Musicians and the rise of A.I.

Volume 123, No. 10November, 2023

John Painting

Artificial intelligence is here to stay, but how can the union – and society – protect musicians? The following remarks were delivered by John Painting, the director of the AFM’s Electronic Media Service Division for a recent roundtable discussion at the Federal Trade Commission on Oct. 4, 2023. They are reprinted here with permission from Mr. Painting and the AFM.

Good afternoon, everyone. It is an honor to be here.

As the labor institution which represents and protects the interests of musicians who prepare and perform instrumental music in recording studios for sound recordings, film, television, and streaming services, as well as in live theatre, symphony, opera, ballet, clubs, festivals and more all over the United States and Canada, the American Federation of Musicians is certainly no stranger to dealing with the encroachment of technology on our profession.

But the rise of generative artificial intelligence yields a more existential fight than we have faced before, as we approach the potential disappearance of performers’ livelihoods and, by extension, the disappearance of a component of humanity in culture.

From our history dealing with technological advancement, like our sister entertainment unions and guilds, the solutions sought have been traditionally approached in two ways: collective bargaining with industry and legislative lobbying. Both paths tend to seek secondary income to those performers whose work has been diminished by advancing technology.

In 1942, with live performance and radio orchestras threatened by recorded music, the AFM struck the record labels and eventually succeeded in establishing the Music Performance Trust Fund, supported by label revenue, that sponsors free live concerts around the United States and Canada.

More recently, the AFM has had to combat the encroachment of pre-recorded music into live engagements, such as preventing virtual orchestras from replacing pit musicians in musicals.

We have been here before, and we will be here again. Make no mistake, generative AI is coming, and it will change everything.

Back in 1927, in the face of the technological advancement of adding sound to motion pictures, then-AFM President Joseph Weber said, “Nothing will destroy the usefulness of an organization surer than to set its face against progress, no matter how unfavorable we may at present see the same to our interests.”

We must face these changes head-on rather than stick our heads in the sand.

If I’m a regional live theatre producer with a six-figure annual budget to spend on pit musicians, how much do you think I’d be willing to pay to have a piece of technology that replaces that cost entirely? And in that scenario, should the consumer still be paying the same ticket prices to see that artificial musical? Is disclosure of that fact enough? What if every theatre in the country had that same technology?

Compared to previous technological shifts, the job losses here could be steep: recording and scoring of all types can be wholesale replaced if composers and songwriters can replace the output of live, performing instrumentalists with an AI-generated facsimile. Producers may replace the composers and songwriters themselves. Live touring across all genres would be impacted if bands and artists could tour with AI-generated backing musicians, holographic orchestras, and AI backing tracks.

A machine-generated creation which utilizes a performer’s voice, face, or in our case, instrumental sound, without the actual participation of that performer in the creation is tantamount to replacing the performer entirely. It removes the human from the creative process and the performing process. When that happens, the work is gone, the wages are gone, the secondary residual wages are gone, but it’s more than just economics. The humanity contained within artistic and cultural expression will be gone too.

Solutions cannot merely be the bargaining of replacement remuneration if the job opportunities are replaced wholesale, or establishing minimum hiring requirements for producers who choose to be union signatory, or extensions of copyright law to establish a financial value to the performer’s material. That may be sufficient for those whose material is used to train these systems, but what will that mean for the young cellist practicing today? What will that mean for their job prospects in five, ten, fifteen years, if recording work and orchestra work dries up?

The solutions need to be wider than the traditional paths we’ve all taken, owing to the cultural damage the problem yields. As soon as it becomes broadly accepted that art no longer requires the involvement of human creativity, we will have crossed the point of no return. Consumers should not be expected to accept such an alternative at the same price points.

Musical expression transcends cultures and time. It will always be a part of society, but that doesn’t guarantee it as a viable career. The endgame must be the protection of the profession.

Thanks so much for your time.