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How an AI feud is roiling the music industry

The biggest record labels in music are trying to figure out how to grapple with the rise of artificial intelligence.

When Universal Music Group (UMG) pulled its songs from TikTok on Feb. 1 partly because of a concern artists weren’t being protected from artificial intelligence, it triggered a debate across the industry about whether to embrace the new technology, fight it, or both.

TikTok is "allowing the platform to be flooded with AI-generated recordings" while demanding contractual rights that could "massively dilute the royalty pool for human artists," Universal said in a letter announcing its decision.

Lucian Grainge, Chairman and CEO, Universal Music Group, speaks during The Evolution of Music and the Music Consumer session at the 2014 Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California April 29, 2014.  REUTERS/Kevork Djansezian   (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS ENTERTAINMENT)
Lucian Grainge, CEO of Universal Music Group, which pulled its songs from TikTok this month. (Kevork Djansezian/REUTERS) (REUTERS / Reuters)

Universal’s biggest rivals, Warner Music (WMG) and Sony (SONY), have stayed on the sidelines of this dispute so far. This month Warner CEO Robert Kyncl called his company’s own licensing deal with TikTok "difficult" but "fair."


Investors will be listening for any updates on the TikTok feud on Wednesday when Universal is scheduled to report its earnings for the fourth quarter of 2023.

How this debate unfolds will have sizable implications for the giants of music as the companies behind artists from Taylor Swift to Drake wrestle with the same AI dilemma currently roiling other creative industries.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 23: EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO BOOK COVERS Taylor Swift performs at Accor Stadium on February 23, 2024 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Don Arnold/TAS24/[SOURCE] for TAS Rights Management)
Taylor Swift is among the artists not currently available on TikTok. (Don Arnold/TAS24 for TAS Rights Management) (Don Arnold/TAS24 via Getty Images)

Music artists are increasingly concerned there is little protection for their own names, likenesses, and voices being used without their permission to create AI-generated songs.

Some have already had their voices mimicked without their permission, while deceased artists have also had their voices reproduced without the involvement of their families.

"I don’t have to tell you how much of a gut punch it is to have your name, likeness, or voice ripped from you and used in ways you could never imagine and would never allow," country singer Lainey Wilson said at a House Judiciary subcommittee field hearing on Feb. 2.

"It’s wrong."

'Ethical and not harmful'

Wilson aired her concerns in Los Angeles as the industry prepared for its biggest night of the year: the Grammy Awards.

"There aren’t many things that we can control in life, but making decisions about the use of our own selves, our own unique qualities, that should be one," she told lawmakers who gathered across the street from the arena where Wilson would win the Best Country Album award two days later.

Lainey Wilson poses with the Best Country Album award during the 66th Annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, California, U.S., February 4, 2024. REUTERS/David Swanson
Lainey Wilson poses with the Best Country Album award during the 66th Annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles earlier this month. (David Swanson/REUTERS) (REUTERS / Reuters)

The singer endorsed an effort underway in Washington to address some of her concerns. Last month lawmakers introduced a new House bill called the No Artificial Intelligence Fake Replicas and Unauthorized Duplications Act — or or the No AI FRAUD Act — that aims to establish a framework for protecting one’s voice and likeness on a federal level.

"Are we in fact rewarding the creators of intellectual property sufficiently?" Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who chairs the House Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet, said at the hearing.

Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA) speaks during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., March 10, 2021. Ting Shen/Pool via REUTERS
Representative Darrell Issa (R-Calif.). (Ting Shen/Pool via REUTERS) (REUTERS / Reuters)

"Under AI, it is critical that the development of the technology be ethical and not harmful and that it also be uniform within the United States."

The man in charge of the Grammys, Recording Academy chief executive Harvey Mason Jr., called the proposed legislation "long overdue" while also acknowledging the opportunities AI presents for the industry.

"The productivity that comes along with using this technology, creating things we haven't heard or thought of before and extending the reach of an artist with their voice, is possible," Mason told Yahoo Finance in a separate interview. "[But] regulations, legislation needs to happen to make sure human creators are protected."

Harvey Mason Jr., CEO of The Recording Academy poses during at the 64th Annual Grammy Awards at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., April 3, 2022.
Harvey Mason Jr., CEO of The Recording Academy. (Steve Marcus / REUTERS) (REUTERS / Reuters)

Malik Yusef, a music producer and director who has worked with Kanye West and Jennifer Hudson, said he thinks the legislation has holes in it and needs to be fortified. When AI versions of an artist’s voice or likeness are created, a copyright should automatically be granted to the artist, he said.

"It should be owned by the artist, and they should be able to wield it as much or as little as they want," he said.

'It wasn't easy with TikTok'

So far, Universal is standing alone in its fight with TikTok, which has pushed back by calling the label's move "sad and disappointing" and claiming it had "artist-first" pacts with Universal's rivals.

The CEO of Warner Music said he is confident that Universal and TikTok will sort things out.

"It wasn’t easy with TikTok," Kyncl said on the company’s most recent earnings call, referring to his own pact with the platform.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - FEBRUARY 01: Robert Kyncl attends the 2024 Warner Music Group Pre-GRAMMY Party at Citizen News Hollywood on February 01, 2024 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images)
Warner Music CEO Robert Kyncl. (David Livingston/Getty Images) (David Livingston via Getty Images)

"I think it was very difficult, too. But we got there. And for us, it was fair. But it was a year ago. It was also a different time. So I don’t know what is driving Universal’s positions. But there’s any way we can help them, we will, all of us."

If all labels pulled their music off TikTok, they could take the power back, according to Printz Board, producer and songwriter for the Black Eyed Peas, who now owns music and movie production company Beets & Produce.

"If you can get Sony, Warner Brothers, Atlantic, all these labels to start doing that and say, OK, we're going to take this back, take the power into our own hands, I think we would really be in a better place," he said.

Printz Board at the Primary Wave x Billboard Grammy Party held at Waldorf Astoria Beverly Hills on February 3, 2024 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Christopher Polk/Billboard via Getty Images)
Printz Board at a Grammy party earlier this month. (Christopher Polk/Billboard via Getty Images) (Christopher Polk via Getty Images)

Board, however, is not worried about being put out of work by AI.

"Maybe I'm of the minority, but I also feel because I'm a creative, creatives have an infinite bank of ideas and will never actually be broke," he said. "If you want to take my song and make it into an AI song, I'm going to redo a new song with your sample of my song. That's where it can be good."

Other industry figures argue it could be a supplemental tool for songwriting.

"At this point, we have to accept that AI is coming, AI is going to change our industry," said Justin Tranter, founder of record label Facet House and a Grammy-nominated songwriter behind songs from Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus.

Justin Tranter at the 66th Annual GRAMMY Awards held at Arena on February 4, 2024 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Gilbert Flores/Billboard via Getty Images)
Justin Tranter at the Grammy awards earlier this month. (Gilbert Flores/Billboard via Getty Images) (Gilbert Flores via Getty Images)

"We have to learn how to make it a tool and learn how to make it a friend of the songwriter, a friend, producer of an artist, or it's just going to kill us all."

A team of humans is still needed to produce new work, said Rance Dopson, who has been a musical director for stars from Beyonce to Jay-Z and Jennifer Lopez, as well as a producer for film scores.

"We gotta get it right,” said Dopson. "We need to create a model that makes sense for everybody, where it's not just taking jobs away, and people are a part of the IP. Then it could work."

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