalty-free music generators can be used now to compose a rap beat, a commercial jingle or a film score, cutting into an already fragile economy for working musicians.

And as generative AI booms and rapidly improves across text, images, sound and video, experts say the technology could reshape creative industries at all levels, with fans, artists and the systems that govern them having to adjust to new norms on the fly.

“It is now possible to produce infinite media in the style or likeness of someone else, soon with little effort, so we all have to come to terms with what that means,” musician Holly Herndon, who has studied and used AI in her work for years, wrote in an e-mail.

“The question is, as a society, do we care what Drake really feels or is it enough to hear a superficially intelligent rendering?” she asked. “For some people, that will not be enough. However, when you consider that most people listening to Spotify are doing so just to have something pleasant to listen to, it complicates things.”

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