Tech firms have developed AI that can learn how to write music. So will machines soon be composing symphonies, hit singles and bespoke soundtracks?
From Elgar to Adele, and the Beatles or Pink Floyd to Kanye West, Londons Abbey Road Studios has hosted a storied list of musical stars since opening in 1931. But the man playing a melody on the piano in the complexs Gatehouse studio when the Observer visits isnt one of them.
The man sitting at the keyboard where John Lennon may have finessed A Day in the Life is Siavash Mahdavi, CEO of AI Music, a British tech startup exploring the intersection of artificial intelligence and music.
His company is one of two AI firms currently taking part in Abbey Road Red, a startup incubator run by the studios that aims to forge links between new tech companies and the music industry. Its not alone: Los Angeles-based startup accelerator Techstars Music, part-funded by major labels Sony Music and Warner Music Group, included two AI startups in its programme earlier this year: Amper Music and Popgun.
This is definitely a burgeoning sector. Other companies in the field include Jukedeck in London, Melodrive in Berlin, Humtap in San Francisco and Groov.AI in Googles home town, Mountain View. Meanwhile, Google has its own AI music research project called Magenta, while Sonys Computer Science Laboratories (CSL) in Paris has a similar project called Flow Machines.
Whether businesses or researchers, these teams are trying to answer the same question: can machines create music, using AI technologies like neural networks to be trained up on a catalogue of human-made music before producing their own? But these companies work poses another question too: if machines can create music, what does that mean for professional human musicians?
Ive always been fascinated by the concept that we could automate, or intelligently do, what humans think is only theirs to do. We always look at creativity as the last bastion of humanity, says Mahdavi. However, he quickly decided not to pursue his first idea: Could you press a button and write a symphony?
Why not? Its very difficult to do, and I dont know how useful it is. Musicians are queuing up to have their music listened to: to get signed and to get on stage. The last thing they need is for this button to exist, he says.
The button already exists, in fact. Visit Jukedecks website, and you can have a song created for you simply by telling it what genre, mood, tempo, instruments and track length you want. Amper Music offers a similar service. This isnt about trying to make a chart hit, its about providing production music to be used as the soundtrack for anything from YouTube videos to games and corporate presentations.
Once youve created your (for example) two-minute uplifting folk track using a ukulele at a tempo of 80 beats-per-minute, Jukedecks system gives it a name (Furtive Road in this case), then will sell you a royalty-free licence to use it for $0.99 if youre an individual or small business, or $21.99 if youre a larger company. You can buy the copyright to own the track outright for $199.
A couple of years ago, AI wasnt at the stage where it could write a piece of music good enough for anyone. Now its good enough for some use cases, says Ed Newton-Rex, Jukedecks CEO.
It doesnt need to be better than Adele or Ed Sheeran. Theres no desire for that, and what would that even mean? Music is so subjective. Its a bit of a false competition: there is no agreed-upon measure of how good a piece of music is. The aim [for AI music] is not will this get better than X? but will it be useful for people?. Will it help them?
The phrase good enough crops up regularly during interviews with people in this world: AI music doesnt have to be better than the best tracks made by humans to suit a particular purpose, especially for people on a tight budget.
Christopher Nolan isnt going to stop working with Hans Zimmer any time soon, says Cliff Fluet, partner at London law firm Lewis Silkin, who works with several AI music startups. But for people who are making short films or YouTubers who dont want their video taken down for copyright reasons, you can see how a purely composed bit of AI music could be very useful.
Striking a more downbeat note, music industry consultant Mark Mulligan suggests that this strand of AI music is about sonic quality rather than music quality. As long as the piece has got the right sort of balance of desired instrumentation, has enough pleasing chord progressions and has an appropriate quantity of builds and breaks then it is good enough, he says.
AI music is nowhere near being good enough to be a hit, but thats not the point. It is creating 21st-century muzak. In the same way that 95% of people will not complain about the quality of the music in a lift, so most people will find AI music perfectly palatable in the background of a video.
