AI-generated music is an easy villain for some people. Something that threatens the livelihoods of human musicians, created by models likely trained on human-made, copyrighted music without permission.
And besides, the notion that algorithms can imbue music with even a tiny percentage of the heart and soul that humans can is downright offensive.
There is an alternative view, however. That far from being passive victims of AI music, those human musicians can play an active, creative and vital role in its creation. And that this collaboration can be a new income stream for them to boot.
One startup, Endel, has worked with musicians including Grimes, James Blake and Richie ‘Plastikman’ Hawtin to create ‘soundscapes’ from their musical stems. It recently signed a partnership with Universal Music Group to continue that work with its rosters.
Hawtin has his own startup, Pixelynx, co-founded with fellow musician Joel ‘deadmau5’ Zimmerman in 2021 with an initial focus on exploring partnerships between musicians and the games and virtual worlds industries.
Since then it has raised $4.5m of seed funding; taken investment from Niantic, the developer of mobile game Pokémon Go; used that company’s technology to begin building its own music-themed game called Elynxir; and recently sold a majority stake to Animoca Brands, one of the biggest companies in the web3 gaming industry.
Pixelynx’s latest project, Korus, sees it exploring AI music, including its opportunities for human musicians. A public demo was released in late May ahead of its full launch.
What is Korus? It’s a combination of music creation and 3D characters – known as Kors – which the company describes as “AI-powered music companions that give you the power to play, create and remix music”.
The demo involves choosing a bass, chords, drums or melody stem to act as the ‘seed’ for the Korus AI to create a new piece of music – we’re very much in EDM banger territory for now – which your robot-like Kor then dances to.
This is just a taster though. The idea is that people will train and upgrade their Kors by collecting ‘Artist DNA’ in the form of NFTs, with these collectibles using licensed music from Pixelynx’s artist and label partners.
They’ll then be able to save their music, create videos for it, and then “mint, share and earn” on Pixelynx’s digital marketplace, including a social feed and gamified leaderboard to show off the best creations.
“Something that’s really important to us is bringing fans closer to music, and opening up new forms of interactivity,” Pixelynx’s CEO Inder Phull tells Music Ally, as his colleagues Haamid Rahim (product owner of Korus) and Zac Alcampo (chief creative officer) walk us through the demo.
“We’re launching a whole species of these [companions] and each one is designed in partnership with a different artist, label or brand. We think it’s a fun storytelling opportunity for artists: not only bringing their music onto the platform, but expressing themselves in a more creative way that goes beyond traditional formats.”
Alcampo adds that Pixelynx is working hard on creating “a sense of progression and ownership with these characters” in the way they evolve as their owners feed more music into them. Alongside the basic versions, the company will sell a range of ‘premium’ Kors with different designs and personalities.
The characters are thus part of the business model, but it’s the Artist DNA packs that are the other part, with Phull stressing the fact that they are fully licensed from day one.
“It’s about exploring new business models that allow artists to bring their music into these environments [web3/AI music/the metaverse] and co-create with their fans,” he says.
“Whether a fan decides to go and sell their creation, or maybe even release it on a streaming service, there is a framework – a new economic model – to make sure that the artists are paid fairly, have transparency, and have a system to capture value.”
Pixelynx co-founder deadmau5 is playing a guinea pig role here, with his mau5trap label first up with an Artist DNA drop released this week. Beatport is also a partner, with plans to turn its existing range of ‘Synth Heads’ NFTs into Kors.
According to Phull, Pixelynx is already talking to partner labels about how Korus could develop further. “For example creating a platform for fans to be able to get their music into a UGC label, or to feature on a special mixtape or have another connection to the label,” he says.
“And because it’s an NFT, you have this potential for interoperability. You can take the music you’ve collected, and the badges and points [in Korus’s gamified system] that reflect your musical identity, into other games that we’ve partnered with for example.”
“You’ll be able to see the music and play it on those platforms, without the challenges of licensing because you’ve made it! Or if you go into a platform like [web3 metaverse] The Sandbox, it will know you’ve collected some deadmau5 DNA, so it can reward you in some way.”
When NFTs are involved, there are inevitable questions about accessibility. Not least in terms of cost: if the plan was to charge hundreds or even thousands of dollars for premium Kors and Artist DNA packs, Korus would be restricting itself to a relatively small audience of rich fans and crypto investors.
Phull says Pixelynx is alive to that risk. “We ultimately want a layer of this to be accessible to everyone. We will always have a free-to-play layer of the product, where you can have a base-level AI model where you can play with, say, electronic music,” he says.
“But from there you start growing this journey, collecting some house-music pieces or going out into other genres, and experimenting with different artists. It’s almost a gaming model: from microtransactions to the more-premium items that can be purchased.”
However, he notes that with web3 and NFTs “theoretically you don’t need millions of people to make a platform successful and work”. Balancing the accessibility of the free tier with well-chosen pricing of the premium elements will be key, but there are plenty of lessons from the games industry’s recent history to draw on.
Electronic music is a logical starting point for Korus, given Pixelynx’s founders, but also because (as Phull puts it) “the genre and sound is a lot more forgiving within the context of AI” – in terms of creating listenable music from stems.
“The technology is moving so quickly, though, that we do see all genres being key here,” he says. “It’s about diversity. Part of the beauty of music is when you bring two genres or styles together to create something fresh and new. That’s going to come from making sure the training data is as diverse as possible.”
In 2023, Pixelynx is sitting neatly at the intersection of three of the most disruptive / hyped (delete as appropriate) trends in the music industry: web3, the metaverse and now AI music.
There is huge excitement, but also plenty of worries – from the copyright concerns of labels to individual artists wondering how to navigate these new landscapes. Phull recognises the challenges, particularly the latter.
“From an artist perspective, naturally you would be scared. Music is increasing exponentially in terms of its output. There is so much noise, so how do you stand out when there’s going to be an infinite amount of music growing?” he says.
“It’s the experience. How do they deepen their engagement with their fans, and how do they push the experience forward? AI is going to require many artists to almost reconsider how they think about their music, their art. But in a good way.”
“Most artists that we speak to are really excited. Of course labels can be more protective over where this space is going. It’s moving incredibly fast, and aspects of this technology are not fully formed yet,” he continues.
“But I truly believe that it’s going to change the way artists get paid, and create more transparency in the industry. For us, the most important piece is this: how do we protect artists? We don’t want to lose the soul of creativity and art.”