As manager of Abbey Road Studios’ incubator Abbey Road Red, it’s Jon Eades’ job to bring tech startups into the famous studio complex and help them build partnerships with musicians, producers and engineers, and the wider music industry.
Alumni include startups working on educational technology (Uberchord); 3D hardware and audio (Ossic and Titan Reality); online mastering (CloudBounce); film-scoring (Scored); vinyl crowdfunding (Qrates); and online studio bookings (The Audio Hunt).
The latest program is focusing on artificial intelligence with two British startups, AI Music (who we profiled recently) and Vochlea. Eades talked to Music Ally about why AI is interesting for a company like Abbey Road; how he sees this technology developing in the future; and some of the controversies around the area.
A recent discussion event held at Abbey Road and focusing on AI sparked some heated views, admits Eades, who says that some people working at Abbey Road are concerned about the impact artificial intelligence may have on humans who make their living from music.
“A lot of the time people who have a role in the organisation that’s well-defined aren’t necessarily seeking change. Especially if they enjoy what they do, which a lot of the people here do,” says Eades.
“There is definitely a culture of experimentation here, but it’s a delicate balance of whether something looks like an opportunity or whether something looks like a threat. There’s a mixture of caution and optimism: like in every organisation, some people are forward-looking and some people not so much.”
Eades is careful to stress that he does not ignore the criticism of and concerns about AI within Abbey Road. It’s more that he sees the Red incubator’s role sparking these conversations as appropriate for a studio where the Beatles (most famously) rewrote many of the rules around how music was recorded.
“There is something special about bringing provocative people into what is a cathedral of music, and reminding people that we’ve always been doing that,” says Eades.
“Long before me, there were people who were pissing off the older staff members here, and it will continue, and I will become old. Hopefully I won’t get stagnant! But it will be for someone else to come through and make sure this business continues to do what it does, and what all businesses should do.”
AI Music is working on what it describes as “shape-changing” technology to automatically remix songs on the fly, according to the musical preferences and current context of their listeners.
Vochlea, meanwhile, is working on an AI system that translates people’s vocalisations into music – for example, beatboxing triggering drum samples.
Eades sees both as tools that can be used by musicians, rather than any kind of existential threat. Unlike the systems being developed by startups like Jukedeck and Amper Music, neither AI Music nor Vochlea is trying to get an AI to create music from scratch.
He suggests that AI will become part of the music industry’s production processes in time, to the point where they may not even be thought of as ‘artificial intelligence’ any more.
“Think about optical character recognition. A computer being able to read text was once just some crazy future thing! Now it’s just ‘a process’ and it’s not deemed to be intelligent any more,” he says.
“I think we’re always going to be chasing this definition of AI, and intelligent processes will just become attached to our processes, and you’ll get this collaboration between the two.”
Eades cites Jukedeck as an example of something that, rather than becoming an “all-eclipsing technological solution” will rather sit within a bigger landscape of humans and music-making: a collaborative tool as much as a replacement.
“This is less about the debate as to whether we should or shouldn’t be replacing humans. I’m of the opinion that humans are actually very good at reorganising themselves,” he says.
“In the face of adversity, we learn as a society to figure out the new roles that are useful for us to do, and we re-skill. There is collateral damage in the meantime, no doubt, but over time we have, as a society, learned to deal with the onset of new technologies.”
“I imagine AI will just fold in to our daily lives in the same way the internet did, or synthesizers did, or drum machines did, and it will just become part of the landscape.”
Synthesizers and drum machines were controversial in their time, though. It’s clear that in the short term, the debates around AI and human musicians are not going to die down. If anything, they are going to intensify.
Eades prefers not to see this as a battle between algorithms and organic human music-making, reflecting views expressed in Jukedeck CEO Ed Newton-Rex’s recent interview with Music Ally.
“There will always be people playing guitars who are very concerned with provenance and the mastery of songwriting. Something like AI Music isn’t really for those people: either for the musicians or the audience,” says Eades.
“And yes, some artists are going to hate it! But some artists are really going to embrace it. We’re openly having these conversations.”
Eades sees those conversations, even if they are difficult and sometimes angry, as essential for the industry.
“We’re talking about a suite of technologies that stand, potentially, to have as much impact on this industry as the digitisation and mass online distribution of music did. That created a lot of turmoil, and a lot of change, but a lot of opportunity too,” he says.
“I think the same thing is going to happen here, I really do. It challenges the ownership of creative works, of derivation, of provenance, of fashion. All of these things. And these are fundamentally intriguing and important topics.”
Eades describes his role within Abbey Road as a “technology chaser” looking for the next potential disruptions. Yet interestingly, he also admits to a certain degree of uncertainty about the long-term impacts of the tech that he finds.
“I’m playing a role, so what am I trying to achieve? People tend to fall on two sides: either the approach of ‘let’s just progress things forward with a complete disregard of any humanity’ or the humanitarian’s approach of ‘we need to preserve fair remuneration and all such things’,” he says.
“I do now find myself in that quandary. I can see where things are going, and I know what the pulling force is. But should we have some moral obligation to support things? Or are they just human constructs that are there to be destroyed? Personally I am right in the middle.”
Read Music Ally’s recent coverage of AI music
Amper Music: ‘In the year 2117, AI-generated music will be old hat’
Jukedeck hopes artificial intelligence can ‘democratise music’
Startup AI Music reveals its plans for ‘shape-changing songs’
Playing next door to Alice: Popgun reveals its music AI