Holly Herndon Wades Into Grimes & Zola Jesus’ Debate About Live Music & AI

Grimes, Zola Jesus, and Devon Welsh (formerly of Majical Cloudz) were at the center of a crackling Twitter debate about artificial intelligence and live music this past week. Now Holly Herndon, someone eminently qualified to contribute to the conversation, has done just that.

To recap: This all started when Grimes went on theoretical physicist Sean M. Carroll’s Mindscape podcast and at one point argued that “live music is going to be obsolete soon.” This inspired spirited responses from the other two aforementioned figures, with Zola Jesus calling Grimes “the voice of silicon fascist privilege” (alluding to Grimes’ romance with tech billionaire Elon Musk) and Welsh, who used to date Grimes, describing her remarks as “silicon valley fascist propaganda.”

The lengthy discourse included ZJ and Welsh describing live music as an essential expression of humanity and one of the few aspects of modern life that remains outside the control of big tech. While allowing that her critics were raising interesting points, Grimes argued that technology has always impacted people’s relationship to music and will continue to do so as it evolves: “We can’t prevent bad outcomes if we don’t start envisioning good outcomes.”

Today, Herndon has entered the fray. It makes perfect sense. Herndon’s music is closely intertwined with her academic work. She recently completed her PhD at Stanford’s Center For Computer Research In Music And Acoustics, and her recent album PROTO, which she composed in tandem with an AI “baby” named Spawn, brought together human and AI voices. A lot of the subjects Grimes explores through science fiction, Herndon addresses via actual science. She’s one of the smartest, most thoughtful musicians working today, as becomes evident whenever she talks to a journalist.

Herndon posted what amounts to an essay on Twitter today, addressed to Grimes and Zola Jesus as “my 2c on AI and Interdependent music.” Up front she explains that it’s a summary of a talk she and partner Mat Dryhurst gave this past weekend in Madrid and Berlin. “AI most likely won’t replace musicians outright,” Herndon writes. “Sentient AI is a fantasy that I think sometimes distracts (often intentionally) from the political economic things that are happening around tech at the moment.” Although bots likely cannot become truly sentient, they can create “decisions” convincing enough to create the illusion of autonomy, with “really significant and mind-blowing” results.

She continues, “AI tools will cut costs to make generic music, and there is commercial incentive to progress this,” suggesting that a combination of automated systems and human performers will likely soon be responsible for “stock music or cheap music for film and commercials” — in other words, Hollywood directors will be able to quite literally order up a Metro Boomin Type Beat the likes of which already litter SoundCloud and YouTube. She compares the advent of musical AI tools to the rise of drum machines, which “made basic drumming accessible to musicians but didn’t replace *great* drummers.” She imagines a future in which musicians can jam with the likeness of one of their musical heroes — “hopefully with their permission and fair compensation” — to expand their skills or defeat writers’ block.

“The music I like and the artists I like are in the business of making meaning,” Herndon writes. “Tools will change and new rituals will emerge, but it does not really matter how easy it is to make meaningless art.” She continues, “It is now super easy to make ‘ok’ music, and it is everywhere. Great live performances, or genre defying albums, have never been more needed as a result.” She acknowledges that more automation will accelerate the existing momentum toward creating music that only exists to be placed on a playlist, but remains hopeful that “there are plenty of people who demand more of culture.”

Then Herndon gets to the really good stuff: “I’m not worried about robot overlords. I’m worried about democratically unaccountable transnational companies training us all to understand culture like a robot or narrow AI. I tried to make this point with PROTO.” She affirms that “AI is useless without us” and is “just us, in aggregate. That is a powerful metaphor and responsibility.” She then gets into a lot of economic talk about how there’s no current way to prevent a few companies from vacuuming up all the wealth in an AI-driven music landscape, but she and her colleagues are working on some ideas they hope to present soon. She says she and Dryhurst now think of themselves not as independent artists but “interdependent artists,” part of “an ecosystem that attempts to support itself internally.”

It’s a dense, enlightening, ultimately quite stimulating read, and you can tackle all of it below.