The digital revolution has brought pain and promise to the music industry. Now, artificial intelligence (AI) looms on the technological horizon as the next great disruptor.

Machines that write songs? Software that scores music for film and corporate videos? They’re not some distant sci-fi novelty, they’re already here, assisting human composers – but also threatening to replace some of the work previously done exclusively by humans.

Last year, researchers at Sony Computer Science Laboratories released a song in the style of the Beatles, called “Daddy’s Car,” created by the AI application Flow Machines (a research project funded by the European Research Council, and co-ordinated by Sony CSL Paris).

French startup Aiva (Artificial Intelligence Virtual Artist) is an AI composing app rooted in classical music and aimed at the synch market.

According to Aiva’s creators, “We have taught a deep neural network to understand the art of music composition by reading through a large database of classical partitions written by the most famous composers (Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, etc.). Aiva is capable of capturing concepts of music theory just by doing this acquisition of existing musical works.”

Aiva’s first album, Genesis, is available on Soundcloud. And this year Aiva became the first composing app to do a deal with a performing rights organization; all music composed by Aiva is automatically registered with SACEM.

And while smaller AI music startups are sprouting like dandelions in spring – witness some of the ingenious applications on show at the Techstars Music Accelerator in Los Angeles – Google, Microsoft, IBM, Apple, and Amazon, are all investing heavily to stay at the forefront of the AI revolution.

Last year, Google launched Magenta, a research project aimed at pushing the limits of what AI can do in the arts. This is done using artificial neural networks – computer systems inspired by the neural networks of the human brain.

“The deep-learning revolution comes courtesy of the computer-game industry,” writes Larry Hardesty, in MIT News. “The complex imagery and rapid pace of today’s video games require hardware that can keep up, and the result has been the graphics processing unit (GPU), which packs thousands of relatively simple processing cores on a single chip. It didn’t take long for researchers to realize that the architecture of a GPU is remarkably like that of a neural net.”

Arne Eigenfeldt sees AI as a creativity booster, rather than a replacement for human creation.

IBM is exploring a range of music-related AI applications, including Watson Beat. Explains IBM researcher Kelly Shi, “Watson Beat composes music by ‘listening’ to at least 20 seconds of music, and then creates new tracks of melodies, ambient sounds, and beats based on what it learned from the original sample – whether the user wrote it, or is using other samples and songs.”

Jeff King, SOCAN

Jeff King, COO of SOCAN

SOCAN is working with IBM Watson and Canada’s leading AI labs to utilize the technology on behalf of songwriters and music publishers. “SOCAN is very committed to artificial intelligence,” says SOCAN Chief Operating Officer Jeff King. “We want to be a global leader in this area.”

King says AI is particularly useful in music identification. “Watson can look at 700,000 web pages per second,” he explains. “We’ve applied the power of Watson to YouTube and user-generated content. Initially we focused on lyrics: Watson would learn a song then go looking for matches. We had good success. Then we went looking at the music, melodic patterns and so forth, and Watson did reasonably well. But when you combine the two functions, examining [both] lyrics and melody, then the probabilities were much higher. So we’re seeing AI as a really interesting opportunity to license and monetize cover versions in a smart, non-manual way. Using AI like this could really transform the industry.”

King adds that AI has other positive applications for SOCAN. “We can use the processing power and learned logic to identify when someone is starting to break out,” explains King. “For instance, in our Watson experiment, we discovered that when an artist is mentioned on social media outside their postal code, they’re likely on the verge of doing something. We’re using things like that to help our recruitment activities, to identify people who should be part of the SOCAN universe.”

Vancouver-based composer and Simon Fraser University professor Arne Eigenfeldt, is dedicated to exploring metacreation (imbuing computers with creative behavior); Eigenfeldt is an expert on the subject of musebots, which are virtual musical agents that make music together.

Says Eigenfeldt, “Most of my music in the last 10 years has used AI in some capacity, and I’m definitely part of the worldwide computational creativity, as well as the musical metacreation, community. Both are concerned with automating the creative process through computation, i.e., ‘using AI to make art.’ Or ‘artificial creativity.’ Or ‘machine creativity.’”

Arne Eigenfeldt, Simon Fraser University

Simon Fraser University professor Arne Eigenfeldt

Eigenfeldt sees AI as a creativity booster, rather than a replacement for human creation.

“Computers are tools for artists, and allow us to do things much more easily than before,” he said in an e-mail. “More powerful software on these computers will allow us to accomplish things in much shorter time, but also in new ways. Prior to my exploration of AI in music-making, I felt I was in a creative rut, relying upon the same ways of working that I had for years. Now, my software is a creative partner that allows me to think about musical creation in ways I never would have imagined.”

