Brian May has joined the chorus of musicians who have raised concerns over generative AI and the future of the music industry, with the Queen guitarist warning that the technology will have transformed society within the year.
AI might not have the imagination nor the wherewithal to construct a homemade electric guitar out of a fireplace, as May and his father did with the Red Special, but its capability to replicate the sound of established artists and create new music in that style has the potential to disrupt the music business as we know it.
In a recent interview with Guitar Player, May admitted he was “apprehensive” about how the issue of authorship will play out in the era of generative AI.
“My major concern with it now is in the artistic area. I think by this time next year the landscape will be completely different. We won’t know which way is up,” he said. “We won’t know what’s been created by AI and what’s been created by humans. Everything is going to get very blurred and very confusing.”
May is no luddite. He is a man of science, with a PhD in astrophysics from Imperial College London. May acknowledges that there will be great benefits from AI, specifically its capacity for problem solving. But there are dangers, and May believes we will soon see what implications generative AI has for the music industry.
“I think we might look back on 2023 as the last year when humans really dominated the music scene,” he said. “I really think it could be that serious, and that doesn’t fill me with joy. It makes me feel apprehensive, and I’m preparing to feel sad about this.”
If it’s any consolation, the music business will be the least of our worries.
“The potential for AI to cause evil is, obviously, incredibly huge… nobody dies in music, but people can die if AI gets involved in politics and world domination for various nations.”
May’s words on authorship echo similar sentiments shared by Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid. Speaking to the Rolling Stone Music Now podcast in July, Reid said we had created a technology that is challenging our uniqueness as humans, and just as no one has an idea where this is heading exactly, there is no going back – just as there is no going back from a streaming model that creates a hostile financial environment for aspiring pro musicians.
“The concern for me is what would stop a music streaming service from creating a completely artificial artist, give that person a name and a biography just to see what happens – see if they get likes?” he said.
As for replicating a guitar player’s soloing style, rendering that from scratch, Reid struck a more optimistic note. The nuances in how a player touched the guitar would be difficult to model.
“This is where it's tricky,” said Reid. “Because it's not just about playing super-fast notes. It will have to do things like bending a note and doing a vibrato – that’s a physical activity. I’m talking about sliding your finger on the fretboard, not even talking about using an actual slide.
“Those are very particular and very personal signature things… I would like to think it can’t be modelled. I would like to think so, but [already] now there are plenty of bands that don’t have amps onstage.” You can check out the full conversation with Reid above.