Sunday, July 16, 2023


I wake to greetings and birthday wishes from friends and family. I log on to a memorial service for a dear friend. I drink some coffee, and stare at the ocean, thinking about the water, living as waves for a while.

It has been a hard year so far. But I have learned there is help when you ask for it.

I recently had to put my father in assisted living, and I am still sifting through the wreckage of his life. Those of you who have been through something like this know how wrenching it can be under the best of circumstances. This is almost the worst of circumstances, but I will save the details for another post. Suffice it to say if you are lucky enough to have both of your parents alive and lucid, go talk to them about their finances and make plans for their futures.

This challenge seemed nearly overwhelming on my own. But when I allowed myself to ask for help, friends stepped up in every way, from taking on tasks to sharing advice and experience, and even helping load a box truck in 110-degree Nevada heat. 

I have also found myself struggling to stay motivated at times. I am still trying to understand how much of that is the pandemic or old age or stress or fatigue or just "time for a change". And then wondering what to change, or what to change it to. 

But I know I am making progress, because those questions -- what to change, and what to change it to -- bring feelings of possibility and excitement, rather than dread and anxiety. 

My friends provided guidance and support, and when I asked for it, concrete help. It is still difficult for me to do that asking. But like all things, it gets easier with practice. I am practicing. Learning to show a little more of my self, to be more vulnerable and human. 

There is light, too. I am writing this in one of my favorite places, gazing out at the beautiful blue Pacific. I have been reading some good books this year. Listening to music. Going out for some good dinners. Spending time with friends, always my favorite. 

I have a new record coming out soon - another collaboration. This project (Snow Westerns) has been one of the more enjoyable things I have done in a while, and it is sounding pretty good. Lauren took some great photos. Another instance of asking for help of a kind, letting people in, releasing a little of that white-knuckle grip I often have on everything. 

And it looks like Sid Luscious and The Pants might return in one form or another with a little help from friends old and new. 

The waves crash outside. They are all connected to each other, reinforcing and pushing each other. All made of the same water, all part of the same ocean.

Thank you for your help, everyone. Happy birthday to me.

The author, a few weeks before his 54th birthday.
Photograph by Lauren Tabak.

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

The Content Future: By Bots, For Bots

The latest noise is Spotify is taking down "fake songs" generating "fake streams". This was all predicted by people both smart and not-so-smart.

So what's going on here? There are sites and apps that make it easy for anyone to generate "original music" and then upload it to Spotify and other streaming services. There are also sites and apps that make it easy for anyone to hire bots to "listen" to those streams on Spotify and other services and attempt to monetize their music. 

This isn't new. This is utterly predictable given the business model and larger trends. And it is easy to stop.

How It Started

When you start negotiating content contracts for a streaming service, you find yourself having to come up with definitions for many things:

What's a user? Uh, I guess a unique email address and password? If it's a paying user, they need some kind of payment method. Do we need any other identification? Proof they're a human? Nope.

Ok. What's a "play"? Hmm. Full song, all the way through? What if someone skips right before the end, though? That doesn't seem fair to the song owners. OK, what about 3-5 seconds? No, because that might mean they just couldn't get to the skip button fast enough and did not want to hear that song. So you end up saying something like "OK, maybe something in the 30-60 second range counts as a play" as a compromise.

A couple years into getting Rhapsody off the ground, we came to work one day to find a totally unknown "artist" was #3 on the hip-hop charts, appearing overnight. Nobody on the huge team of knowledgeable music editors had heard of them. No articles anywhere on the internet. For the sake of argument, we'll call them DJ Billy and the Boingers. 

I asked the team to see what user accounts all the plays had come from. As I expected, the #1 account was "", with something like 2800 plays a day. I did some quick math and realized the only way that was possible is if they were skipping tracks every 31 seconds: Playing just enough to trigger a play count, then doing that over and over. 

