Press Clipping
03/18/2023
Article
At SXSW, It Was Goodbye NFTs And Hello AI Music

Where have all the NFT bros gone? That was the common refrain at this year’s South-by-Southwest, the massive music-tech-culture conference wrapping up in Austin, Texas.

In 2022, some 40 panels and presentations were focused on the formerly fashionable now-fugacious non-fungible tokens.

One panel last year featured FTX crypto-exchange founder Sam Bankman-Fried and e-sports entrepreneur Andy Dinh, described in the program as “two colossal entrepreneurs … not only changing the landscape in their own fields, but the economic landscape as we know it.”

Three months before this year’s SXSW, Bankman-Fried was indicted and arrested on charges of securities fraud, money laundering, and other crimes.

The SBF scandal plus the recent collapse of crypto-friendly Signature Bank plus a class action lawsuit against the Bored Ape Yacht Club NFT creators has equaled a net loss of interest in NFTs at this year’s confab. A search of this year’s schedule showed half as many NFT-related panels as last year.

“The tech world just moves on very quickly to the next big thing,” said Molly White, a tech sceptic and Wikipedia editor who was a keynote speaker. “I think the mythmaking and hype cycles that society goes through are not good.”

In place of NFTs, this year’s tech buzz was all around artificial intelligence, including a panel led by the author entitled “Can Robots Create Life-Changing Songs?” and one called “Welcome To The Machine: Art In The Age of A.I.” including Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Jessy Wilson and musician Dan Navarro, author of Pat Benatar’s hit “We Belong.” These panels took a more conservative approach to the AI-meets-Art craze than the galloping parade of NFT panels we saw last year.

One reason computers can’t create life-changing songs is because computers can’t cry. John Lennon said he sang and cried himself to sleep as a teen, and the trauma of losing his mother in a senseless car accident in 1958, just a few years before the Beatles spectacular rise, fueled songs like “Julia” and “I’m a Loser” with a weaping soulfulness that can’t be artificially generated. The same with a good guitar solo, which is nothing more than a good cry.

“AI might think, but it can’t feel,” Navarro say. “If used right, though, it might help us feel more deeply.”

AI-created ditties are cliched, cringy and cry-less. But AI can help a musician concentrate on emotions by relieving them of menial musical tasks. AI can help film music composers quickly and easily orchestrate scores, or provide inexpensive solutions for mastering of music tracks.

Because of AI’s greater practical utility compared to the more abstract attraction of NFTs, AI music applications are more likely to last into the future, White said.

Yet one challenge comes from the US Copyright Office, which issued a directive on AI music copyrights, on the same day as the two panels mentioned above. The directive states that music completely created by AI modelers like Google’sGOOG -0.6% text-to-music generator MusicLM can not be copyrighted. Only human-authored aspects of a work that are independent of the AI-generated material can. That restriction may feel like a splash of ice water on hot AI companies trying to attract investment based on monetization models that rely on copyright protection.

So what will be the hot tech topic next year?

A logo printed on lanyards for this year’s admission badges may give a clue. LabelCoin, self-described as the “Robinhood of music” is one of a rising number of “music market” firms that offer artists an alternative to the major label system with the promise of music “stock exchanges” where fans can buy and sell shares of songs.

Other companies surfing that rising wave include Songvest, JKBX, and royal.io, whose founder Justin Blau, aka 3LAU, is an EDM star who spoke at SXSW this year. Blau made waves in 2021 by selling $11.7 million in NFTs of his album Ultraviolet, which you could also get free on streaming services.

Austin has always been a crossroads of culture and competing ideas. In the mid-19th Century, the area was filled with cowboys and Comanches on horseback. Nowadays, its tech and music geeks on Birds and other trendy scooters ... chasing down the Next Big Thing.