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 "billy@djbillyandtheboingers.com", 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.

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