We had our first incident of gaming the system. It wasn't clever -- they had likely just found a script that clicked the mouse every 31 seconds, and parked it over a looped playlist on the desktop PC app. But they had ruined the automated charts and generated a substantial sum in fees. And there were multiple accounts doing this. It only cost them $10 per month to set up a valid account, and if they ran it 24/7 on their content, they'd get more than enough money back to cover their subscription fee and they'd place on the charts.

We deactivated the accounts and sent them nasty letters. We updated the charts. We took down the content. We updated our terms of service.

But it was clear to me this was the future: bands (or other bad actors) trying to squeeze money out of these services by exploiting the sheer size of the content, and the fact that nobody was really minding the store at most of them.

This sort of thing infected all of the streaming platforms. A band called Vulfpeck recorded a silent track and asked all of their listeners to loop it endlessly. Internet news covered all of these acts of "artistic resistance" as though it were some kind of righteous cause instead of fraud.

To this day, you can easily find places to buy listeners or fans for any service, whether it is Spotify or YouTube or Twitter. Everyone knows this is going on, but nobody wants to do anything about it. The services want inflated user and playback numbers. So do the artists, as long as they can benefit. 

The labels and publishers are starting to complain because they're seeing it eat into their shares of the money.

Easy Diffusion: "a photograph of a robot playing synthesizer, beautiful lighting"

...comes now the mechanical device to sing for us a song

Complaints about machine-generated music are old. People griped about the phonograph and the pianola and the radio and the synthesizer and drum machines, saying it wasn't real music. Some people still feel music made with electronic tools is somehow less real, authentic, or expressive than humans playing acoustic instruments.

AI is now generating songs, both compositions and audio, or providing tools that make it easy for people to create something that sounds like music and then upload it to the streaming services. (In the case of Boomy, it turns out their terms of service states they own whatever you "create" forever!)

Supposedly this is "flooding" streaming services with "fake" content. And we are in early, early days here. These tools are still somewhat unfriendly and the results not great. "Real" artists and labels are starting to demand this stuff not be allowed on art sites, music streaming services, and video content systems.

I think they are somewhat misguided. Who's to say the "fake" content isn't good, or any less real than the "real" songs? If you have listened to anything popular in the last few years, you might swear it is all AI generated anyhow, given how derivative, focus-grouped, and unimaginative it all is.

Music has been assisted (if not driven) by technology for a long, long time. You might think singers today are providing authentic, heartfelt performances. The reality is that even without the computer tuning slathered over the top (which makes everyone sound the same), even "good" singers are doing dozens of passes which are digitally edited together to provide a single "performance". Computers make this easier, but people did this back in the tape days, too, either splicing tape or punching in.

If you're manually assembling an artificial, Frankenstein's monster take from 87 separate tracks, why not just ask a computer to simulate the vocal for you? Is there a difference?

Go a step further. What if Bjork made a record of her singing over AI-generated music? Does that still count as "real music"? Should that be allowed on a service which bans AI music? What if the record is a hit, and Bjork releases a follow-up that is the instrumental version (i.e. the same record with no vocal)? Should that be allowed on the service?

One could imagine all kinds of variations on this scenario. The dividing line between AI music and human music gets blurry quickly. Artists should have access to tools. Some will use it well, some will use it for selfish purposes. Most of what comes out won't be particularly interesting. But there will be a lot of it.

An Endless River of Junk Content

Once communications of any sort become mechanized one sees a few patterns repeat. One is that costs of that communication plummet. Another is those kinds of communications become quickly devalued as the volume ramps up and bad actors unleash a torrent of bad content.

In our lifetimes, we have seen this happen with:

Mail. Junk mailers bought addresses in volume and used early computers and printers to turn the daily mail into a pile of instantly recycled ads, scams, and noise. Look at how much you get physically sent every day, all year long. It is part of the reason nobody writes letters anymore. You think physical mail, you think "garbage".

Email, too. This struggle is ongoing, but email has become something between a nuisance and a threat thanks to spam, phishing, and other mechanized messages. This is one of the reasons people hate email, and move towards other platforms like texting, Slack, and social media.