Not every AI-music startup is targeting production music. AI Music (the company) is working on a tool that will shape-change existing songs to match the context they are being listened to in. This can range from a subtle adjustment of its tempo to match someones walking pace through to what are essentially automated remixes created on the fly.
Maybe you listen to a song and in the morning it might be a little bit more of an acoustic version. Maybe that same song, when you play it as youre about to go to the gym, its a deep house or drumnbass version. And in the evening its a bit more jazzy. The song can actually shift itself, says Mahdavi.
Australian startup Popgun has a different approach again. Its AI called Alice is learning to play the piano like a child would, by listening to thousands of songs and watching how more experienced pianists play them. In its current form, you play a few notes to Alice, and it will guess what might come next and play it, resulting in a back-and-forth human/AI duet. The next step will be to get her to accompany a human in real-time.
Its a new, fun way to interact with music. My 10 year-old daughter is playing the piano, and its the bane of our existence to get her to practise! But with Alice she plays for hours: its a game, and youre playing with somebody else, says CEO Stephen Phillips.
Vochlea, which is the other AI startup in the Abbey Road Red incubator, is in a similar space to Popgun. Beatbox into its VM Apollo microphone, and its software will turn your vocals into drum samples. Approximate the sound of a guitar or trumpet with your mouth, and it will whip up a riff or brass section using that melody.
Its a little bit like speech recognition, but its non-verbal, says CEO George Philip Wright. Im focusing on using machine-learning and AI to reward the creative input rather than taking away from it. It came from thinking, if youve got all these ideas for music in your head, what if you had a device to help you express and capture those ideas?
Many of the current debates about AI are framed around its threat to humans, from driverless trucks and taxis putting millions of people out of work, to Tesla boss Elon Musk warning that if not properly regulated, AI could be a fundamental risk to the existence of civilisation.
AI music companies are keen to tell a more positive story. AI Music hopes its technology will help fans fall in love with songs because those songs adapt to their context, while Popgun and Vochlea think AI could become a creative foil for musicians.
Jon Eades, who runs the Abbey Road Red incubator, suggests that AI will be a double-edged sword, much like the last technology to shake up the music industry and its creative community.
I think there will be collateral damage, just like the internet. It created huge opportunity, and completely adjusted the landscape. But depending on where you sat in the pre-internet ecosystem, you either called it an opportunity or a threat, he says.
It was the same change, but depending on how much you had to gain or lose, your commentary was different. I think the same thing is occurring here. AI is going to be as much of a fundamental factor in how the businesses around music are going to evolve as the internet was.
That may include the businesses having the biggest impact on how we listen to music, and how the industry and creators make money from it: streaming services. They already use one subset of AI machine learning to provide their music recommendations: for example in personalised playlists like Spotifys Discover Weekly and Apples My New Music Mix.
The songs on those playlists are made by humans, though. Could a Spotify find a use for AI-composed music? Recently, the company poached Franois Pachet from Sony CSL, where hed been in charge of the Flow Machines project.
It was under Pachet that in September 2016 Sony released two songs created by AI, although with lyrics and production polish from humans. Daddys Car was composed in the style of the Beatles, while The Ballad of Mr Shadow took its cues from American songwriters like Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington, George Gershwin and Cole Porter. You wouldnt mistake either for their influences, but nor would you likely realise they werent 100% the work of humans.
Now Pachet is working for Spotify, amid speculation within the industry that he could build a team there to continue his previous line of work. For example, exploring whether AI can create music for Spotifys mood-based playlists for relaxing, focusing and falling asleep.
For now, Spotify is declining to say what Pachet will be doing. I have no idea, admits Jukedecks Newton-Rex. But to the question: One day, will a piece of software that knows you be able to compose music that puts you to sleep? Absolutely. Thats exactly the kind of field in which AI can be useful.
Whats also unclear is the question of authorship. Can an AI legally be the creator of a track? Can it be sued for copyright infringement? Might artists one day have intelligence rights written into their contracts to prepare for a time when AIs can be trained on their songwriting and then let loose to compose original material?
