AI-generated Drake and The Weeknd song raises serious artistic concerns after going viral

AI Drake and The Weeknd song Heart on my Sleeve has been pulled from digital streaming services

By Jonnie Owen

Friday, 21st of April

The interactive restrictions put on us by the pandemic forced technological advancements at a rapid pace. We relied more than ever on technology to communicate in new innovative ways by upgrading existing tools and developing new formats. 

The music industry, like all industries which rely heavily on IRL interaction, experienced a monumental void when live performances were cancelled. Music artists showed immense resilience and quickly adapted to the status quo by engaging with fans in new creative ways via virtual worlds, live streams and staying connected to fans on social media platforms. 

The same technology that had a part to play in helping the industry overcome the restrictions of the pandemic, however, is now a threat to the legal, moral and creative rights of artists and their work.

Drake and The Weeknd via Getty Images

Earlier this month, an AI-engineered song surfaced across digital streaming platforms and social platforms, and took the music world by storm. The track titled ‘Heart On My Sleeve’ was AI-generated by a yet-to-be identified ‘Ghostwriter’. 

The composition featured the AI-generated voices of Drake and the Weeknd. 

The track was met with much dismay by Universal Music Group (UMG) who told Billboard magazine that the viral postings “demonstrate why platforms have a fundamental legal and ethical responsibility to prevent the use of their services in ways that harm artists”, as this is a clear copyright infringement. On the flipside, it has been welcomed by fans of the artists and curious music fans alike with comments to the song that include: “This would literally go No.1 on the charts if Drake released it”, and: “What a time to be alive”. 

Drake and The Weeknd aren’t the only ones. Other music artists are also being faked. Recently, a fake Oasis album which again utilised AI was instead praised by Liam Gallagher. 

The album titled The Lost Tapes Volume One under the playful name of AIsis also went viral and featured music and lyrics written by Hastings band Breezer with Liam’s voice generated by AI. Responding to a fan on Twitter, Gallagher was asked if he’d heard the AIsis album yet and responded: “Mad as fuck…I sound mega”.

Before being forcefully taken down from streaming platforms by UMG, the Drake and The Weeknd track wracked up over 600,000 Spotify streams, 15m TikTok views and 275,000 YouTube views.  

Watching this unfold over the last week has given me deja vu as it brought back memories of the catastrophic events between music rights holders and Napster. Up until 2001, Napster was a peer to peer file sharing platform that allowed users to upload and share millions of files, in particular music tracks, globally yet illegally. 

Piracy choked the music industry of billions of dollars of profit each year. The Napster controversy came as a result of a few events. The digital revolution – in particular the ease of sharing music via mp3 married with the global connectivity capabilities of the internet. But I would also argue music piracy came as a reaction to the price tags put on physical music formats. 

At that time the CD was king. I remember paying £15.99 for Idlewild the Remote Part in HMV. It’s a great album but something I could never justify today. Now I’m one of the 9 million Brits with a Spotify subscription for a fraction of that cost per month for unlimited music wherever I am. 

What Napster proved then was just how unprepared the music business was for technological advances. Piracy on sites like Napster happened en masse. Music was freely available in huge clusters globally to a point where it became difficult to stop until legal action was taken at source and directly against the pirate sites for copyright infringement. From this, Digital Service Providers (DSP) platforms arose out of the dust like iTunes, Spotify, Apple Music with the major music labels on board to help counteract the file sharing and make up for lost revenue.

Could fake AI music have similar consequences that Napster had in the music industry? At the time of writing, duplicate versions of the Drake and The Weeknd song are still being shared across social media platforms in video form. So how do you make it stop?

TikTok has seen a huge rise in popularity, with users creating their own sped up and slowed down versions of popular songs, becoming the new ‘remix’. They are similarly illegal as they are not authorised by the rights owner. Are these new AI versions the new cover versions? 

And what if the fake AI track had featured offensive lyrics? This could have damaged the reputation of the artist and a lot of time and money might have been spent to remedy the false narrative with the truth. 

The wider concern for music rights owners is the fact that AI engines are being fed already existing musical compositions, which begs the question: how will music labels crack down on identifying when an AI creation has infringed? Especially when we’re talking about millions of pieces of music data being fed and then spat out into a new-(ish) stitched together, tangible creation. This will be a priority for music labels to mitigate before it spirals out of control. 

Interestingly, it’s also been reported by Music Business Worldwide that Drake himself is actually being investigated for copyright infringement by Ghanaian artist Obrafour for allegedly using an unauthorised sample from the Ghanaian’s 2003 track, ‘Oye Ohene’, in one of his own compositions: ‘Calling My Name’.

But despite the fact that AI is receiving a bad rap within the industry, there are many ways in which this technology can do the industry a lot of good. It could be a useful tool for music label A&R departments to save time and money to test collaborations before getting major artists into a studio only to find their voices or playing styles are not compatible. We could experience Marvin Gaye perform a cover of Gabriel’s track, could dig out some of Kurt Cobain’s unfinished demos and use AI to help finish them off, with David Grohl and co directing it as a gift for die hard fans. 

There are, however, many issues to work on in terms of mitigation. Music distribution companies (i.e. Distro Kid, Tunecore, Sound:On) for example, are responsible for making music available across DSP’s and social platforms, and it is a requirement between music labels, artists, DSP’s and social platforms.  

They work on behalf of music artists, labels and music rights owners to ensure the music being uploaded for consumption is delivered correctly, legally and properly tracked for royalty payouts and stream and sale counting. So, it feels like a tougher vetting process needs to be applied at this intersection. The social platforms where videos of the AI track are still running free should also be held accountable as this feels like the wild west, yet platforms and DSP’s should know the rules of the game by now. They have a duty to protect artists’ intellectual property as they are given the privilege to exploit musical creations to their customers.

In regards to live concerts, the success of ABBA Voyage is testament to a balanced relationship between technology and human interaction. Voyage is a VR experience where a live band performs on stage led by avatar versions of the Swedish pop group known as ‘ABBAtars’, performing pre-recorded moves by younger performers with the original vocals from recordings added on top. With this in mind, If the future allows me the opportunity to see John Lennon perform ‘Mother’ in a live environment I can experience with an audience, then I’m in…

AI being used as a tool in addition to or as an idea starter to a human-made creation sounds useful. Music artists have worked with machines such as synthesisers, guitar fx pedals and drum machines since their introduction to popular music. I throw AI in the same bracket as these, as it’s a tool to aid creation but not to solve creation. I’m not a supporter of music or any form of art being solely created by an AI engine. I want my favourite artists to share with me their blood, sweat and tears. I want the real heart on sleeve, not bot on dot.