Diaa El All, CEO/co-founder of generative artificial intelligence music company Soundful, remembers when the first artists were signed to major label deals based on songs using type beats — cheap, licensable beats available online that are labeled based on the artists the beat emulates (i.e. Drake Type Beat, XXXTentacion Type Beat). He also remembers the legal troubles that followed. “Those type beats are licensed to sometimes thousands of people at a time,” he explains. “If it becomes a hit for one artist, then that artist ends up with major problems to unravel.”
Perhaps the most famous example of this is Lil Nas X and his breakthrough smash “Old Town Road,” which was written over a $30 Future type beat that was also licensed by other DIY talents. After the song went viral in early 2019, the then-unknown rapper and meme maker quickly inked a deal with Columbia Records, but beneath the song’s mammoth success lay a tangle of legal issues to sort through. For one thing, the song’s type beat included an unauthorized sample of Nine Inch Nails’ “34 Ghosts IV,” which was not disclosed to Lil Nas X when he purchased it.
El All’s solution to these issues may seem counter-intuitive, but he posits that his AI models could provide an ethical alternative to the copyright nightmares of the type beat market.
Starting Wednesday (Nov. 8), Soundful is launching Soundful Collabs, which is partnering with artists, songwriters and producers in various genres — including Kaskade, Starrah, 3LAU, DJ White Shadow, Autograf and CB Mix — to train personalized AI generators that create beats akin to their specific production and writing styles. To create a realistic model, the artists, songwriters and producers provide Soundful with dozens of their favorite one-shot recordings of kick drums, snares, guitar licks and synth patches from their personal sonic libraries, as well as information about how they typically construct chord progressions and song structures.
The result is individualized AI models that can generate endless one-of-a-kind tracks that echo a hitmaker’s style while compensating them for the use of their name and sonic identity. For $15, a Soundful subscriber can download up to 10 tracks the generator comes up with. This includes stems so the user can add or subtract elements of the track to suit their tastes after exporting it to a digital audio workstation (DAW) of their choice. The hitmaker receives 80% of the monies earned from the collaboration while Soundful retains 20% — a split El All says was inspired by “flipping” major record labels’ common 80/20 split in favor of the artist.
The Soundful leader, who has a background as a classical guitarist and sound engineer, sees this as a novel form of musical “merchandise” that offers talent an additional revenue stream and a chance at fostering further fan engagement and user-generated content (UGC). “We don’t use any loops, we don’t use any previous tracks as references,” El All says. As a result, he argues the product’s profits belong only to the talent, not their record label or publishers, given that it does not use any of their copyrights. Still, he says he’s met with “a lot of publishers” and some labels about the new product. (El All admits that an artist in a 360 deal — a contract which grants labels a cut of money from touring, merchandise and other forms of non-recorded music income — may have to share proceeds with their label.)
According to Kaskade, who has been a fan of Soundful’s since he tested the original beta product earlier this year, the process of training his model felt like “Splice on crack — this is the next evolution of the Splice sample packs,” where producers offer fans the opportunity to purchase a pack of their favorite loops and samples for a set price, he explains. “[With sample packs] you got access to the sounds, but now, you get an AI generator to help you put it all together.”
The new Soundful product is illustrative of a larger trend in AI towards personalized models. On Monday, OpenAI, the leading AI company behind ChatGPT and DALL-E, announced that it was launching “GPTs” – a new service that allows small businesses and individuals to build customized versions of ChatGPT attuned to their personal needs and interests.
This trend is also present in music AI, with many companies offering personalized models and collaborations with talent. This is especially popular on the voice synthesis side of the nascent industry. So far, start-ups like Kits AI, Voice-Swap, Hooky, CreateSafe and more are working with artists to feed recordings of their voices into AI models to create realistic clones of their voices for fans or the artists themselves to use — Grimes’ model being the most notable to date. Though much more ethically questionable, the popularity of Ghostwriter’s “Heart On My Sleeve” — which employed a voice model to emulate Drake and The Weeknd and which was not authorized by the artists — also proved the appetite for personalized music models.
Notably, Soundful’s product has the potential to be a producer and songwriter-friendly counterpart to voice models, which present possible monetary benefits (and threats) to recording artists and singers but do not pertain to the craftspeople behind the hits, who generally enjoy fewer financial opportunities than the artists they work with. As Starrah — who has written “Havana” by Camila Cabello, “Pick Up The Phone” by Young Thug and Travis Scott and “Girls Like You” by Maroon 5 — explains, Soundful Collabs are “an opportunity for songwriters and producers to expand what they are doing in so many ways.”
El All says keeping the needs of the producer and songwriter communities in mind was paramount in the creation of this product. For the first time, he reveals that longtime industry executive, producer manager and Hallwood Media founder Neil Jacobson is on Soundful’s founding team and board. El All says Jacobson’s expertise proved instrumental in steering the Soundful Collabs project in a direction that El All feels could “change the industry for the better.” “I think what Soundful provides here is similar to what I do in my own business,” says Jacobson. “I supply music to people who need it — with Soundful, a fan of one of these artists who wants to make music but doesn’t quite know how to work a digital audio workstation can get the boost they need to start creating.”
El All says the new product will extend beyond personalization for current songwriters, producers and artists. The Soundful team is also in talks with catalog owners and estates and working with a number of top brands in the culinary, consumer goods, hospitality, children’s entertainment and energy industries to train personalized models to create sonic “brand templates” and “generative catalogs” to be used in social media content. “This will help them create a very clear signature identification via sound,” says El All.
When asked if this business-to-business application takes away opportunities for synch licensing from composers, El All counters that some of these companies were using royalty free libraries prior to meeting with Soundful. “We’re actually creating new opportunities for musicians because we are consistently hiring those specializing in synch and sound designers to continue to evolve the brand’s sound,” he says.
In the future, Soundful will drop more artist templates every four to six weeks, and its Collabs will expand into genres like Latin, lo-fi, rock, pop and more. “Though this sounds good out of the box … what will make the music a hit is when a person downloads these stems and adds their own human imperfections and style to it,” says El All. “That’s what we are looking to encourage. It’s a jumping off point.”