AI Musics plans for automated, personalised remixes may bring their own complications. If an app allows you to shape-change a song to the extent that you cant even hear the original, does it break away and become its own instance? says Mahdavi.
If you stretch something to a point where you cant recognise it, does that become yours, because youve added enough original content to it? And how do you then measure the point at which it no longer belongs to the original?
The answers to these questions? Mahdavi pauses to choose his words carefully. What were learning is that a lot of this is really quite grey.
Its also really quite philosophical, with all these startups and research teams grappling with fundamental issues of creativity and humanity.
The most interesting thing about all this is that it might give us an insight into how the human composition process works. We dont really know how composition works: its hard to define it, says Newton-Rex. But building these systems starts to ask questions about how [the same] system works in the human brain.
Will more of those human brains be in danger of being replaced by machines? Even as he boldly predicts that at some point soon, AI Music will be indistinguishable from human-created music, Amper Musics CEO, Drew Silverstein, claims that its the process rather than the results that will favour the humans.
Even when the artistic output of AI and human-created music is indistinguishable, we as humans will always value sitting in a room with another person and making art. Its part of what we are as humans. That will never go away, he says.
Mark Mulligan agrees. AI may never be able to make music good enough to move us in the way human music does. Why not? Because making music that moves people to jump up and dance, to cry, to smile requires triggering emotions and it takes an understanding of emotions to trigger them, he says.
If AI can learn to at least mimic human emotions then that final frontier may be breached. But that is a long, long way off.
These startups all hope AI music will inspire human musicians rather than threaten them. Maybe this wont make human music. Maybe itll make some music weve never heard before, says Phillips. That doesnt threaten human music. If anything, it shows theres new human music yet to be developed.
Cliff Fluet brings the topic back to the current home for two of these startups, Abbey Road, and the level of musician it has traditionally attracted.
Every artist Ive told about this technology sees it as a whole new box of tricks to play with. Would a young Brian Wilson or Paul McCartney be using this technology? Absolutely, he says.
Ill say it now: Bowie would be working with an AI collaborator if he was still alive. Im 100% sure of that. Itd sound better than Tin Machine, thats for sure
You can experiment with AI music and its close cousin generative music already. Here are some examples.
As mentioned in this feature, you can visit Jukedecks website and get its AI to create tracks based on your inputs.
Launched by Google this year, this gets you to play some piano notes, then the AI responds to you with its own melody.
Brian Eno was involved in this app, where you combine shapes to start music that then generates itself as your soundtrack.
A little like Vochlea in this feature, Humtaps AI analyses your vocals to create an instrumental to accompany you.
This is part running app and part music app, using adaptive technology to modify the tempo of the song to match your pace.
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Tens of thousands of adrenaline-junkies have signed up for a UK-wide event, keen to hurl themselves down water slides and belly flop across enormous inflatable balls. Sounds great (if you are into that kind of thing) – but there is a problem. Health and safety aside, it would appear the Total Wipeout tour simply… does not exist. So what is going on?
More than 40 towns and cities are cited by a Facebook group calling itself Total Wipeout Tour as destinations for the event. The group asks: “Have you ever wanted to take part in a series of challenges like you may have seen on Total Wipeout, but never wanted to do it on TV, or think that you would not be able to even complete the first challenge? Well now is your chance to attempt it, without the pressure, and to just have fun!”
All you have to do is fill in a form and register an interest.
Sounds easy enough. But dig a little deeper and the details seem a little woolly. There is no official website for the tour.
Venues and dates are “to be announced”. There are no contact details. And a quiet line at the end of the hype says “this has no ties with either the BBC or Total Wipeout”.
As one Facebook commentator said: “Misleading, much?”
In addition to having no ties to either the BBC or the production company behind the hit television programme, the tour appears to have no link to the licensing departments of councils where it is claimed the events are to be staged.
