How Generative AI Can Transform ‘Functional Music’ Into an Artist-Driven Experience (Guest Column)
Imagine soundscape versions of popular albums, giving artists and labels fuel to reclaim market share and to drown out the white noise in ambient playlists.
Generative AI is hot right now. Over the last several years, music artists and labels have opened up to the idea of AI as an exciting new tool. Yet when Dall-E 2, Midjourney and GPT-3 opened up to the public, the fear that AI would render artists obsolete came roaring back.
I am here from the world of generative AI with a message: We come in peace. And music and AI can work together to address one of society’s ongoing crises: mental wellness.
While AI can already create visual art and text that are quite convincing versions of their human-made originals, it’s not quite there for music. AI music might be fine for soundtracking UGC videos and ads. But clearly we can do much better with AI and music.
There’s one music category where AI can help solve actual problems and open new revenue streams for everyone, from music labels, to artists, to DSPs. It’s the functional sound market. Largely overlooked and very lucrative, the functional sound market has been steadily growing over the past 10 years, as a societal need for music to heal increases across the globe.
Sound is powerful. It’s the easiest way to control your environment. Sound can change your mood, trigger a memory, or lull you to sleep. It can make you buy more or make you run in terror (think about the music played in stores intentionally to facilitate purchasing behavior or the sound of alarms and sirens). Every day, hundreds of millions of people are self-medicating with sound. If you look at the top 10 most popular playlists at any major streaming service, you’ll see at least 3-4 “functional” playlists: meditation, studying, reading, relaxation, focus, sleep, and so on.
This is the market UMG chief Sir Lucian Grainge singled out in his annual staff memo earlier this year. He’s not wrong: DSPs are swarmed with playlists consisting of dishwasher sounds and white noise, which divert revenue and attention from music artists. Functional sound is a vast ocean of content with no clear leader or even a clear product.
The nuance here is that the way people consume functional sound is fundamentally different from the way they consume traditional music. When someone tunes into a sleep playlist, they care first and foremost if it works. They want it to help them fall asleep, as fast as possible. It’s counterintuitive to listen to your favorite artist when you’re trying to go to sleep (or focus, study, read, meditate). Most artist-driven music is not scientifically engineered to put you into a desired cognitive state. It’s designed to hold your attention or express some emotion or truth the artist holds dear. That’s why ambient music — which, as Brian Eno put it, is as ignorable as it is interesting — had its renaissance moment a few years ago, arguably propelled by the mental health crisis.
How can AI help music artists and labels win back market share from white noise and dishwasher sounds playlists? Imagine that your favorite music exists in two forms: the songs and albums that you know and love, and a functional soundscape version that you can sleep, focus, or relax to. The soundscape version is produced by feeding the source stems from the album or song into a neuroscience-informed Generative AI engine. The stems are processed, multiplied, spliced together and overlaid with FX, birthing a functional soundscape built from the DNA of your favorite music. This is when consumers finally have a choice: fall asleep or study/read/focus to a no-name white-noise playlist, or do it with a scientifically engineered functional soundscape version of their favorite music.
This is how Generative AI can create new revenue streams for all agents of the music industry, today: music labels win a piece of the the market with differentiated functional content built from their catalog; artists expand their music universe, connect with their audience in new and meaningful ways, and extend the shelf life to their material; DSPs get ample, quality-controlled content that increases engagement. Once listeners find sounds that achieve their goals, they often stick with them. For example, Wind Down, James Blake’s sleep soundscape album, shows a 50% listener retention in its seventh month after release. This shows that, when done right, functional sound has an incredibly long shelf life.
This win-win-win future is already here. By combining art, generative AI technology and science, plus business structures that enable such deals, we can transform amazing artist-driven sounds into healing soundscapes that listeners crave. In an age that yearns for calm, clarity, and better mental health, we can utilize AI to create new music formats that rights holders can embrace and listeners can appreciate. It promises AI-powered music that not only sounds good, but improves people’s lives, and supports artists. This is how you ride the functional music wave and create something listeners will find real value in and keep coming back to. Do not be afraid. Work with us. Embrace the future.
Oleg Stavitsky is co-founder and CEO of Endel, a sound wellness company that utilizes generative AI and science-backed research.