Why I’m Not Completely Worried About AI and Country Music

Popular music was long ago corrupted by ones and zeros, algorithmic optimizations, electronic mimicry, metadata mining to analyze appeal, and the general eradication of the human element to make it significantly more palatable to the masses, and measures more vapid and fleeting in importance. The onslaught of new AI tools will only help further automate and simplify that process in the continued corruption of audio entertainment into cold and soulless product.

An ominous new suite of AI options such as ChatGPT have some experts especially troubled. The tool is capable of auto generating song lyrics with extreme precision, and can even specifically tailor them to a style or a specific artist. Country music YouTuber Grady Smith messed around with this a while back to create lyrics for specific artists like Morgan Wallen, Miranda Lambert, and Zach Bryan’s “All My Homies Hate Ticketmaster,” for example (see below).

ChatGPT is certainly arresting in it’s capability, and potentially cataclysmic for certain segments of the music and songwriting industry since it could render some actual human songwriters obsolete, similar to how drum machines, synthesizers, and the producer class have eaten into music’s human capital, including in country music in recent years.

The concern isn’t just for music itself. ChatGPT could also generate an article such as the one you’re reading right now, making yours truly unnecessary too. There are already websites that operate under this AI model, including in country music. Rest assured that more of these websites are coming online every day as journalists and outlets get bombarded with emails selling software to automatically generate articles with AI. Colleges and universities are especially worried since this might mean the end of the traditional term paper.

But I’ll tell you why I’m not entirely worried about this development, at least when it comes to country music, or specifically the good type of country music that we all enjoy around here. Sure, to many of the professional songwriters on Music Row who already do little more than rearrange the same 50 words into the same basic formulaic structures for producers to then assign to pop stars to sing through auto-tuners, this is a terrible development. Their proprietary value was already dubious to start. Now they’re up against AI bots that can spit out a lifetime’s worth of these songs in seconds and probably in a superior fashion, and can even cater them to the personalities of specific artists.

Obviously there are moral conundrums all over the place here. Will the public be alerted when a song is AI generated? Will they even care? Will an AI song win a Grammy? Will it lose its Grammy once it’s found out like Milli Vanilli? Can an AI bot earn songwriting royalties, or a certain cut of them if it helps create a song? Do those royalties and songwriting credits go to the engineer of the AI tool?

These are all questions Roy Acuff and Fred Rose never had to grapple with back in 1942 when they founded the important publishing company Acuff-Rose, and laid the rules out for songwriting that are still more or less in practice today. These are also questions that the music industry should grapple with now, and before things like ChatGPT become so prolific, music ends up behind the curve as opposed to in front of it, and it gets overrun.

But country music, and really all roots music art forms may be a bit better insulated from some or most of the concerns AI raises. Why? Because of all of the options in the popular music diet, country music is the one that still insists that the music should come from human actuations—fingers impressed on strings that once plucked, resonate wood to create sound. Words and stories aren’t just secondary dressing to catchy beats and simple melody, they’re often more important than the music itself in country, Walker Hayes and Sam Hunt notwithstanding.

As popular music has become more electronic and automated, the importance and appeal of country music has only been more enabled because it’s unique in the marketplace for being organic. For years, music pundits outside of the country realm peering into the genre have pontificated that country music must relent to the proliferation of EDM and hip-hop influences, or risk extinction. These days, the most popular trend in country music is country music. Country music sounds more country in its popular forms right now than any time in the last 10 or 12 years.

In real country music, the beauty of it is in its imperfections and the presence of human frailty, and its inherently organic nature. What do you think twang is? It’s singing or playing above or below where a note is supposed to be. Can or will AI be able to emulate these kinds of things eventually too? Probably, but the overall purpose of AI and technology is to make things easier, more efficient, and more perfect. This is counterintuitive to how (at least, ideally), country songs are composed and recorded.

And as AI technology continues to promulgate throughout popular music, country and roots music will continue to distinguish itself as the last bastion of music served with a human touch in a way that will separate it from the herd. Country music should insist that AI-generated lyrics and music is out of bounds for the genre. Perhaps it’s acceptable in hip hop, pop, and EDM, and maybe even advantageous for the aims of those art forms. But that ain’t country.

How will you know when a country song was created by humans as opposed to AI? Trust me, you will know. Just like you know now when an artist uses auto-tune, or electronic drums, or tries to pass themselves off as something they are not. Country music can’t be defined by words, or even by what instruments are utilized. Country music is a feeling. And either that feeling is there, or it’s not.

But more practically, there should be labeling on music so you know where it came from, just like food. It should be marked 100% certified organic, or have a list of the artificial ingredients that went into making it so that way consumers can make informed choices. The insistence by the industry for proper musical labeling should start right now, today. Because AI is here, and powerful, and will corrupt the music landscape in quick order if it is not addressed.

But friends, country music will be okay. Let others listen to artificial intelligence-generated manufactured superstars singing AI-generated lyrics laid over AI-generated music. We’ll be out here raw dogging it, hanging out in bacteria-infested honky honks where you can see the sweat bead on the brow of the performer, and the spit pummel the microphone, and swear they’re singing every single lyric right to you.

Or we’ll be on back porches and bluegrass gatherings, hearing the ring of wood and wire conjoined with the soaring of harmonies that make your skin break out in chill bumps and stir the soul like little else. Because the most potent way to exhilarate human emotions is to share experiences with each other in real time, straight from the heart, and uncorrupted by technology.

And that, my friends, will never die.

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