There’s no question that AI will have a profound impact on the landscape of music creation. But AI is also being used to discover and recommend new music, an important influence in a streaming world with millions of songs to choose from.

Earlier this year, Spotify acquired AI music startup Niland in a bid to improve music discovery and its music recommendation back-end. Leading music data identification company Gracenote has also invested in AI in an effort to better classify mood and emotion in songs.

And AI’s application may help to usher in a new era of data analysis resulting in improved royalty tracking and payment for all music rights owners. It could revolutionize the way we monitor billions of small transactions and data exchanges in the digital world.

As promising as these developments are, AI is merely the tip of the technological iceberg portending further upheaval and creative gains in the years ahead. Says Eigenfeldt, “Our notions of creativity may evolve because of these new tools, but if we evolve as well, so will our art.”

La BronzeThe meeting point was a dreary park in Montréal’s Quartier des spectacles. Two buses were parked there. This, however, was nowhere near a field trip to the zoo… Even though the scraps of information we had about this evening led one to believe we were going out to a llama petting zoo, the only animal-like element turned out to be the bear mask worn by the woman who welcomed us on the bus. We’d been invited to a one-of-a-kind experience to get acquainted with La Bronze’s newest album, Les corps infinis.

“I really wanted it to take place somewhere that wouldn’t be your typical venue, says Nadia Essadiqi, aka La Bronze, the day after, still amazed by the reactions to her unusual show. “I love surprises, and I wanted to provoke things in a way that would put mystery at the heart of the whole record launch.”

After about 20 minutes on the road in the bus – Les corps infinis blaring from the speakers – we stopped by a seemingly abandoned building, that turned out to be the home of The Montréal Foundry. As in, “the place where one strikes while the iron is hot.”

“I wanted a really fucked-up place,” says La Bronze. “I asked a friend, and she took me there. I loved it, because there were a lot of possibilities, a lot of space, and we could use everything: the blacksmiths, the fire, all of it.” That, and the fact the heat from the foundries’ flames was perfect for the album’s opening track, “Canicule” (“Heatwave”).

In that hot place, we were welcomed to a makeshift bar, located between an assortment of metal tools and a wrought-iron staircase. The only thing reassuring La Bronzeabout the makeshift bathroom – literally, four small walls surrounding a toilet – was that there was a first-aid kit inside it. In the main area, three blacksmiths were busy heating up metal, surprising the incredulous crowd each and every time sparks flew.

After the spectacle of fire, La Bronze – wearing a yeti costume – took to the stage, lighting her own face with a blue light. The songs followed one another feverishly. Nothing else mattered for anyone who was there. It was a universal experience. “It was such a great evening,” says La Bronze, still emotional. “People were grateful to live something entirely new.”

The show we witnessed, stage-directed by Yann Perreau, was memorable for several reasons. One of them was the arrival on stage of four French horns – arranged, on the album, by Mathieu Pelletier-Gagnon – who played the last pieces of the evening. But also because Nadia’s mother and her friend, who together with her, sang the solemn Arab chant that opens “Khlakit Fkelbek.” “It’s a traditional Moroccan chant that’s sung at weddings and other important events,” says the singer-somngwriter. “It talks about God, and it’s a really symbolic song.”

La Bronze“Khlakit Fkelbek” is the first song she’s written in Arabic. “Language is just a medium, to me,” she says. “What matters is the essence, the emotion. I could write in Mandarin. I’d love that. Actually, no, I couldn’t, it would really not be any good!” she laughs.

Ever since she sang an Arabic version of Stromae’s “Formidable”, a cover that has so far been watched more than 2.5 million times on YouTube, Europe has opened up. “That experience really re-connected me with my roots,” says la Bronze. “It really wasn’t hard to write in Arabic afterwards. The purity of this project became self-evident. I dove right back into my origins. It was easy.” Partnerships to release the album in Europe are being formalized, and the artist admits to being “flabbergasted” by the opportunities that materialized in the wake of that cover.

Following her eponymous album, released in 2014, and Rois de nous, an EP released in 2016, this new flame has powered La Bronze’s Les corps infinis. “My producer [Clément Leduc] and I stepped into an imaginary bubble and we shared the same vibe from start to finish,” she says. “When I create music, there’s nothing too pre-meditated or rational. I never have a work plan. It’s all instinct.”

From this unbridled and free creativity emanates a powerful vibe of freedom that permeates all of her work. “I have this feeling that I can access it with greater and greater ease,” she says. “It’s my biggest quest, as a human being, and this record makes me feel much more at ease with who I am, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say it made me more mature or adult… I still feel like a teenager in my daily life.”