Telephones. Telemarketers and then Robocallers deluged the phone system. Believe it or not, there was a time you were excited to answer the phone and talk to someone. That quickly turned into the telephone version of junk mail -- your answering machine would be full of sales pitches, with the rare message from a friend. This is part of what drove people to abandon landlines in favor of mobile phones. But mobile phones have become just as overwhelmed with robot callers, and nobody answers anymore.

Social Media. Between advertisers and bots, social media is also now full of garbage. It can be hard to tell where the social media companies feed algorithms stop and bad bots start, but the end result is your feed is no longer reliable. We all have those friends who seem to be constantly sharing Ray-Ban or luxury goods "discount codes", weight loss videos, and more.

Art is next, whether you are talking about visual art, music, videos, anything. The bots are here. Go look at YouTube, or listen to Spotify. People are already using them generate unending torrents of machine-generated "content", and steering that flood towards any platform that will take it, with the hopes of making a buck. The result will be the same as other platforms: Real people will see the platform ruined, and will leave, looking for alternatives or abandoning the activity entirely.

Now the AI and bots aren't just going to be creating the content. Increasingly they will be consuming it as well. People hire bots to listen to their music on streaming services, driving views, posting "comments", trying to fool the algorithms on the services for more promotion or to extract a few dollars. We face a future where most "plays" are content that was made by bots being "consumed" by bots. 

It represents a massive waste of resources and a diminishing of actual human creativity. It is probably as inevitable as it is stupid.

Easy Diffusion: "a photograph of a robot playing synthesizer, beautiful lighting"

Turn It Off!

One of the original sins and fundamental problems for streaming services (as well as user-generated content sites) is they take anything and everything. There's no quality control, no barrier to entry, no review, no gatekeeping. Not that long ago, removing all that stuff was considered a great innovation and a positive disruption. No more preventing great music from finding an audience.

But it turns out that, for the most part, anything worth hearing did find an audience, with just a few outliers that were missed or overlooked, and many great talents that were cultivated. Along with some commercial, disposable stuff. The old gatekeepers were doing a pretty good job. 

Not only that, there are still gatekeepers and people deciding what you get to hear and watch, but now they are doing a worse job, and one that is driven by private business decisions, marketing initiatives, or their own personal networks and preferences..

The easiest fix for "fake content" is simple: Stop letting anyone and everyone upload their garbage to your services

Do what every store does: Evaluate the merchandise for yourself and decide if you want to use your valuable store space to carry it. Don't carry the bad stuff.

This saves the services lots of money. There are real costs for music (and other) services to ingest and host content. And most of what they do ingest and host never gets played, or gets played so infrequently that it is not worth the cost. These services are paying middlemen like Tunecore and Distrokid for this useless content, and TuneCore, Distrokid, etc. are charging people to upload it. So Tunecore and Distrokid do fine, charging both parties in the transaction for garbage.

At a minimum, services like Spotify should be charging Tunecore, not the other way around.

Removing content from the services also means that there's (slightly) more money for all the content that remains, which should make the artists less unhappy. 

It also means that "real" artists wouldn't have to see their content next to AI-generated nonsense or Spotify's "Kirkland"-quality music-for-hire.

That doesn't mean one cannot enjoy any of this content, anymore than one might enjoy Kirkland products from Costco. If it gives you an "art experience", it is art. 

Just remember there is better stuff out there. Entertainers pander to you, ask "what do you want?" and then give it to you. Real artists give you something you didn't know you wanted until you experience it. 

Much like we are encouraged to be mindful of the products we buy and how that affects the workers, the environment, and our culture, we should be mindful of the content we consume and the systems we use to generate and appreciate it. 

There will almost certainly be some interesting, perhaps even beautiful, examples of machine "art", which people will find moving and "life-changing." It may very well become what most people want -- McDonald's sells a lot of burgers, people flock to Disney/Marvel/Lucas products -- but it doesn't necessarily mean it is "good" for you, the culture, or the world. 

I look forward to experiencing it, but I am also pretty sure I will prefer human-created work, in all its weird, obsessive imperfection.

