In Bang Si-hyuk’s Billboard cover story, the HYBE founder and chairman shared his personal feelings and the first steps the company was taking in preparing for the rise of generative AI in music.
“I don’t know how long human artists can be the only ones to satisfy human needs and human tastes,” Bang told Billboard editorial director Hannah Karp, before new details were revealed about “Project L,” HYBE’s first public undertaking with Supertone, the artificial-intelligence audio company that the K-pop corporation acquired through a $36 million investment this past January.
After two weeks of online teasers for MIDNATT, described only by official communications as “the mysterious artist” in collaboration with its legendary BIGHIT MUSIC label and recently created interactive-media unit HYBE IM, the secretive “Project L” was finally unveiled on Monday. In a never-before-seen debut single released in six languages, “Masquerade” was revealed with MIDNATT singing in English, Korean, Spanish, Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese, utilizing Supertone’s technology to assist in multilingual pronunciation, tone and delivery, as well as shift MIDNATT’s voice from male to female.
As high-tech as the AI-enabled artist sounds, the inspiration and goals behind MIDNATT are far more human.
Despite fan theories of a virtual pop group, music-focused game or fully AI artist, MIDNATT is the very-much human singer-songwriter Lee Hyun. Configured as an alter ego for the veteran musician who debuted in 2007 under Big Hit Entertainment (before the label’s corporate rebrand into HYBE), MIDNATT’s sleek electro-pop sound on “Masquerade” is far from Lee’s career beginnings in vocal acts 8eight and Homme, or his signature, chart-topping ballads like “You Are the Best of My Life.”
“It started with the thinking that I want to try a different style of music,” MIDNATT tells Billboard during an evening Zoom call from Seoul. “You can think of MIDNATT as myself trying a new genre. I didn’t come up with the name by myself, but I think the name started from my wish to express the boundary between wanting to try new music and take on challenges, and not doing that as an artist doing music for more than a decade.”
While BIGHIT MUSIC artists like BTS and TOMORROW X TOGETHER have transformed the global music industry, a project like MIDNATT (which translates to “mid night” in Swedish and “bare face” in Korean) allows a more senior soloist the rare chance in K-pop to take on a new musical identity and concept.
“[The song’s] producer Hitchhiker said, ‘You have something different in you, something alternative in you, so let’s bring that out,'” MIDNATT says of a chat with the experimental hitmaker, who has delivered his brand of mind-bending EDM for artists like BoA, Super Junior, EXO, Red Velvet and NCT for over a decade. “He listened to the demo that I recorded for producer Bang [Si-hyuk] before I even debuted — I couldn’t even remember I did that — but he remembered that I recorded in an R&B style in falsetto. He said, ‘You have that voice in you; why don’t we develop your voice from there?’ And that’s how the whole project came to begin. I’m kind of feeling pressure right now because I didn’t expect this to be this big of a project.”
In fact, MIDNATT’s focus on accessibility and deeper connection with people worldwide looks to somewhat tackle a hurdle in the Korean-pop industry of getting listeners past any language barriers.
“When I would listen to music in other languages, I couldn’t immerse into the music as well as in my native language, and we were talking about how we could overcome those language barriers,” MIDNATT adds. “The project came to be by talking about these language barriers.”
Even with global appeal among the HYBE artists (albums from BTS, TXT, SEVENTEEN and ENHYPEN made up half of the IFPI’s global top 10 album sales chart last year), the corporation saw their tech advancements as an opportunity to align with MIDNATT’s larger conversations.
“Rather than a technology test, we initiated this project based on the desire to bring music and the artist’s message together, which are the essence of HYBE, to a wider audience through the convergence of music and technology,” explains Wooyong Chung, president of HYBE IM. “We decided to take on this project because of the stories [MIDNATT] wanted to share, the musical challenges he wanted to take, and the desire to reach out to his fans in creative ways seemed possible with a little push from technology. With MIDNATT, we believed we could introduce a new dynamic to the industry by combining music and technology to create something fresh and authentic.”
For “Masquerade,” MIDNATT initially recorded in Korean, with the song later translated into five other languages.
“I thought at first Vietnamese and Spanish would be really hard,” MIDNATT recalls of the recording process. “But it turned out that English was the most difficult language to record in…of course, the technology improved the pronunciation and intonation overall. But since it’s my song and I have to record it, I did my best to be very fluent in the language that I’m recording in, because you never know, I might have a chance to do it live someday.”
For picking the languages, Chung adds that Supertone had already successfully worked in the chosen six (“We needed to create high-quality music,” he says). At the same time, metrics like engagement on different fan platforms also influenced their decision (“We also took into account the artist’s desire to communicate with fans who left precious comments on YouTube even if the artist may not be familiar with their language”). There’s also hope to develop more music in even more languages.
“Masquerade” also brings an unexpected but fascinating new perspective to the hot topic of artificial intelligence in music. While Drake, The Weeknd and Universal Music Group made headlines for taking down a fake song by the two superstars after it earned millions of streams and impressions on streaming services and social platforms, MIDNATT has the artist’s full permission for all AI editing.
“After I experienced it myself, I think it really depends on how you utilize it,” MIDNATT says to creatives who are wary of AI in music. “The sense of responsibility is what matters the most. So as far as it is used in the music, I think it is a great opportunity for me to make [my song] more accessible and more immersive to the fans worldwide.”
“We have been coping with new technology by exchanging ideas to ensure it to become a tool that helps people,” adds Chung. “Our principle for applying technology to music in this project is clear. The rights of artists to their creations must be protected with utmost importance. With that in mind, we strive to push the boundaries of what musicians can imagine and what music can express.”
Similar to UMG’s take that generative AI creations “demonstrate why platforms have a fundamental legal and ethical responsibility to prevent the use of their services in ways that harm artists,” Chung agrees that “creating social consensus as well as proper legislation to keep up with the new changes are essential” to face this new era of music.
While MIDNATT thinks “artists have to be discreet and cautious” with rapidly advancing tech, the hot-topic of AI itself seems to have added an unexpected, and ultimately unnecessary, intensity to his hopes to dream bigger with his new music.
“With the word AI aside, I just want everyone to know that this started out genuinely and kindly in my heart to bring immersive experiences with my music of MIDNATT,” the singer says. “I simply want everyone to enjoy my new challenge.”
And suppose more people hear “Masquerade” and MIDNATT’s music thanks to an artificially intelligent smoothing of language barriers? In that case, the challenge is on its way to realization.