A Look Back at Waves Vienna – A.I., Kids, and Indie Labels

Waves Vienna Conference
Waves Vienna Conference

From September 7 – 9, the 2023 edition of the Waves Vienna Festival and Conference took place, including numerous panel discussions on current topics impacting the music business.

Who’s afraid of A.I.?

Artificial intelligence is probably the hottest topic of the last year, and nowhere are the effects as strongly felt as in the music business. In recent months, multiple A.I.-generated fakes of artists and their work (the A.I.-generated fake song in the style of Drake and The Weeknd was a high-profile example) have sparked heated discussions about protecting artists’ rights and defining the border between works created with the assistance of A.I. – and works created by A.I.

The panel was moderated by Francesca Trainini of IMPALA and the Italian trade group PMI; participating in the discussion were Thomas Lidy, director of A.I. and data science at Utopia Music; Aël Guégan, a partnership executive at the music analytics firm Soundcharts; and Gee Davy, chief operating officer and head of legal and business affairs at AIM, the Association of Independent Music.

Lidy and Guégan’s companies aggregate, analyze, and sell music market data, and their initial statements reflected that fact: Guégan hailed A.I.’s ability to reduce a multi-step search operation to a single text query or predict the future development of tracks on TikTok. Lidy’s company uses A.I. to analyze parameters like beats per minute, genre, and mood, as well as consumer behavior – data that is then sold to companies like Amazon and Spotify or for use with virtual assistants like Alexa and Siri. Davy added that A.I. can be used to ensure the accuracy of metadata associated with artists and their works, to generated content for social media…and, of course, to create music.

“A.I. must serve Humanity”

Here, the discussion turned to the protection of artists’ rights: Trainini asked whether A.I. is helping creators or replacing them. Guégan initially opined that A.I. is a tool, “like an electric guitar,” but then cited the ability of A.I. to generate backing tracks. Lidy expressed concern about this automation of music production, correctly observing that it already exists (in the form of the Drake fake, for instance). Davy, a jurist, noted that perspectives differ depending on one’s position in the industry, and that the protection and encouragement of human creativity is paramount: “A.I. must serve humanity and music.”

Contributions from the audience included a woman who had bought a subscription to an artificial intelligence instead of hiring a copywriter because it was so much cheaper, which the panel members found to be a questionable decision. One audience member speculated that the production of commercial music might be relegated to artifical intelligence in the future; another voiced the opinion that the importance of live performance will increase as artists learn to apply A.I. tools in various contexts.

Cyber brain graphic
Graphic (c) pixabay

The right to the self

The discussion grew more ominous when Trainini asked for opinions about the legal implications of artificial intelligence: Guégan remarked that the European Union is still mired in the decision-making process concerning copyrights and intellectual property and mentioned the Human Artistry Campaign, an initiative to protect the rights of human creatives. In contrast, Lidy found the current copyright copyright framework to be sufficient, but admitted that it needed to be extended to cover artificial intelligence – and that “mixed-creator” situations are already making it difficult to distinguish between human- and A.I.-generated work. Trainieri agreed, added that the bulk of the material currently being used to train artifical intelligence has been “scraped” from the internet without the knowledge or consent of the creators, a serious ethical problem.

Lidy voiced the further concern that A.I. is already capable of copying an artist’s voice and musical style to create new works, and Davy brought up the point that many countries – including the U.K. – have no laws protecting “personality rights”, a person’s right to the public use of their voice or image. “The problem is that everything is moving very quickly, and legislation moves very slowly.” Still, she was cautiously optimistic about the future, citing the development of protection against piracy, digital watermarking initiatives, and other paths toward protecting and authenticating the work of (human) artists.

touring with kids

Balancing a musical career with family is always a current affair. Waves Vienna has devoted panels to it in the past, and mica – music austria published a series of interviews on the subject in 2022 with artists like Lukas Kranzelbinder, Violetta Parisini, and Ankathie Koi. This year, at a panel moderated by FM4’s Susi Ondrušová, the musicians René Mühlberger (a.k.a. Pressyes) and Marlene Lacherstorfer (the two are partners and have a baby daughter) talked about touring with kids.

According to Lacherstorfer, the couple hadn’t considered family an option previously and were satisfied with their artistic careers; their experiences in the pandemic and getting a little older (both are in their 30s) changed their minds. Mühlberger confirmed that their daughter has become their first priority: making money is a necessity, but his first goal is to be at home as much as possible. Interestingly, he also noted that his enjoyment in making music has increased since their daughter’s birth, and that he has become more productive in the little time available to him.

Lacherstorfer played a concert about four weeks after their daughter’s birth to see how it went, and has continued to perform on a reduced schedule ever since. However, the logistic issues are numerous: transportation and babysitting are constant considerations, and the additional costs have made negotiation with promoters more difficult. Traveling by tour bus has proved to be the best solution: the oddly shifted schedule (typically: arrive at midday, soundcheck in the afternoon or early evening, concert until late evening, sleep while the bus is traveling to the next venue) allows the parents to spend the most time with the baby.

Toward the end, the subject of social media exposure for musicians’ children came up, with the couple agreeing that they have tried to limit it for their daughter. However, Mühlberger said it’s hard: “I used to scroll through the photos on my phone to find things I could post on Instagram. Now, I have no content at all – but 30,000 photos of the baby.”

Photo of Waves Vienna Conference
Waves Vienna Conference (c) Alexander Galler

Proud to be Independent

This discussion, moderated by Alexander Hirschenhauser, the founder of VTMÖ (the Austrian organization of independent record companies) focused primarily on what exactly distinguishes an “independent” label. Nadja Haderer from Vienna’s Ink Music held that the difference was largely in the attitude toward artists and the music business generally. This opinion was echoed by the other panelists, Joe Mercer Danher of Merlin, a global licensing partner and Helen Smith, executive chair of the European indie label association IMPALA.

According to Haderer, an indie label focuses mainly on artist development, placing value on the music itself and on long-term personal relationships with artists, rather than simply viewing them as commodities, to be dropped if they are not profitable.

Haderer noted that the more independent labels exist, the better for the market – small, independent labels are able to (and interested in) serving a wider variety of artists and musical tastes and added that without the support of music export initiatives and public funding, independent labels would not be able to survive in a market dominated by multinational corporations. Smith and Danher both emphasized that the ability to compete with multinational media conglomerates like Universal or Sony depends on cooperation – with business partners like Merlin and with one another in organizations like IMPALA. Hirschenhauser put it neatly: “It’s only together that we’re loud enough.”

Philip Yaeger