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

A Story of Scars

Our bodies replace about 1% of our cells every day. Some say all of your cells are replaced every seven years. While this isn’t really true, it suggests that our bodies are constantly dying and regrowing. We become someone new a little bit at a time, every day.

What is a scar? From my perspective, it is the body recovering from damage. Something happens, cells die, and are replaced, sometimes different than they were before. Some trauma is significant enough that it leaves a mark. A place where you might be tougher, skin thicker, as the result of an accident. You might be more or less sensitive.

These marks, this change, isn't always external. We've got these in our brains, in our spirits, in our hearts.

I might argue that as we age, we become nothing but scars. We accumulate so much damage, from accidents, pain, catastrophe -- what else is there to us? Every cell in my body has died and been replaced more than once, with each new generation perhaps learning from, responding to what came before. 

My life comes from these scars, and my life is marked by them. 

I have one on my left elbow, barely visible now, the remainder and reminder of being hit by a car twenty years ago. Traumatic, and at the time, one of the worst things that had happened to me. In hindsight, I got off pretty easy.

I have some scarring on my neck, both external and internal, a reminder of the radiation that saved my life even as it destroyed parts of me, changing me forever. I look at that part of my neck every day. No beard grows there. I can recall how long it was just a wet, infected wound, and how worried the doctors were. I feel how the internal scarring continues to change my voice. Every time I turn my head to the left, I feel the damaged muscles strain and tighten.  

I treat it as a series of prompts and reminders: Life is precious. You are still here. Make the most of it. Do something. Be happy.

That’s not all. Like many people my age, I have tattoos. I was the first person I knew to get one, back in 1990. At the time, it seemed transgressive, and "rock and roll". A tattoo is just a self-inflicted, ink-filled scar. I have three now, each one marking different times in my life, when I was different person or with different priorities. They don’t hurt on their own, but I can remember getting each one, the person I was then, and how that person was hurting in different ways.

I am not sure if I will get another tattoo, but I am sure I will end up with more scars. Because I plan to live more, to have more lessons learned, more things to remember.

The author, recovering from being hit by a car, circa 2002.

Friday, March 24, 2023

Are you living or just surviving?

A few weeks ago, my voice teacher told me she was not going to be teaching anymore, focusing on her advanced degree instead. She loved teaching voice -- her passion and interest for it led her to a graduate program -- but she needed her time and energy for her studies. It is what she really wants, so she is stopping teaching.

It had been nearly 3 years that we had been working together. I had to check twice. How can that be? It felt more like 6 months, but also like forever.

I have spent those last 3 years mostly at home. I created and taught a songwriting class. Made a couple records. Started a new job. Started attending an "art for recovery" online group. And have continued my therapy. 

These days were a kind of smeary blur. Wake up. Drink coffee. Listen to some music. Sit in front of the computer. Stare out the window. Try to work. Get some exercise or not. Play some music or not. Maybe talk to someone on Zoom. Have dinner. Look at the internet. Try to sleep. 

Three years. That's almost as long as all of high school or college. Yet when I go back over this time, the resolution of my memories, the real new experiences, the living of the last 3 years feels like it amounts to perhaps 3 months (if I am being generous) of what I might have experienced in high school, or college, or almost any period of time in my life up until about the last 7 years.

I realize I have been focused on safety and surviving, rather than living. 

That is somewhat understandable. I had a serious illness 5 years ago, and that has taken me a long time to recover from, both physically and psychologically. It changed me physically and psychologically, as well. There was Trump. Job disruption. The ongoing slow-motion apocalypses of the environment and perhaps American democracy and civility. World War 3.

And of course, the pandemic, with losses of friends, dramatic changes in society and the world, and fear and uncertainty. So perhaps a defensive crouch was warranted for a time. 

But the truth is I am going to die anyway. So are you. So is everyone. Probably not tomorrow, and in my case, hopefully not for a good 25 or 30 years. But it is absolutely going to happen, and probably sooner than anyone likes.

