“We came together with a belief that the future of music would be created by the collaboration between humans and AI. We knew that AI, when someone got it right, would lead to an evolution towards a new era of creativity…”
Drew Silverstein, CEO of Amper Music, is explaining to Music Ally the backstory of his company, one of two AI-focused startups on this year’s inaugural Techstars Music accelerator program – the other being Popgun.
Amper’s most direct competitor is UK startup Jukedeck though. Both have developed artificial-intelligence (AI) systems that generate music on-demand for clients in the video and games industries.
Amper’s founders’ background is within that world, as composers and sound designers for films and games. According to Silverstein, Amper was a response to the way time and budget constraints within those industries led people towards production libraries of pre-created, licensable music.
“But nearly every person we work with has been frustrated by that process. The time it takes to search; the licensing and legal hurdles that exist around the licensing of that content; the lack of customisability; and the fact that the music is not exclusive to them,” says Silverstein.
Cue Amper’s efforts to build “a creative AI that collaborates with you” as a client. Three years ago the company hacked together a “quite rudimentary” version of its software to prove the concept, and has been refining it ever since while building its team and, in March 2017, raising $4m of funding.
“This is not something that can be done overnight. The work entailed to make this a successful technology is commensurate with the effect that this technology will have on musical and non-musical creators around the world,” says Silverstein.
“There’s been a massive amount of work and research and iteration and thought to make this concept work in a commercial setting. It’s a very high mountain to climb, and we’re moving quickly up the mountain, but we recognise there’s a lot of it ahead of us. We’re in this for the long haul.”
At its simplest level, getting Amper Music to create you a song starts with choosing a genre: cinematic, classic rock, modern folk and 90s pop. Then choose a mood: brooding, driving, exciting, happy, playful, reflective, sad or tender.
You then choose a desired track length and click a ‘Render Music’ button. Within a couple of minutes, a track pops out, complete with a ‘rewrite’ button to ditch it for another with the same attributes. The mood, instrumentation, tempo, duration and key can also be edited.
Tracks can then be downloaded as MP3 or WAV files, with Amper requesting that if they’re used on YouTube or Vimeo videos, that the company be credited in the video description.
In 2017, this can be a controversial service, particularly for musicians, songwriters and their representative bodies, who see AI as a threat to the incomes of human creators. Yet at the same time, many of these people wonder whether AI will ever really be able to match humans for creativity.
Silverstein, unsurprisingly, has views on both points. “If we look 100 years in the future, when we’re in the year 2117, AI-generated music will be old hat! AI creativity will be as normal a thing as the combustion engine,” he says.
“Or it might be outdated even. It’s not about whether this can or cannot happen, but when will it happen? Are we going to wait 100 years or are we going to see it in six months? I firmly believe that at some point sooner rather than later, Amper’s music will be indistinguishable from human-created music.”
That’s a bold claim, given the controversies around AI’s potential impact on human musicians. However, Silverstein is careful to distinguish between two different questions: not just whether AI can create music like humans, but whether human listeners will value that music in the same way.
“Just because the outcome of the creative process is the same doesn’t mean we value the things in the same way. If the use-case for the music is just to do something functional, then it’s less important to me who made it and how they made it,” he says.
“But from an artistic perspective, 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. It’s part of what we are as humans. That will never go away.”
Silverstein turns to the example of coffee to illustrate his point, noting that while buying a coffee at a corner store might cost $2, there are still plenty of people willing to pay up to ten times that at an artisan coffee-shop.
“It’s not because we care about the coffee itself, but we care that it was made in a GMO-free, hand-processed craft. It’s the process we value: that hands-on, artisan process of creating something. Even though the outcome may be relatively indistinguishable to an average person,” he suggests.
Like its AI-startup peers, Amper is also pitching its technology as a potential creative foil for musicians rather than a replacement for their skills.
“As AI and humans collaborate to make the future of music, we want this collaboration to enhance the creative process in an additive way, not to displace it,” says Silverstein.
“For a musician, we want Amper to be your most trusted creative collaborator: something that helps you get better at what you do, and further your goals. We hope that the more people understand this technology, the more their fear subsides, and is replaced by a sense of opportunity and excitement.”
He remains bullish about the inevitability of this technology carving out a place for itself within the music industry, though.
“This will happen. 100 years from now, it will have happened, and we’re not talking decades down the road when this happens. But it’s our main goal to steer the evolution of creative artificial intelligence down a path of positively enhancing the lives of creators, rather than negatively displacing them,” he says.
Silverstein goes on to paint AI music in the context of some other technological disruptions from the last 2,000 years, from agriculture to the internal combustion engine.
“From a historian’s point of view, people would say those are positive evolutions. But for individuals at a macro level, who have their own lives to reference this over, they may have been unsettling,” he says.
“So the question ‘how does this personally affect me today rather than over 200 years?’ is a valid question to ask about AI music. We want to encourage that debate. We have a responsibility to make sure that this evolves in a way that is positive and enhancing.”
Read Music Ally’s recent coverage of AI music
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