A straw poll of local authorities; Birmingham City Council, Manchester City Council, Cornwall Council and Wiltshire Council, suggest no temporary event notices have been applied for in respect of the “tour”.
Photographs of the apparently fictional event include screenshots from the television series and publicity photographs from several outdoor adventure companies – which have said they have no knowledge of the event.
Another suspicious sign is that events are advertised to be going on across the country on the same or consecutive days.
Fans on Facebook have reacted in two ways – some are disappointed they will not be able to have a go at the obstacle course.
“Oh no – I’d got my hopes up! I was really looking forward to this!” one person said, while another had hoped to arrange a work team-building day bouncing off the water-soaked balls.
More commonly, Facebook members metaphorically rolled their eyes.
“Some people fall for anything”, “It’s another scam – they just want your details” and “It would be impossible to set up! Think of the logistics!” are all typical responses.
So if it is a scam, what is the point? No financial details are requested – most people would regard such a request as a red flag.
An email address, date of birth and Facebook profile seem fairly harmless when it comes to opening the door to fraud. But although that information alone cannot be used to plunder a bank account, unscrupulous organisations can still make money from the details.
According to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), the incentive could be something called data mining, which is gathering information to sell on to marketing companies.
The ICO said before giving any personal information, check a group’s privacy notice to find out what it intends to do with your data.
Fake Facebook pages work in two ways: tricking people into liking and sharing a post, then, when the page has a large enough following, selling it on to a business which can change the name, business or product.
This is why you may find you “like” a page you have no recollection of ever seeing.
Facebook has now disabled the Total Wipeout Tour page.Continue reading
Online real estate serviceKnockis finishing up a$32 million Series A roundled byRRE Ventures. The new company, founded by former Trulia executives, promises to handle the details of home sales in exchange for the traditional six percent commissions. Unlike legacysellers, though, Knock promises you market-rate returns on your house in advance. And if, for whatever reason, your home doesnt sell, Knock will buy it.
The problem thatKnock and its competitors OpenDoor and OfferPad are trying to solve is simple: most people cant count on the timelines for home sales and home purchases to align. Harvesting the idea of an online marketplace and fusing it with predictive analytics to forecast prices, these companies aimto take the pain and uncertainty out of real estate transactions.
Knock is testing its model in Atlanta,Georgia a municipality known for its relative lack of housing-market volatility. The general narrative of the most recent recession was one of complete collapse. But some markets, like Washington, D.C., withstood the times betterthan others, like Las Vegas.
We are picking markets with the most going for them, good economic diversity and the least amount of risk,explainsSean Black, CEO of Knock.
In the long term,Black says that he would like Knock to be present in every market. But he admits that rural (i.e. Iowa) and very active markets (i.e. NYC or SF) will require a lot more data to offset risk and inspire confidence.
Knock is aiming to only take 10-20 percent of homes on its balance sheet. Competitors like OpenDoor accept more risk by purchasing all homes and operating fully on balance sheet. The challenge for Knockis ensuring that the homes they do buydont become a product of adverse selection. In other words, you dont want Knock investing heavily in its worst-quality homes.
To combat this, Knock goes to great efforts to ensure discipline in the houses it promises to sell. Its focused on home values between $150,000 and $500,000 andit inspects all homes to weed out bad apples.
But even with solid inventory, every company in this space is betting that it can price homes correctly. The first to liquidity is the first to data, so Knocks gamble is that its model offers the least amount of friction for consumers.
Raju Rishi, general partner at RRE Ventures, explained to TechCrunch that Knocks approach doesnt require as much capitalization and that its focus on the six-week window decreases economic uncertainty and the hurdles through which the companys computational models must jump.
Individual sellers are protected on Knock. Prior to a transaction, homeownersagree to contracts and Knock sets aside capital in its reserves like an insurance company.
Its a cyclical market and we are going to have to be prepared to ride the cycles, added Black. We only need to be six weeks ahead. Home sales happen a lot more often than elections, its easier to predict.