Knowing that, I think the question becomes not "how can I get more time?" It is "how can I live more with the time I have?"

I don't mean "live more" in the sense of dreaded and beloved achievement, the empty satisfaction of running a marathon or climbing a mountain or writing a book or any other kind of finish-line, bucket-list checkbox-ticking. I don't mean acquisition of trophies or material goods. I don't mean the obliteration of extreme hedonism.

I mean "live more" in the sense of finding a life that has more personal meaning and that feels more authentic. Getting back in touch with what I want, rather than what I "should" do, or what is "safe". 

By the time one gets to middle age, one has enough actual life experience to temper dreams with reality. But one should also make sure reality leaves room for dreams, and I think this is where I have made errors. Too much reality, not enough dreams.

It gets easy let inertia take over. To keep doing today what you did yesterday, and hope it will be enough to carry you through to some kind of finish line. But that is not living.

The times in my life I felt the most alive were when I did not know what tomorrow would hold, but that I was moving towards something I was excited about. Music. A new project. People. 

The outcome was uncertain, but the process was exhilarating. That is risk. 

The fun part of rolling dice isn't knowing how they'll fall. It isn't even when they fall your way. It is the clacking of them in your hand, feeling all of the possible universes bouncing off of each other, and the exciting moment when you throw them, waiting to see how they actually turn out. 

Quite literally, it is not whether you win or lose, it is how you play the game. It is that you play.

Perhaps that is what I have been missing. I became focused on the certainty of outcome, even if it was gray, unsatisfying, and predictable. Or perhaps precisely because it was those things. 

I am looking to get back to a life where I have some of that good uncertainty. I have been thinking about my work, my projects, my relationships. What I want. If I even know any of that anymore.

It is becoming clear that some things need to change, and that sitting in this comfortable room, day after day, is surviving. But it is not living.

Some of you are lucky or smart enough that you figured this out a long time ago. Some of you have inspired me over the last few years through your actions or words or both. Thank you.

I have watched some of you as you made big career changes, leaving your own sure, certain paths for something else, something perhaps more satisfying, but definitely something new. 

An old friend embarked on a big art project. By their own admission something that was both a long shot and out of their comfort zone. But they are going for it, and have been for over a year now. I found myself in awe of their confidence and courage.

I also found myself surprised that I felt ashamed and embarrassed for my own lack of same. That is the kind of thing I had done in the past. That I used to do. What happened? Where and when did I lose that fire? I know it was before the pandemic, and before the illness.


I left the house. I walked 2 miles from my house to the city. I went out to a gathering with friends. I was indoors around people for about 2 hours. The first time I have done that, really, in more than 3 years. I neglected to wear a mask. 

A little more than three years into the pandemic, I finally got COVID-19. 

I do not regret my decision to go out, though of course, having COVID is inconvenient, debilitating, and somewhat scary.  Perhaps it was a little foolish. I could have stayed home. I could have worn a mask (and in hindsight, that is absolutely what I should have done). 

But I had fun for a couple hours. I was alive. 


To be clear, COVID-19 is serious. None of what I have written above should be construed as making light of the pandemic or the potentially life-destroying consequences of getting COVID-19 even once. 

The pandemic is still happening. We should all avoid getting sick, and take reasonable precautions to avoid getting sick and transmitting the virus. Mask up when around other people if indoors. Get your shots. 

However, you could also get cancer. Or have a heart attack. Or take some bad drugs. Or have a tree fall on your car or house. Something is going to get you eventually. 

Life has risk. Survival is reducing risk by reducing life to the bare minimum.

It is never too late to change the rest of your life. It is never too late to stop surviving and start living.

Thursday, January 19, 2023

AI: Art, Images, and Artificial Intelligence

A particular kind of artificial intelligence has been appearing in the news and commentary for several months. Stable Diffusion (released in 2022) allows the user to input a text prompt ("robot artist holding paintbrush") and a deep-learning artificial intelligence (AI), trained on an enormous database of images and styles, will respond with a computer-generated image. 