Thanks to Clément Leduc and Francis Brisebois, La Bronze was able to expand on the idea of creative bubbles at the  SOCAN House in L.A. “‘Canicule,’ ‘Beaux’ and ‘Les corps infinis’ were recorded there,” she explains. “The change of scenery was awesome, and we also took in the nightlife, the palm trees, the beach.” The change impacted her artistic approach, and became a way to “explore new inner zones,”  she says. The final product is a collection of 11 songs that range from ethereal electro-pop to rock, “but all of them were composed on the piano”, La Bronze is quick to point out. “That’s how I can dive into my emotions.”

To her, all stages of the production are like different canvasses, where she draws her own sketches. “I’m involved in all of the composition processes, and I have to OK with everything, right down to the press release,” says la Bronze. “It’s super-important to me.”

In a context where women are increasingly vocal about their desire to be more involved in their music, La Bronze is no exception. As a matter of fact, she’ll have the privilege of sharing her bold spirit with young women thanks to the series Code F on Vrak TV. “The message I want to get out with that show is to own who you are, from A to Z,” she says. “No circumstance can rob you of your essence, or diminish the grandeur of your existence. I want women to stand up and impose their puissance.”

As for the future, La Bronze foresees a career path where out-of-the-ordinary environments will become more common, in order to make life onstage ever more exciting. “We’re going to take this album as far as it can go,” says the musician with aplomb. “I’m satisfied with every fraction of a second of every song I have in my hands, right here.”

Alain Macklovitch, better known as A-Trak, is a leader in mainstream DJ culture, an electronic music pioneer whose career spans 20 years so far. A-Trak is a powerful force behind the rising electronic music renaissance which, in the last decade, has landed him on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 50 most important people in EDM. The groundbreaking record selector was born and raised in Montréal, but now resides in L.A. He’s half of Grammy-nominated DJ duo Duck Sauce, and co-founder of the electronic/hip-hop label Fool’s Gold Records, whose roster of artists include Chromeo, Kid Cudi, and Run the Jewels, among many others. The champion turntablist and producer’s big break came as Kanye West’s tour DJ in 2004. Since then A-Trak has gone on to produce and remix tracks for Kid Cudi, Kimbra, and Jamie Lidell, among many others. After wrapping up an Australian tour in late 2016, A-Trak released his first-ever greatest hits album, In The Loop: A Decade of Remixes, which marked his life’s work as EDM’s most notable and charged electronic music-making machine. We caught up with A-Trak in early 2017, and talked with him about his evolving career and influence on worldwide electronic dance music culture.

Do you remember the first full-length album that you remixed?
Yeah, I do. It was for [Australian pop band] Architecture in Helsinki. Actually, I did one remix before that one, that I wasn’t able to fit on the compilation because of sample questions. I did some remix work for Bonde do Rolê, a Brazilian group on the Mad Decent label. I did the remix for them, then sampled… pretty heavily. So that one was never really “papered.”

Why didn’t it make the list?
Stylistically, that remix was more connected to my earlier style of production, where I would be doing purely turntable, and it was all very sample-based. When I started producing on the laptop, with more of a fusion of electronic sounds mixed with other kinds of sounds, I came to realize that “I’m a DJ,” and the music I’m playing in a set had been changing…

People from bands, and other DJs and producers, were [then] connecting around the world via MySpace. Remixing was a way to connect with people making cool music… When I got an e-mail from Architecture in Helsinki, I was familiar with them already, because I was playing one of their other remixes in my sets… I was just looking for ways to try to extend [my work] to production more, you know? I had ideas on what I wanted to do with tracks, but I certainly didn’t feel like I was comfortable enough in the production exercise to make full songs by myself yet.

At the time, I was very established as a DJ for 10 years, a World Champion, Kanye’s tour DJ, all this stuff.  But… as a producer, I saw myself as a novice. I had ideas and a certain understanding of how production was done. I had watched my [older] brother [David Macklovitch] produce for years, even before Chromeo, when he was just making hip-hop beats in Montréal. I knew the basics of producing and how certain things are done, but when it came down to just knocking out a track, I felt that doing remixes were an ideal way for me to just try stuff out.

The first one came from an e-mail. Most of them came from direct contact. Nowadays… there’s an infrastructure, right?… It’s an industry, a huge industry. So, things go through managers and, you know, sometimes label reps, and lawyers, and all this stuff… In those days it was like, “Hey my friend gave me your e-mail. Can I send you a download to the file? See what you can do with it.”

You started as a turntablist, with mostly a hip-hop kind of influence, and now here you are 10 years later celebrating remixes. Looking at you now, compared to 20 years ago, it’s a little bit different, right?
It happened progressively… Music evolves. I’d say around mid-2005 or so, I liked new music… I started discovering versions of electronic music that appealed to me, that appealed to my hip-hop ear. Prior to that I wasn’t that interested in electronic music, because a lot of it just felt too cold for me, but a fusion happened around that time where indie bands started making electronic music. And then this sound of like electro that had riffs, musical riffs, and distortion, and things like that. It was breaking rules between genres, and when I heard that, it was exciting to me.

