AI 'singer-songwriter' Anna Indiana (photo: @AnnaIndianaAI on X/Twitter)

AI ‘singer-songwriter’ Anna Indiana (photo: @AnnaIndianaAI on X/Twitter)

Can AI create a superstar on the level of Elvis, Prince, or Taylor Swift? There’s ample reason to believe that the musicians that truly connect and drive the culture will always be ‘human-generated’ — deeply flawed, just like us.

So what are the real limits of AI-generated music?

That’s a question worth reflecting upon as Universal Music Group continues to battle it out with TikTok, partly over AI-generated music. It’s no secret that TikTok and its owner, ByteDance, are gung-ho on AI-generated music and triggering serious copyright concerns in the process.

But perhaps it’s useful to consider the limits of AI in music, particularly as it surrounds the human element of superstardom.

Check out our recent DMN Pro Weekly report for a complete breakdown of the recent UMG-TikTok standoff and what we know about TikTok’s music deal structures. We dive deeper into what this standoff means, what led to the breakdown, TikTok’s royalty contributions to the music industry compared to other UGC platforms, and an eye-opening comparison between the revenues of UMG versus TikTok owner ByteDance.

It’s not that there aren’t attempts to create an AI-generated idol or pop superstar — not to mention AI-generated best friends and even sexual partners. But there may be serious limitations to this game.

If only it were ‘all about the music,’ to quote an old industry cliché.

One could argue that the music industry is powered by hits — those beautiful, perfectly-timed songs that ripple throughout the world, racking up billions of plays and taking residence in our collective consciousness. But powering every hit is a personality, a human that is typically relatable on some level to fans. In most cases, it’s not just the hit, it’s who’s delivering that hit to the world — and that’s a huge part of what Universal Music Group and companies like it create.

It’s not that AI isn’t attempting to replicate that. But it might be fundamentally impossible to replace the superstar musician, simply because superstars only exist because of the people that love them. And the superstars we form connections with are often deeply flawed, vulnerable, and tragically human.

Nobody particularly likes overdosing on toilets, murderous producers, classical geniuses who die at 35, heroin-addicted singers, bickering band members, or the ’27 Club’. But the dirty, dark history of music is not only tragically human; it might also be the flip side of genius. And it’s something AI isn’t designed to replace.

But maybe that’s a feature, not a bug, for music fans who favor the sometimes ugly — and very human — real thing.

And for proof of that, simply look at the most successful and celebrated ‘catalog’ artists of all time.

Jim Morrison was, at times, a semi-functional alcoholic who had trouble showing up at gigs and exposed himself when he did. But damn, he had a powerful and magnetic charisma — not to mention beautiful lyrics. Elvis helped to redefine and popularize rock n’ roll like nobody before him, yet his waning days were spent popping pills in a Vegas penthouse suite.

Prince seemed like the model of squeaky-clean creativity and control — until the shocking details of his sudden death emerged. Chet Baker couldn’t kick heroin and fell out of a window to his death.

And Michael Jackson, whose catalog was recently valued at $1.2 billion? I rest my case.

The list goes on — and on, and on, and on.

Indeed, the list is filled with extreme meltdowns,  murderous rampages, descents into insanity, suicides, and too many debilitating drug and alcohol addictions to count. It’s a depressingly checkered past, and a stark reminder that flawed human beings — just like us — are on that stage.

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Perhaps an AI compositional platform can perfectly concoct the music for a chase scene in 1.4 seconds. But for the biggest stars and the fans who love them, is it ever just ‘all about the music’?

And that goes for the happily non-screwed-up artists as well. Perhaps in a sign of positive societal change, many of the biggest music superstars today — Taylor Swift, Drake, Beyonce, Olivia Rodrigo, Ed Sheeran, Dua Lipa — aren’t defined by their vices but by their togetherness. They show up on time, stay healthy and kick ass.

(That’s not to say there aren’t troubled artists out there, but maybe we’re doing better these days.)

But the real connection goes far beyond the music and into the relatability, the human charisma, and the feeling that despite the searing levels of celebrity, there’s still a human that sleeps, eats, drinks, screws up, and even gets dumped — just like you.

Even if you hate them and wish they didn’t get so much airtime at Chiefs games, that’s engagement — you’re sucked in. There’s a connection, not just to the artist but the entire culture surrounding them.

What’s true in music may also be true for other areas of entertainment, including sports. We love a comeback because it’s human. A hole-in-one shot by an AI-powered humanoid would be a novelty, not a daring exploit for the ages.

And no matter how sophisticated the Black Mirror dystopian future plays out for the music industry, it’s hard to imagine AI touching that human connection. Because AI isn’t human, it’s designed to do better than humans and eliminate their flaws. And if the Black Mirror AI hellscape truly emerges, you may prefer to listen to a human artist battling against dystopia than an AI-concocted singer feeding you happy vibes.

But if the human connection isn’t replaceable, what is the real threat that AI music poses to the industry?

This isn’t a light question and serious threats are looming on the horizon. It’s part of what pushed Universal Music Group and TikTok past the brink. But UMG also builds superstar careers and fame, which is extremely difficult to replicate and requires deep expertise and experience.

Does that offer UMG more leverage in the TikTok standoff? Even subconsciously, a viral video with a superstar-associated soundtrack feels more powerful. And even TikTok stars are relatable humans, not AI-concocted personalities.

None of that solves the UMG-TikTok standoff, particularly as it relates to copyright concerns. But from the perspective of UMG, a company that specializes in finding and building human superstars, it’s worth noting. Perhaps there’s only so much that AI can replace.

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