Artists and commentators are wringing their hands about this development, concerned that human expression, the jobs of artists, and creativity will all be terminated.

Stable Diffusion isn't even the first thing like this. It had predecessors in things like DALL-E, but Stable Diffusion marked a step up -- it works better, and almost anyone can run it on their home computer with minimal technical skill. 

Other related AI systems like ChatGPT (itself an evolution of GPT-3) have people worried and excited that soon we won't know whether we are talking to a computer or a person and that writers will be replaced by machines as well.

I think this is a bit overblown. I also think some artists' jobs will be replaced, but I also believe this is inevitable and perhaps not that bad.

John Henry and the Steam Hammer

Prompt: "robot artist holding paintbrush"
This all sounds like John Henry and the steam hammer again. The relentless, soulless corporate machine against the honest blood and sweat of a human. John Henry won (in some tellings), but he died doing it. And the steam hammer (and its descendants) are what we use for drilling tunnels, chopping down trees, and doing other difficult work. 

We don't give the steam hammer or most replacement of humans with machines a second thought. One reason is because we assume this kind of technological replacement is vastly safer and more efficient solution than having individual, unaided humans doing dangerous, tedious, back-breaking labor. It usually is, and society benefits in many ways. 

Another reason is a kind of societal and behavioral inertia -- if we can create a machine that can replace human labor (with something perceived as cheaper, faster, safer, or "better"), we not only should, but we must. In fact, we feel as though we cannot stop it. There is a kind of inevitability built in. Someone will do it eventually. So we end up with billions sunk into self-driving cars, robot tree-fellers, and robot vacuum cleaners. 

Perhaps a better question would be if these things need doing at all, or doing at faster and greater scale. 

The New York Times ran a piece where human artists more or less griped about Stable Diffusion and other AI-powered image generators. It was what you would expect for this kind of thing. Heartfelt handwriting, cutesy artwork, emotional, warm, sentimental, and conservative. If it had been on NPR, you would have heard acoustic guitar and downtempo beats playing as the narrator talked. You can imagine the images on your friends' social media feeds (without attribution of course, and swiped from the NYT site). 

The artists made a number of points which are, from my perspective, rather flimsy.

They start off by noting the illustrations "were made by hand using paint and ink. Many hours of work went into them. And in the humble opinion of the people doing that work, it shows.[emphasis added]" 

One would hope the people who spent all that time would feel it showed, but they're hardly impartial judges. And "I spent a lot of time and worked real hard on this" has little or no bearing as to how most other people perceive the quality or value of work. 

Many of these artists blur the distinction between making what they want and commercial work (which is what someone else wants, but will pay you for). They are also raising the issue that illustrators and freelance artists don't get paid enough. There are very few workers I can think of who believe they are paid enough for the work they do. 

"AI will strip artists of their livelihood". This came right after an artist talking about "this never-ending loop of getting paid $500 for a visual that you spend three days killing yourself over". Uh, why would you want that job? Is that really a livelihood? It's a smidge over $20 per hour, so better than California minimum wage, but...this is what it was like before AI. It seems to me by-hand-illustration ain't a great way to make a living as currently framed. How much more can this human labor be devalued?

We also must clarify the difference between a capital-A "Artist" -- someone who creates what they want, for themselves, as a kind of gift to the world -- and a commercial artist, who is hired to create something specific for a set fee. 

Capital-A "Artists" are in no danger here. They aren't choosing art as a "livelihood." It is a vocation (and perhaps a curse). Artists create because they must, or because they simply want to. The money, if there is any, is a secondary concern. 

Commercial artists may be in trouble, but the truth of the industrial age is that if your job can be done by a machine, sooner or later it will. None of us is guaranteed a living doing exactly what we want to do for the amount of money we want.

"This will devalue art"

Prompt: "robot performer playing electric guitar singing"
Join the club, pal. Look at the music business. On the one hand, anyone and everyone can now make music inexpensively and distribute it globally for free (or close to it). On the other hand, everyone does now, and nobody cares. The music business is a faint echo of its former self financially and otherwise. Apparently it's all about social media now.

