AI has taken over almost every aspect of public discourse. Will it leave professional writers without a job? Should the use of AI be outright banned in schools? Will graphic novels assisted by AI-generated art be able to receive copyright certificates? Will artists be sued for using text-to-image generation software that is trained off other artists’ work?
This month, musicians are further stirring the AI ethics pot. A viral, AI-lightning rod song, “Heart On My Sleeve,” which used the AI-generated likeness of artists Drake and the Weeknd, was released in April by an anonymous TikTok user known as Ghostwriter (@Ghostwriter977).
While other AI-generated songs scraping artists’ voices and lyrics have been released previously, few have received this level of viral attention. Staggeringly, the song received over 15 million views on TikTok since Ghostwriter released his first video about the song on April 15, and 600,000 streams on Spotify since it was uploaded on April 4.
Artistic freedom or artistic violation?
While it’s clear Ghostwriter used AI to generate the voices of Drake and the Weeknd, it’s unclear to what extent he pulled from their lyrics and melodies. The tech used for AI-generated lyrics is different from the tech that allows you to mimic voices, and as such, there are different implications.
AI-generated lyrics typically are created by programs that use keywords or phrases input by the user. So, a creator can ask the program to write lyrics in the style of an artist. This happened infamously with musician Nick Cave, who was pissed off when a fan sent him song lyrics written by ChatGPT that the fan believed could have fit in Cave’s oeuvre.
On the other hand, software that mimics voices compares an original voice sample to many in its archives in order to create a convincing replica to use in text-to-speech generation. Voice actors have already expressed their concern about this tech, saying that their jobs are at risk because they’ve essentially been “unknowingly training their replacements.”
Universal Music Group, which partially owns Drake’s music and business, was not pleased with the viral explosion of Ghostwriter’s song. According to CNN, the group sent letters in April to streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music asking them to block song scraping from artificial intelligence platforms.
In a statement to Billboard, Universal said for streaming services to leave songs AI-trained from copyrighted works would be on the side of “deep fakes, fraud and denying artists their due compensation.”
However, Universal’s deep concern for artists can’t be entirely serious, especially considering its tendency to be sued by its own artists for unfair contracts that screw them out of royalties. Just ask Taylor Swift.
But, Drake was not pleased with the song either, taking to Instagram Stories to succinctly write: “This is the final straw AI.”
A ghostly warning
In his initial video, which has since been taken down but was reposted by other users, Ghostwriter dressed up like an actual ghost, decked out in a white sheet and some glamorous, retro-looking sunglasses.
While it’s unclear who Ghostwriter is, in TikTok comments, he claims he was a “ghostwriter for years” and got “paid close to nothing just for major labels to profit.” In one viral video with over 2.5 million views, he says he’s “here to turn the industry upside down.”
While his song has been removed from streaming services, the link in his TikTok bio leads to a Laylo page where users can enter their phone numbers so that he can send them a link to the Drake AI song and a “new link if they take it down.”
“I’m just getting started,” his TikTok bio ominously reads.
Many creators chimed into the debate sparked by the Ghostwriter’s AI song. TikToker Mazie (@heymazie) garnered 20,000 views in a video posted earlier in the week explaining a few artistic issues that might not be immediately transparent to viewers.
“There is a culture of ghostwriting and ghost production in the music industry that is extremely pervasive,” she notes. “It places people like Ghostwriter in a position where they have access to these huge artists, and they are arguably making or breaking their careers because of what they’re writing and doing on the tracks anonymously, but they get absolutely no reward for what they’re doing. … I hope the major labels are feeling pressure.”
Musician Grimes also added her voice to the discussion, tweeting that she would split 50% royalties on any “successful” AI-generated song that uses her voice. “Same deal as I would with any artist I collab with. Feel free to use my voice without penalty. I have no label and no legal bindings,” she said.
“I think it’s cool to be fused w a machine and I like the idea of open sourcing all art and killing copyright,” she added in a follow-up tweet.
Twitter user and AI advocate Alt Man Sam (@mezaoptimizer) explained how the AI Drake release is “historical,” arguing that the “tracks are indistinguishable from the real thing” and that it’s also “not hard to produce these.”
Consent, racism, and labor
The band Massive Attack brought another thought to the conversation, stating on Twitter, “Is the discussion, ‘Should AI recreate music?’ or is the discussion, ‘Why is contemporary music so homogenized and formulaic that it’s really easy to copy?’”
But Washington Post writer Shamira Ibrahim criticized this kind of impression, suggesting there is a racist element in the suggestion that rap and hip hop music is easy to reproduce.
“AI has been hyped as a novel phenomenon, but the core processes behind the generative model with respect to music are fairly entrenched in American music history: the idea that Black musical creation is unartistic and easily reproducible for profit while removing Black architects of the sounds,” she wrote.
Ibrahim was not the only person to observe the issue of racism at hand. According to writer Lovette Jallow, “AI’s primary aim whether people see it or not will be to extract Blackness (artform, likeness, music, modelling, writing etc etc) without having to engage with Blackness itself. To own it, mold it, monetise it and enslave it in digital format.”
Others have pointed out further disturbing ethical questions regarding consent, with one TikToker asking if would it be acceptable to produce an AI-generated song from an artist that is no longer alive. Remember how off-putting and frankly creepy it was to see holographic performances from dead artists such as Amy Winehouse?
To grapple with the future of AI-generated music is not just to be concerned about reproducibility. There are ethical questions involved as well regarding consent, racism, respect, and labor. As AI-generated art and work become a larger part of our lives, it’s crucial to pay attention to what both creators and consumers are saying about these latest developments.