US record label Capitol Music Group (CMG) has dropped its first virtual artist, FN Meka, less than two weeks on from announcing the deal, citing “insensitivity” on its own part. Acting as a crash-course for the entertainment industry when it comes to AI-generated content, FN Meka was ridiculed for trivializing race issues and promoting stereotypes.
CMG – a subsidiary of Universal Music Group – announced the signing of FN Meka just weeks ago, with the artist’s debut single ‘Florida Water’ released on streaming platforms immediately. While the vocals were delivered by an uncredited performer, all other aspects of the song were generated via AI processes – a vague umbrella term that can often obscure rudimentary technology.
Factory New, a so-called ‘virtual record label’, began teasing FN Meka in 2021, claiming that an AI-generated artist was in the works, pulling from thousands of data points from across video games and social media.
The algorithm clearly did the job drawing in Gen Z. Upon the signing announcement, FN Meka had over 10 million followers and a billion views on TikTok, with CMG claiming that they were the number one “virtual being” on the platform.
CMG’s EVP of Experimental Marketing and Business Development, Ryan Ruden, was quick to celebrate the label’s pioneering project “at the intersection of music technology and gaming culture.”
However, things turned south very quickly. The huge publicity surrounding the signing quickly drew critics questioning the plausibility of FN Meka’s black affectations, use of the N-word, and lyrics on black experiences such as police brutality.
Industry Blackout, a body representing black people in the music industry, released a statement less than two weeks after the signing, describing the artist as a “direct insult to the black community and our culture. An amalgamation of gross stereotypes, appropriate mannerisms that derive from black artists, complete with slurs infused in lyrics.”
Within two hours, CMG had publicly dropped FN Meka. “We offer our deepest apologies to the black community for our insensitivity in signing this project without asking enough questions about equity and the creative process behind it,” the statement read. Factory New has since hit back against much of the critique, claiming that the team behind FN Meka was incredibly diverse, although this has largely fallen on deaf ears.
Virtual artists are nothing new. Gorillaz are one of the most prolific examples of a highly-successful virtual music act, but the output from these acts has always been easily traced to their human creators. While Factory New has taken much of the wrap for the current outrage, it can always argue that FN Meka is merely a product of the world we live in due to its algorithmic inception.
Those that know the first thing about algorithms can easily rebuke this stance. As any recommendations vendor will tell you, an algorithm is only as good as the quality and variety of data that is feeding it. Biases can run rampant in either variable.
After trying to relieve the aftershock on social media, Factory New will likely ‘retreat to the lab’ to work on a new data gathering and algorithmic process, or at least come up with some further checks and balances to ensure that their next offerings are unlikely to cause such uproar.
There are two growing trends which make FN Meka an important case study. Firstly, are we likely to see AI-generated, vertical consolidation a la Netflix originals in the music industry? Could we get to the point where Spotify decides to task a team of its developers with creating an array of artists that can swallow up much of the market share on its own platform?
Already, Google’s open source research project Magenta runs an annual AI Song Contest, which encourage teams to compose songs with the help of ML techniques such as deep learning, natural language processing and algorithmic composition. In our humble opinion, the winning entries from this year’s contest are not quite yet chart-topping material.
Forgetting any antitrust obstacles, digital streaming platforms (DSP) will have to tread carefully to make sure that their first entrance into talent acquisition (or creation) is not botched by any FN Meka-type scandal.
Secondly, it is worth asking who should take the blame for AI-created content? It has become commonplace to publicly scrutinize Big Tech whenever algorithms favor content from certain political views, social groups, or geolocations. However, many of those companies are in the business of content delivery, not creation. Talent houses such as New Factory are not under the same scrutiny, and things will likely remain that way unless they accidentally strike a political landmine of some sort.
Although long-term speculation is always a shot in the dark, it is worth pondering as to when we will get to the point where not only our content delivery mechanisms are personalized to each individual user but having personalized content itself.
Already this is practiced on a much smaller level by some of the more advanced advertising formats, but those still operate on a tight range of variables. For now, the most advanced in-game ads will simply show a different branded billboard in gameplay depending on who the suspected player is.
Although likely decades away for the mass market, catering an entire gameplay narrative, TV series, or song to the suspected tastes of an audience will unlock a whole new can of worms.