Musicians are confronting artificial intelligence as digital copycats flood the internet. 

The Artist Rights Alliance, a non-profit advocacy organization, issued an open letter this week calling on artificial intelligence tech companies, developers, platforms and digital music services to stop using AI to “infringe upon and devalue the rights of human artists.”

“This assault on human creativity must be stopped,” reads the letter, signed by more than 200 artists including Billie Eilish, Nicki Minaj and Arkells.

“We must protect against the predatory use of AI to steal professional artists’ voices and likenesses, violate creators’ rights, and destroy the music ecosystem.”

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More than 200 performers plead for protections against unethical AI

More than 200 performers, including Sheryl Crow and the estate of Bob Marley, have written a letter pleading for protection against the unethical use of artificial intelligence, such as the unauthorized reproduction of their voices and likenesses.

An AI song mimicking two of Canada’s biggest artists, Drake and The Weeknd, went viral last year before streaming services pulled it, while Justin Bieber’s digitally faked voice appeared in a viral song “featuring” himself, Bad Bunny and Daddy Yankee.

AI vocal generating programs have proliferated online, and versions of songs with other singers’ voices swapped in are all over YouTube and other platforms. 

‘I don’t think we can put the genie back into the bottle’

The letter does not call for an outright ban of AI, and acknowledges the technology’s creative possibilities while addressing its threats to human artists. Those threats include using pre-existing work to train AI models — without permission from the artists — in an attempt to replace artists, potentially eliminating royalty payments that are a lifeline for some.

“It’s really about kind of coming up with a framework for using it ethically,” said Artist Rights Alliance executive director Jen Jacobsen.

“I don’t think we can put the genie back into the bottle, and nor would we necessarily want to, in that AI does provide some great opportunities if used responsibly.”

Colin Linden, one of the letter’s several Canadian signatories, says it’s important for artists to be proactive in addressing AI before it gets out of control. When Napster launched digital music pirating in 1999, he says many in the music industry “hid their heads in the sand.”

“We should protect who we are,” said Linden, who is a member of Blackie and the Rodeo Kings and has played with the likes of Bruce Cockburn, Emmylou Harris and Bob Dylan.

A man sings into a microphone and plays guitar in a dark room.
Colin Linden signed an open letter pleading for protection from AI. (CBC Music)

“The most personal thing that we have as artists is our personalities. Whatever our quirks are, whatever our characteristics are, that we’ve developed from all the good things and all the bad things and the scars that we have. It’s all we have, in a lot of ways.”

In March, Tennessee became the first state to pass legislation designed to protect songwriters, performers and other music industry professionals against AI. Supporters say the goal is to ensure that generative AI tools cannot replicate an artist’s voice without their consent. The bill — dubbed the Ensuring Likeness, Voice, and Image Security Act, or “ELVIS Act” — will take effect July 1.

‘Robots do not get royalties’ 

The financial threat of AI comes after a challenging few years for musicians coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, when shows were cancelled and touring costs spiked. That’s in addition to the popularity of music streaming services, which many musicians argue do not provide artists with adequate compensation.  

Folk singer Tift Merritt says artists are worried their work will be lost completely if AI-generated content floods the market. 

“I’m a career musician. I’ve spent 25 years honing my my touch, my voice, my point of view, my writing sensibilities, and that’s now being used to train AI to imitate and replace me,” she said. “And robots do not get royalties, their content is free. So that is going to replace me if we don’t start talking about this and acting responsibly about it.”

Richard Sutherland, associate professor in the department of Economics, Justice and Policy Studies at Calgary’s Mount Royal University, says AI artist mimicry will “absolutely” lead to court cases, but notes that individual court actions, such as injunctions against use of artists’ voices, can be “extremely laborious and expensive” for artists to take on.

Other signatories include the estates of deceased artists including Frank Sinatra and Bob Marley. AI has controversially been used to generate realistic videos of dead actors and musicians, and countless covers of modern songs featuring the digitally faked voices of dead singers. 

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But AI has also proved its positive applications for some musicians. 

As one example, the technology was used to isolate an old vocal track from a John Lennon recording, which was used to create a “new” Beatles song last year with the involvement and permission of the band’s remaining members.

‘We’re here to enhance the human’

Some Canadian artists are working on tools to harness AI in a way they say will benefit musicians.

Daouda Leonard, who manages Grimes and worked with the Montreal musician to develop CreateSafe, a program that allows fans to use Grimes’s voice and make their own songs, and then split with her any revenue they make from the songs.

A close-up of a woman wearing red as she poses for photos.
Canadian singer-songwriter Grimes is embracing AI and encouraging her fans to use the technology. (Robyn Beck/Getty Images)

“It was an opportunity for us to show not only the music industry, but also the different tech companies how to create a fair and equitable way to involve artists and songwriters and producers in the process of building these new generative AI tools,” Leonard said.

For Leonard, consent is a central issue for musicians when it comes to AI. 

“People want to be able to consent to having their name, image, likeness, sound, aesthetic essence, whatever you want to call it, included in these training data sets,” he said. 

Jordan Young, a.k.a. DJ Swivel, a Grammy-winning producer from Toronto who has worked with artists including Beyoncé and Coldplay, co-founded Hooky, a platform set to launch in about a month that will allow artists to give or deny permission and collect royalties from AI songs.

“We’re not here to replace the human. We’re here to enhance the human and give them more tools to to play with and make sure we do it in a legal and ethical way,” Young said.

Like Linden, Young likened the music industry’s battles with AI to Napster, and said attempts to shut down digital file-sharing in the 2000s amounted to a game of digital whack-a-mole. Young says the only way to stop unfair use of artists’ work through AI is to create a “consumer-friendly” solution.

“We’re really hoping to sort of drive that home, that there is a friendly balance,” he said. “We just have to make sure that everybody is at the table and everybody is part of the conversation about how we get there.”


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