Music evolves, and so did I as a DJ. I’m always gravitating toward new sounds that I find interesting, that catch my ear.

What advice would you give to a producer or DJ just starting out?
My favourite thing to tell people who are just getting started is to think about what it is that makes you, you. It’s important to identify what your sound is, and to focus on that as you do your work. There’s a gazillion mixers, and producers, and stuff out there. You almost need to give people a reason to come to you, and sometimes the pure quality is what gets them interested. If someone is just great, then they’re great. People will come, but, in a lot of cases, I think it’s important to be aware of your own identity and sound as you’re developing it. That becomes something that you can nurture and, inevitably, the result of that will be something that stands out. Standing out is probably the most important thing nowadays.

So, I started… on some tracks that were more electronic, but that I felt I could fit into my new set somehow. And I remember at first I felt like I needed to literally connect them to the hip-hop in my set, so I started making mash-ups, which were a big thing… [I’d] put a rap vocal over an electronic track to make it fit into my set better. And when I had enough of those, and accumulated a certain amount, I made a mix tape out of them called Dirty South Dance that came out in 2006, with the help of the clothing brand OBEY…

Two months later, I started the Fool’s Gold label, and I was producing Kid Sister. We signed Kid Cudi and got some remixes for him, and the fusion of electronic music and hip-hop was just beginning before us. And this time I no longer felt the need to put rap vocals over everything I was playing, and I started having sets that included more and more house music, and electro, and this and that… Then I started Duck Sauce with Armand Van Helden, which makes a very sample-based version of house, in some ways…

And I remember when I started implementing more and more electronic selections in my sets. I was taking a bit of a leap, in that some of my prior peers – the people who were doing DJ battles and stuff alongside me – weren’t really jumping for that sound yet. And I remember I was playing to a new kind of audience, and there was a bit of a separation happening, but I was reassured two years later when a lot of those DJs, who used to only play hip-hop, followed suit and started mixing genres in their sets, too…  It’s just that music evolves, and so did I as a DJ. I’m always gravitating toward new sounds that I find interesting, that catch my ear, and then I figure out how to put them in context with everything else that I do musically.

Music creators often refer to a melody, or a lyric, or a certain sound, as starting point for creating a song. From a DJ or producer perspective, how do you create new music? Where does it start for you?
If I’m sitting down in the studio we’re at the starting point to create a track… I don’t have a method… I think if I was predominantly or only a producer, and making beats every day, I’m sure I would have a method that would emerge naturally. But I’m jumping around between DJ-ing, touring, running Fool’s Gold, working on artwork collaborations, and producing and remixing. So because it’s one of many things I do, I always kind of have one foot in it, one foot out. And what I like about that is that every time I make a track, I try something new, and I think you can hear that on the compilation; each track had an idea, each one was like: “This is the one where I’m going to try X, Y, Z…”

With production, I like the idea of not fully knowing where I’m going with it, because I think that happy accidents are behind some of the most graphic songs of all time, and I like that. So as far as “how do I start” a track, it varies. I always have something in my head, and sometimes it could be a remix where I’ve isolated the part I want to use, or it can be an idea for a drum part. Sometimes it’s literally just about finding a sound… It really, really, varies.

Does it change at all when you’re producing a remix?
I’m always very conscious of the idea that the original version of a track achieved one thing, and my remix is supposed to take it to a different place. So, I’ll take into consideration the production style and even the tempo of the song. A lot of my remixes are kind of house[-music] tempo, but if someone asks me to remix their house song, then chances are I’m not going to want to keep it at that tempo. I’m going to think of how I could take this tempo and take it somewhere else. Or if I keep it in tempo, then what am I going to change about the production style to really change the identity of it? So, a lot of times I’ll start by thinking of what the intention is… Once I have the intention, then… I’ll use a few of the parts that I want to, and build it from there… If you’re grabbing something from a song that exists, and is done, and enough people liked it, you’ve got a starting point that you can trust. Part of the biggest challenges for us, I think, is that trusting moment, where you decide to dive in; where you think, “Okay, this starting point is good enough for me to build on top of it.” So, it helps you conquer that first step.

As a remixer and producer, do you find that you have a lot of creative freedom?
It’s great that there’s an element of trust that comes with remixing that’s really cool, it’s kind of sacred. It’s another artist or their label, someone reaching out to you and saying, “I trust that you would do with these parts, just do your thing with it.” And then it’s exciting.