We’re still some ways from the Singularity—the point at which computer processing becomes so powerful that mankind and machines merge into some larger consciousness—but with today’s release of Taryn Southern’s I AM AI, we are just a little bit closer. A singer-songwriter and YouTube personality, Southern used a variety of artificial intelligence software, including Amper Music and IBM Watson Beat, to help compose all eight of the synth-pop album’s tracks.
One of those tunes, “New World,” stands out as “the first ever tokenized, collaborative song experiment utilizing blockchain technology,” according to Southern. Here’s how it worked: Participants—nearly 300 total—signed up for song tokens using their public Ethereum address. Those tokens allowed them to contribute to the lyric-writing process, which approximately 75 people did, and share in any royalties from the track’s digital sales and streams. Royalties will automatically be paid out via an Ethereum smart contract.
BREAKER recently spoke to Southern, 32, about the making of “New World,” which she calls “an anthem for the blockchain generation.”
Tell me about the origins of “New World.”
The song started last fall. I knew some of the guys at TrustToken, who were building this system that allowed you to tokenized IP [intellectual property]. We thought, Wow, that’d be really interesting to take a creative project and do that. At the time, I was really thinking a lot about whether artists and creators could make a new revenue stream for themselves by allowing fans to financially participate in the backend. Because it’s one thing to support artists via Patreon or Kickstarter and get a T-shirt or a signed album. But it’s another thing to feel like you’ve got financial skin in the game to help your favorite artists.
We released the token in November, and from there embarked on this process of figuring out who wanted to actually be creatively involved in the song. So we launched a Rocket.Chat. Anyone who wanted to be part of the actual songwriting process came in there, and we started deciding collectively as a group what kind of song we wanted to make.
How many of the 300 people who bought tokens participated?
I’d say probably like 75 people, from all over the world, had decided to be part of this conversation, which later moved to Slack. First of all, we wanted to decide what the song’s about. And a lot of people were really excited by the idea of an anthem or a song about revolution, because that’s why we were all here. And that’s the core theme that brought us all together.
We thought, We need an anthem for the blockchain generation. How do we write that and make it not feel totally on the nose? We had everyone submit their own lyrics, whether it was just a line or two pages, and then everyone would upvote their favorite lyrics. From there, I put together a six-page Google document. And then we did a similar process all over again. Which you think would be a nightmare, but everyone was very civil.
Yeah, it does seem like it would be a nightmare.
No, it was great. People would highlight and comment on lines that they particularly liked, and that then allowed me to put together another document of those favorite lyrics. It actually was very much like the process of writing a song with just one other person.
Were there any clashes?
No. I actually can’t believe that no one was mean. [Laughs.] Ultimately though, because it’s my voice and I’m singing on it, I was still making the final decisions around what was included. Then I did a poll, and everyone collectively decided they wanted the song to be composed by AI, and we decided to use Watson Beat. I thought it would be fun to have everyone submit their favorite anthems, from any time period—it didn’t matter whether it was from the French Revolution or it was the National Anthem—and inject [each one separately] into Watson to see what it would spit out. So I took all these cool suggestions of songs.
What kind of songs?
A lot of them were actually not anthems I’m super-familiar with. Like, somebody submitted a French pop anthem I’d never heard of. And then I ran those through Watson, which generates new songs based on what it’s learning from that data, with the parameters that I’ve applied to it. It spits out an arrangement, in the form of a MIDI file. And sometimes there are sections of it that sound like it’s moving in a general direction, but then it’ll change direction. It doesn’t have song structure. But I look for sections that I really like, and I use those sections to build the verse, the chorus, verse, chorus. I ended up choosing a pattern that I really liked based off the U.S. National Anthem. Later in production, I added in a beat that I generated from Amper for the intro.
Who did the rap on the song?
That’s Jensen Reed. He’s one of the token holders and a friend of mine. I actually didn’t know who signed up for the token until I got a master list at one point. And I was like, “Oh, I had some friends sign up. That’s awesome. I didn’t know they had Ethereum wallet addresses.” And we had one very surprise token holder, which was very exciting for me.
Oh, who was it?
He’s not on the track or anything—I just want to be clear about that. Herbie Hancock, who’s a very famous jazz musician, signed up. He’s officially a token holder. I had met him on a plane ride, on one of my trips to New York, and had mentioned that I was working on my AI album. Somehow he must have just kept up with me and the project. He’d told me he was a big techie and very into blockchain, so I’m not shocked.
Tell me about the financial aspect. How does that work?
As far as our song is concerned, we created a trust entity in real life—wherein all these people are designated beneficiaries of the trust. Of course, with music royalties, it’s super-complicated, so we’re not gonna be able to do everything, but pretty much any kind of song sale, song stream, sync for TV or movies can run through the trust. That trust will automatically divvy up [royalty] payments thru Ether.
How much do people stand to make?
Best, best case scenario—like if it was a Justin Timberlake hit—we’ll put aside. But if it got relatively decent play and pickup, we’re looking at $20,000 total. Of course, that’s split amongst 300 people. If this is [financially] unsuccessful, I hope it shines a light on how hard it is for musicians to make money.
And how much did a token cost?
Nothing. I issued the token for free.
So they don’t really have skin in the game exactly.
Though I don’t know, if someone put in $1 or $10 or $500, how much that changes their own desire to push that artist forward. If I was supporting an artist and I knew that there was a chance I could get their song to make money, I would be plugging that song just as much as if I had donated 10 bucks for it.
Is this the future of music?
It’s hard for me to see a future of music that doesn’t somehow incorporate this technology and this kind of thinking about collaboration. It’s just the reality that music is becoming less and less financially viable for artists. This is a very natural next step, to involve fans in not just the collaboration and participation, but potential financial opportunity. I’m sure there will be many others who will create new models out of this kind of technology. It’s just a code that needs to be cracked.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Main photo by Nick Rasmussen, courtesy Taryn Southern.