If push comes to shove, Knock can always rent homes to cut down on the potential downsides of economic volatility.Blackstone took a similar approach by making a bet that it could make money renting previously foreclosed homes.
Knock says its initialSEC form D filing only shows aninitial close of $12.5 million. The company alsonotes that an insignificant amount of todays reported Series A is in the form of venture debt, and that it has secured very generous, uncapped terms for purchasing homes with debt.Redpoint, Greycroft, Correlation Ventures, Great Oaks Venture Capital,Corazon Capitaland FJ Labs are also participating in todays round.Continue reading
‘Hadestown’, like ‘Hamilton,’ is starting small off-Broadway—and, featuring a powerful developer who likes to build walls, is building a buzz all its own.”>
Halfway through New York Theatre Workshops stunning new musical Hadestown, an arrogant and powerful developer who controls a great land sings with his followers about the need to build a wall. We build the wall to keep us freethe wall keeps out the enemy! they all sing.
The guy is Hades, king of the underworld. Any connection between the current Republican candidate and the eternal leader of hell is strictly coincidental. Like so much in this beautiful, haunting musical, classic themes resonate with contemporary force.
The show had been in development for nearly a decadeand the song about the wall was there from the beginning so the creators are as surprised as anyone by its startling relevance.
Theres no difference between what Hades is saying to his people and what you hear at a Trump rally, said director Rachel Chavkin.
The musicals creative storytelling and staging comes across with the same lightning bolt of freshness and excitement that surrounded the early days of Hamiltonthough this is at the New York Theater Workshop, and Hamilton was at the Public Theater.
She ultimately decided it doesnt matter if its futile or not, you have to trywhich she considers one of the messages of the show.
Mitchell remembered hearing the story of Orpheus and Eurydice when she was youngand it amazed me that its been told so many timeslike Black Orpheus and Orpheus Descending. (The first is an Oscar-winning movie, the second a play by Tennessee Williams.)
She first performed the show in what she calls DIY community theater in Vermont, then turned the songs into an album and toured with it as a singer. It lived in the music world, though I always had the fantasy of seeing it on stage, she said.
A few years ago, Mitchell connected with Chavkin, also 35, who oversaw Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812.
That inventive show (based on a portion of War and Peace) got raves in its early runs for its creative, immersive staging and is opening on Broadway in the fall, starring Josh Groban.
Working together, Mitchell and Chavkin added narrative and new songs to Hadestown, and gave a deeper story for Hades and his love, Persephone.
They also teamed with New York Theater Workshop, the always-impressive company which has developed Broadway hits from Rent to Peter and the Starcatcher.
The show has a vibe of Americana, from a Depression era resonance to 70s rock-and-roll. The outfit that Eurydice wearswhite sneakers, a long pleated yellow skirt and midriff-baring topfeels both timeless and timely. I wanted something that invoked the Dust Bowl but that you could also see on the streets of Bushwick right now, said Mitchell. The story of wealth and poverty and exploitation has a lot of modern elements.
In the original Greek myth (and dont worryyoure not expected to remember it), Eurydice is killed and her beloved Orpheus descends to the underworld to bring her back. In Hadestown, Eurydice decides to go on her own. As she sings to her lover, All the pretty songs you sing aint gonna shelter us from the wind.
The chorus of three (terrific) Fates watching the action explain Eurydices decision by asking What you gonna do when the chips are down? Now that the chips are down?
Said Chavkin, It was important on a dramatic level that the choice be understandable even if its not something I agree with. Capitalism is really useful but also out of control.
Mitchell sees Hades as a guy whos obsessed with wealth but doesnt really enjoy life. Hes not able to take that step back and see what hes plowed under in his pursuit.
Played by actor Patrick Page with a deep voice thats both mesmerizing and unnerving, Hades is very much the man of the moment. He has a blue-collar vibe, hes not a blueblood or a Kennedy, says Chavkin. Hes elegant but frightening. He puts on a suit, but you can feel the muscles underneath.