Or photography. When the internet started to go big, print magazines began to decline in relevance and then budget. Professional commercial photographers used to have big budgets and abundant time for shooting covers, spreads, etc. Technology chipped away at that. And when smartphone cameras began to proliferate, professional commercial photography took a bigger hit. Anyone could take a pretty good photo for cheap, and digital tools made basic clean-up faster and easier. More competition resulting in price drops. I know several professional photographers who walked away from careers because they could no longer do it the way they wanted -- no more time, no more money. 

This also hit the stock photography business in a big way, and the same thing happened. The internet was flooded with cheap stock photography sites. Maybe they aren't as objectively "good" as what was there before, but there are now oceans of stock photography, all dirt cheap. People who used to make a living doing high quality stock photography are having to find other ways to make a living. 

Before AI, people were just grabbing stuff off of Google Image Search, or Getty Images and not bothering to provide any attribution, much less pay for a license. These aren't just rinky-dink mom-and-pop shops. They're major video game companies. The Republican Party

This sort of cavalier and thoughtless use of artwork undermines the livelihoods of artists, of course, but more profoundly, the action belies an underlying belief: These people clearly don't value art in the first place. Digital images, photography as art, visual art itself have all already been devalued.

If people really cared about the "art" they're generating through these AI tools, they wouldn't be using the AI tools. They'd be paying an artist to do it and be heavily involved in the process. And they people "hiring" the AI would choose a human option if they thought it mattered to the audience purchasing and viewing the work. 

This cheapening has been going on for a long time. Commercial artists or professional graphic artists will tell you budgets have been falling for years, and that nobody cares about quality illustrations anymore. 

Most of the high-profile cases of paid work going to AI is because AI-generated art is a gimmick -- it is "new!". But most people don't want to play creative AI image roulette unless they had no intention of trying to find an artist, negotiate a rate, set a creative brief, and go through the process of creation

"Intellectual property issue because A.I. programs scrape human artists' work to Frankenstein them into a new creation." 

"Scraping other artist's work" and "Frankensteining" it into a new creation is also known as "having influences" and "learning from the masters." It is not "copying", and it is precisely the kind of fair use all artists benefit from and should continue to defend. I have seen plenty of work -- both fine art and commercial art -- that was clearly derived from, inspired by, and/or referencing the work of other people. Sketch artists do this sort of thing all the time. 

Any first-year art student can expound at length about how there is no such thing as "originality." If AI has looked at every image it possibly can and is able to draw on what it has seen to make something that is "like" something else, how is it any different than a commercial artist being asked to draw something similar to X or in the style of Y?

What AI is doing by analyzing big databases of images is no different from what artists do when painting "in the style of..." someone else. We could, should, and do allow that kind of derivative work.

"The job of the artist will change"

Prompt: "robot using typewriter by Gustave Klimt"
The implication here is the job will be different, and perhaps degraded. This is the nature of technology, whether applied to work, craft, or art. When the first crude drum machines came out, there was a lot of hand-wringing about how drummers would be out of work. Here's what happened: 

  • People realized drum machines were poor replacements for human drummers, and that if you wanted a human drummer, that's what you should use
  • There was a period where some people found jobs as "drum machine programmers", both because they knew how to work the machines and they knew how to make "good" drum beats
  • People realized drum machines could do things humans could not, and if you wanted a machine, that's what you should use -- machines felt different and were for different creative purposes
  • There are artists who manage to make machines sound remarkably human, but it is a lot of work using a skill set not everyone has
  • There are artists who manage to play live drums and sound remarkably like a machine, but it is a lot of work using a skill set not everyone has
  • The palette of sounds available to musicians radically expanded
  • More musicians had and have more options for drums and drum sounds
  • The cost of getting good or interesting drum sounds dropped to zero
  • New music and new music genres blossomed and flourished
  • The technology continues to develop and most records involve a hybrid of human work and machine work
  • Most people listening to music neither know nor care whether the beats were created by a human, a machine, or interaction between the two

People responded to the technology with fear of loss. Loss of human drumming as a job, of human "feel", of the value of humans playing drums, of creativity. But what actually happened is nearly the opposite of all of those things. Drum machines created new and different kinds of music, new and different jobs, helped people who otherwise would not have made music at all create something, and helped everyone -- musicians and listeners -- better understand the value of human drumming and "real" drums.

