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Will pop music be written by robots in the future?

Benoît Carré helped produce the world’s first AI pop song – but is he in danger of putting himself out of a job?

If Elon Musk is right and the AI singularity is right around the corner, then humankind might well be shuffling off its collective coil in the very near future. But, thanks to the bods at Sony CSL Paris, at least the apocalypse will have a bitching soundtrack.

For years now, the media giant has been hard at work developing AI technology with the ability to spin algorithms into world-beating pop songs, presumably with the long-term goal of getting off its publishing roster for good. And last week, they shared some of the results for the very first time: “Daddy’s Car”, the first track to air, is a breezy slice of harmony-laden indie pop spewed forth by Sony’s AI protege – un-rock’n’rolledly titled Flow Machines – after researchers fed it a steady diet of Beatles songs. The second, a fascinatingly sinister ditty called “Mr Shadow”, took OG songwriting icons Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington and George Gershwin as its stylistic inspo.

Both tracks had a little outside assistance from Benoît Carré, a French composer of the flesh-and-bone variety who arranged and wrote the lyrics for the songs. Which kind of makes him the Lennon to Flow Machines’ McCartney in the creation of a new genre – algo-pop, let’s say. We spoke to Carré about what it’s like to have HAL 9000 as a songwriting partner, and AI’s potential to revolutionise the music industry.

Is ‘Daddy’s Car’ really the world’s first AI pop song?

Benoît Carré: I think so! 

If not, is it better than the other AI pop songs? 

Benoît Carré: I can’t tell. We hope that, in future, our songs will be evaluated like any other song.

You arranged ‘Daddy’s Car’ and wrote the lyrics, is that not cheating? Is it not possible for the AI to do everything?

Benoît Carré: The machine composed the song. A lead sheet has been generated. It’s not cheating to say it has been composed by AI! There are many steps in creating a song. Composing, arrangement, recording... Flow Machines gave me the song and some stems for the production. 

How did Flow Machines come up with the melodies for the song?

Benoît Carré: I chose 45 songs by The Beatles and gave them to the system. Then lead sheets were generated with powerful AI and I chose one of them. AI is very powerful but it has no conscience of the quality of a melody. For now, I can like and dislike what is generated. It guides my choices. Creation is basically a succession of choices, though, isn’t it?

Compositionally, what impresses you most about the melodies for ‘Daddy’s Car’ and ‘Mr Shadow’, the other song shared online last week?

Benoît Carré: They are weird, you get obsessed with them! One night I dreamt about one of the melodies that was generated and I said to myself, ‘I have to make something with this!’ If you listen to ‘Mr Shadow’ two or three times, it will play in your head for the day, the day after that, and maybe in the middle of your dreams!

Do you remember what happened in the dream?

Benoît Carré: It’s just that my unconscious liked the melody and reminded me to make something with it! I’ve heard about research which shows the unconscious makes most of our choices before ‘we’ do.

“AI is very powerful but it has no conscience of the quality of a melody. For now, I can like and dislike what is generated. It guides my choices. Creation is basically a succession of choices, though, isn’t it?” Benoît Carré

Do you think the song is better than any of the songs that the Beatles wrote? If they were a thing now would Ringo be losing any sleep?

Benoît Carré: I don’t think so, but I’d have to go back and listen to all of their songs!

How did you write the lyrics for the song?

Benoît Carré: They’re a souvenir of the first time I heard Revolver in my parents’ car. It was pure joy.

How long will it be before we get an AI song that arranges itself?

Benoît Carré: It’s hard to say. We’re at the beginning of something, but things go so fast... Maybe in December!

And what about a song with AI-penned lyrics?

Benoît Carré: Sony CSL has developed a software based on the same cross-styles experiment.

What will you do for a job when all of this happens?

Benoît Carré: I’ll play piano on a beach. But for the moment, I believe that only human souls can make music come to life.

How long do you think it will be before we have our first AI number-one pop single?

Benoît Carré: An AI can already compose a song – it needs a human to give it feeling, as I said, but it can write very catchy tunes. It’s up to humans to choose the best ones and make a number one!

Apparently an album will be out later this year, are you working on that as well?

Benoît Carré: Yes, I’m working on different projects, but not alone. Those tracks are like a trailer. We’ll do better! We’ll produce music like any musician, producer and label: our wish is that people will like it. ‘Mr Shadow’ will be a part of a strange EP, outside of any rules. 

Do you know if any famous pop or rock acts have expressed an interest in working with Flow Machines for their own music?

Benoît Carré: Some French artists are writing their songs in our audio lab. An American pop singer has recently reached out to us. It’s a start.

What kinds of music do you work on normally?

Benoît Carré: I’ve always worked with machines. At eight, I played on a Bontempi, at 15 with a Commodore 64. For me, machines reveal to us a very nice part of our musicality. There’s a new distance between you and your creation that allows for more risks, more strangeness: you’re not alone, but you still have your hand at the wheel.

And how did you come to be involved in the project?

Benoît Carré: (Sony CSL Paris director) François Pachet and I have been in contact for a long time. He often showed me his research and I was always amazed. I like his approach – unlike other scientific research labs, he wants to make popular music, and he thinks a pop song is one of the hardest things to make. So do I.

Why is that?

Benoît Carré: It’s very hard to analyse what makes for a good pop song. The lead sheet is a part of the song, but much less so than for classical music. The big problem is that there are no rules in pop music but the format is very rigid.

How do you think this project has the potential to change the music industry in the future?

Benoît Carré: We are in the beginning but I’m sure that AI will change our way of making music. Some of it will be like bad music (like today) and some of it, not. This project is an exploration, I hope that an audience will follow us, guided by the pleasure of hearing some new stuff.