Hes been married to Persephone (an alluring Amber Gray) since the world began and they used to spend six months above ground and six months below. But now the dark industrial and business forces are overcoming the brightness.
Broadway veteran Page got involved in Hadestown during its workshop stage last year because I love dealing in archetype and big language and big scenes.
The song where he chants back and forth with his followers about building a wall used to be a metaphor, but the rise of Trump has made it chilling as the demagogue gets his people to say what he wants them to.
The song says we build a wall to keep out the enemy and the enemy is povertybut with Trump that means brown people, said Page. I sense something from the audience that Ive never felt in theater beforea fear and discomfort.
The audience sits on three sides of the stage and the characters wander among them, so we can all see each other, and were confronted with this frightening reality. Hades doesnt have Trumps narcissism or aggrandizement but he wants to make money, and whether it destroys things in the process is irrelevant.
Orpheus finds a way to Hades and convinces him to let Eurydice leave. Hades sets one conditionOrpheus can lead her out, but he has to trust that shes following him and not look back or hell lose her forever.
Chavkin creates a heart-thumping scene as Orpheus walks through platforms in the darkened theater with Eurydice struggling to follow, far behind. The Fates come between them, singing how doubt comes in and chills the air.
Its a tribute to Chavkins dramatic skill that the audience gasps when Orpheus turns too soon. (Thats not really a spoilerthe ending hasnt changed in 2000 years.)
The whole story should be a set-up for a Hollywood endingbut that doesnt happen, said Mitchell. It was hard to know how to follow up that moment.
People keep telling Mitchell that the parallels to the presidential campaign could be good for ticket sales. But she worries that the current political situation isnt good for anything. I hope these myths outlast Donald Trump, she said. I hope we all outlast Donald Trump.
Whether or not the show can come close to matching Hamiltons influence, Mitchell likes the idea that standards are once again emerging from hit shows. There are so many musical influences now. Im excited that we have songs that work in the context of the show but that you can play at your wedding or on your guitar or share with friends.
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LIVE BLOGGING: Ghana vs Nigeria (2017 WAFU Cup Final)
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Welcome to the live blogging of the final of the 2017 West Africa Union Football Union (WAFU) Cup between Ghana and Nigeria. This is presented Izuchukwu Okosi. Nigeria have scored three goals at the WAFU Cup tournament and have not conceded.
Snapchat is about to have a couple of really good years.
The company will see huge gains in the numbers of its U.S. users, according to a new report from market research firm eMarkerter.
Snapchat reports that right now it has about 150 million daily active users worldwide. The company doesn’t break out how many of those users are in the United States, but eMarketer estimates that the app will have about 58.6 million monthly users in the U.S. in 2016.
But those numbers are set to change dramatically, according to the company’s research. The firm predicts that the company will see a 27.2 percent increase in user growth in 2016 and another 13.6 percent increase in 2017.
The report notes that growth will likely stabilize by 2018 with only “single-digit” increases as “the Snapchat audience is expected to be substantially larger than it is today.” Still, that’s a huge amount of growth for a company that is already outpacing Twitter and many other rivals.
The report also predicts that Snapchat, once known for its predominantly teenage user base, will continue to grow in popularity among older users. The app’s U.S. user base is roughly 70 percent millennials right now, according to eMarkerter, but their share is set to go down to just 56 percent by the end of 2020.
That’s good news for Snapchat, which is widely believed to be eyeing an IPO for sometime in the not-so-distant future. But before that happens, the company still needs to prove it can reliably make money and a lot of it. And, as we’ve noted previously, if Snapchat hopes to realize those goals, it will need to both grow and diversify its user base.
Right now, the company makes the bulk of its revenue from advertising think sponsored lenses, geofilters and the adds you see in Discover and a bigger, more diverse set of users will certainly be a boon for both advertisers and Snapchat’s bottom line.
Correction: An earlier version misstated Snapchat’s current user base. The app has 150 million daily active users.Continue reading
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