The job of the artist is always changing. Maybe part of your job is designing the seed image for the AI, part of your job is knowing how to work with the AI, and part of your job is sifting through a bunch of terrible images looking for the good ones. 

If nothing else, these new AI tools will inevitably produce artists who focus on AI interaction and output as their primary medium and make it the foundation of their career. Someone will eventually do some striking and creative things. Today, we are still in the early stages of “I asked this AI to generate something, look at how weird/bad/funny/adequate it is.” Tomorrow, “collaborations” between AI and human artists will be in modern art museums. 

Good Enough

Current AI art is like a well-read but uninspired artist. AI is good at cranking out consistent, mediocre, derivative work that occasionally surprises or delights when it brings you what it thought you asked for. It will never be brilliant. It will never "change your life." It will never make you think or cause a strong, polarizing reaction. 

Perhaps I am wrong. Art’s perceived value comes from the audience. There is plenty of mediocre work by human artists — movies, music, books, paintings — that matters to people. I imagine there will be people who find some AI works to be great, life-changing, powerful things, even if critics or the larger public consensus do not.

But AI art will absolutely be "good enough." Particularly for cheap commercial endeavors. If you are a commercial artist, you are best off leaning into this technology in a big way, and thinking about how you can leverage it to make your work better, faster, and easier.

Many of these points are similar or identical to things I have said about being a professional musician for many years. You can do what you want, but you can't decide how people will value that work. From an economics perspective, you're willing to get paid less (probably) because you are doing what you love (in theory). That's the choice you made. If you really cared about making money, you wouldn't be an artist. You'd be a banker or a lawyer or whatever. We can pick our jobs, but we usually don't get to also decide how much we get paid to do it, or how much society values it.

The real problem is that most people just do not care about art that much, whether it is painting or music or live theater or whatever. 

Artists and Tools

Prompt: "robot artist holding paintbrush"
We often use the word "artist" to mean two overlapping but distinctly different things. 

An "artist" is someone who makes creative work, driven by their own desire, "the muse", and/or some kind of inspiration. Artists make what they want and/or what they are compelled to create, as opposed to "entertainers" (who make what people want) or those doing "work for hire" (making things they are paid to make, but would not otherwise). In this context, the word can apply to anyone who "makes stuff": musicians, filmmakers, actors, poets, writers, and painters. We also use "artist" as a kind of catch-all for those who operate in visual media: painters, drawers, sculptors, illustrators, and so forth. 

I think it is important to remember the word has this dual meaning, as it can make things both blurrier and clearer.

I consider myself an artist: I am a former professional musician (I did it for the money) turned diligent amateur (I do it for the love). I create more work more frequently than many professionals, but I put little effort into "monetizing" my art, because I know the cold, hard truth: Most people just don't care that much about music anymore.

Computer-based tools and computer assistance are available for all artistic endeavors. If you are a creative person writing, painting, drawing, making music -- any of the traditional "fine arts", there are few places where machines aren't providing some kind of critical support. Even the work in that New York Times article was digitally photographed, cleaned up, and edited. 

AI has already won. It is here to stay, like steam hammers and drum machines. Like steam hammers, AI art generators will replace some human drudgery at the cost of the jobs of those humans. Like drum machines, AI art will help clarify the value and difference that humans making things with their hands provides and simultaneously open paths to new and different kinds of art. 

We can bemoan the loss of some kind of special human quality, or the value of art, or even just the cash being paid to artists. But the existence of AI art does not preclude any of that. You can have both. 

The reason we're afraid of AI art isn't the machine. We're afraid of AI art because we already know what we'll do with it, and what it says about what we really think about artists and creativity.