Name That Tune

(Another) big week for music and AI. Every one of these tweets deserves its own topical deep dive. I write to understand and connect, so this is my own start to a personal exploration of how AI music has already shaped passive listening, what this means for traditional (human) artists and listeners, and what new opportunities might exist.

Passive listening is now everywhere, all at once, as the main way that most people listen to music, whether they mean to or not. So now AI music is similarly ubiquitous, more than any of us know. As Water & Music reported in their most recent starter pack on deep fakes, these technologies have been around for awhile. Background music is not the only use case for AI music, and Muzak is over 100 years old. Until recently, unless businesses defaulted to a Muzak-like service, our only choice for passive background music was the same music available for active listening: actual songs written and recorded by actual people. This is what has changed. As Dan Fowler stated in the tweet linked above,

While that type of music usage has become omnipresent and abundant in our lives, that music was also never going to capture meaningful value anyways.

Information Wants To Be Free. Information also wants to be expensive. Information wants to be free because it has become so cheap to distribute, copy, and recombine—too cheap to meter. It wants to be expensive because it can be immeasurably valuable to the recipient. That tension will not go away.
- Stewart Brand, May 1985 Whole Earth Review

(How) can it be both? We used to be designing in the same space, with traditional music solving for the same need that AI music now can serve, as evidenced by this 1992 KMart cassette playlist full of late 80’s bangers. Traditional music now has an even larger and more critical opportunity to differentiate, not only or particularly in the way it sounds, although that will likely be important, but in the way it is experienced and owned and collected. There is no loss for banal AI music to fade to the background. Supermarkets, elevators, chain restaurants, hotel lobbies and low grade digital experiences can have it. Or, let it be used in interesting and novel ways that create something greater than the sum of its artificial and human parts.

Interesting, meaningful experiences will still be set apart by unique music, whether entirely human made or made and curated by humans with considerable technological help. The movies and video games, as well as stores, restaurants and other physical businesses that have this music will tell a story. This music will set them apart from more bland offerings and build a world for the listener. One very anecdotal singular data point that I experience regularly is the sonic tapestries of independent coffee shops, bars and restaurants. These playlists are a lesson in Loewy’s MAYA design principle: Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable.

The adult public's taste is not necessarily ready to accept the logical solutions to their requirements if the solution implies too vast a departure from what they have been conditioned into accepting as the norm.
- Raymond Loewy

Equipped with Shazam in my pocket computer, experiencing novel and appealing music in physical spaces that reflect my taste and interests is now a much more sure bet for music discovery than Spotify’s algorithm. This opens up a few interesting questions I haven’t actually asked myself previously. Like anything that you start noticing, once you become aware of it, it shows up everywhere. I’m now interested in doing some gumshoe investigation. In the spaces I most often frequent, where does the music come from and who picks it? Today, at the local thrift shop, it was the employee’s Spotify-generated playlist based on KPop artist Key. A mix of human curation and algorithm. This store in particular also had a big pile of cd’s and an actual stereo.

This uncovers another interesting collision between the passive and active listening and musical creation: when passive listeners can be converted into active listeners, when music discovery happens specifically in passive environments where the listener gets turned onto a new artist. Music isn’t going anywhere, but we are on the precipice of a Cambrian divergence of what we call music and how we enjoy, collect and experience it. As passive listening is now such an integral part of our lives, without us even realizing it, tapping into this market purposefully, with curation and discovery at the forefront, will be one way that artists find their people. I will report back, and invite you to do your own informal data collection in your daily travels as well. Who chooses the music and how is it played? And when you come across a new song that is “most advanced, yet acceptable” to your taste, what is your next step in the fan/customer journey?

AI doesn’t care whether or not you complete that next step, but humans do, and so where and how human music is incorporated purposefully into passive listening will continue to be a massive opportunity for artists and fans to begin their human connection.

Subscribe to ENiD
Receive the latest updates directly to your inbox.
Mint this entry as an NFT to add it to your collection.
This entry has been permanently stored onchain and signed by its creator.