Depending on who you ask, FN Meka was either the next frontier in music or the death knell for human artists. FN Meka has amassed millions of followers on his TikTok, and as the hype around him grew, music industry executives took notice. In August, Capitol Records announced that it had signed a virtual character.
Therefore, the issues raised in FN Meka’s lawsuit are not inherently about the ethics of technology in music. Rather, some experts say technology is just one layer in his larger conversation about cultural appropriation, copyright, and ownership.
Virtual artists on the rise
FN Meka’s digital persona, and the extent to which it has been accepted by audiences, reflects an ongoing cultural shift.
Lateef Garrett, music manager and industry veteran of virtual record label Spirit Bomb, says virtual personas open up new creative opportunities for real-life artists. Virtual characters can allow artists to experiment with new musical styles, reach new audiences, and access new revenue streams without necessarily being a musical face. But he says it’s important for real-life artists to be involved in the development of those characters, which apparently wasn’t the case with FN Meka.
Kyle the Hooligan, a black man, said he was the original voice of FN Meka and helped shape his sound. Claiming to have become a ghost, he told VICE, “The way they cut me off of it was basically like using me for culture.” It wasn’t until after he was cut from the project that he learned of the specific creative choices being criticized.
“You can’t get around working with black artists by creating a black virtual artist,” says Garrett. “Most importantly, no black experience or black culture can be replicated through a virtual artist unless black people were involved in the creation of that character.
“As these virtual artists and AI technology companies are being built, it’s important that the companies making character development and music decisions reflect the communities they’re trying to reach,” says Garrett. . “I think having a diverse staff will definitely solve a lot of the problems we are seeing in this situation.”
Gigi Johnson, who heads the Malemel Institute, a think tank focused on the intersection of creativity and technology, says virtual characters can create a distance between creators and their work. At the height of FN Meka’s popularity, it was largely unclear who exactly was behind the characters, confusing consumers and making it easier for developers to escape accountability.
The question becomes more vague if artificial intelligence is actually producing or assisting the music.
“Who decides whether to publish or edit this?” Johnson says. “Who supports this work?”
AI still has major limitations
FN Meka’s music may not be AI generated. But for better or worse, artists and researchers are already trying to use AI to push music to new heights.
For these reasons, Nina Eidsheim, professor of musicology at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, sees AI not as a replacement for artists, but as another tool musicians can use to create art.
“There will be glitches and things that we never could have imagined,” says Eidsheim. “As interesting as what AI technology itself produces is how we, as human artists, interpret it, perhaps incorporating it into our own artmaking, or rejecting it. Is it?”
Hip-hop has long struggled with issues like this when it comes to sampling.
“Is it okay to literally model someone’s personality? As a society, is that okay?” Herndon said in an interview with FADER. “If that’s all right, how does it work within the existing power structures that society already has?”
And as more artists are included in the datasets powering these algorithms, it becomes harder to track which elements were borrowed from whom, says Johnson.
“If you really can’t break the pie into pieces for the ingredients, who should pay?” she says.
Technology has long changed music
Technology has changed music and art more broadly for generations. When it comes to AI in particular, other recent efforts force FN Meka to grapple with a more serious problem than it ever did.
The case also raised the question of what exactly constitutes art. If the artist’s sole involvement was to create the prompts that generate the images, would the work be of lesser value? Will public skills decline with the use of AI, or will it take advantage of new skill sets and lower barriers to entry?
AI systems can create approximations of existing music and do so on a scale beyond humans, but still rely on real artists to fuel and fine-tune the final result. What is evolving is who becomes an artist and how artists work.
“No matter what we make, no matter how we use AI, it doesn’t stray from anything that humans do because we are involved,” Eidsheim says.