With the Production Music Conference taking place next week in Los Angeles, we check in with key players in the market to understand the evolving challenges and opportunities.
The five-month strike by the Writers Guild Of America (WGA) is now over, with the union’s leaders approving an agreement with the Alliance Of Motion Picture & Television Producers. A new three-year contract with the Hollywood Studios still needs to go to its members for ratification, but it all appears to have been finally resolved.
The WGA has, reports The Guardian, “won concessions on writers’ payment, terms with streaming shows, and the use of artificial intelligence”.
While the main focus, rightly, has been on protecting screenwriters in the streaming age, the strike has meant that a major force in global TV and film production ground to a halt for the second time in three years (with Covid in 2020 forcing everything to immediately shut down for months). Songwriters and production music companies were also directly affected by these shutdowns: if no shows or films were being made then no music was being used either.
The issues underpinning the strike are highly contemporary and affect the very future of the whole sector. As such, the strike placed many burning issues front and centre of the discussion.
One of those issues was generative AI and its implications for music creation from the perspective of creators. It has become, in recent times, an utterly unavoidable matter.
Earlier this month, the Council of Music Makers in the UK published what it called its “five fundamentals for music and AI” covering just how and where AI-generated music can work while simultaneously ensuring that creator rights are protected. This followed moves in the US seeking to update the Protect Working Musicians Act to cover AI. This also chimes with the goals of the Human Artistry Campaign to put copyright and legislative safeguards in place around generative AI technologies.
All these hot-button issues are directly impacting the production music world and shaping its future.
Speaking before the resolution of the WGA strike, Adam Taylor, president of APM, spoke to Synchtank about the impact and implications for his company in particular and the production music sector in general.
“If a company’s primary business is working just in film and TV then they’re certainly going to be impacted by the writers’ strike,” he says. “Certainly there were a number of things that were already in production or post-production […] that will impact people. Most of the larger companies have business in so many different areas that the writers’ strike isn’t going to have a major impact. We’re in a lot of different areas, so there’s no real impact that is really meaningful for us.”
For John Clifford, founder and manager of True Road Music, the strike was an important wake-up call for all players in the space, exposing just how critical it is for them to keep evolving and adapting to external forces.
“For as long as I’ve been in this business – 30 years – I’ve heard that the production music business has always been 18 months away from demise and total disaster,” he says. “But guess what. We’re all – well, most of us! – still here. As well as challenges there are also great opportunities. There is more ‘content’ being made than ever before. But we need to learn to adapt.”
“For as long as I’ve been in this business – 30 years – I’ve heard that the production music business has always been 18 months away from demise and total disaster. But guess what. We’re all – well, most of us! – still here.”
– John Clifford, True Road Music
He adds that, from speaking to his company’s clients, it was “in the area of scripted content where the hit is being felt” with regard to the strike but they noted that “the same amount of unscripted TV show content is being made”.
Randy Wachtler, president of 11 One/Music, argues that one door being (temporarily) shut does not mean all doors are shut for production music companies.
“The strikes in LA have slowed down the production of scripted television and films,” he says, “but we are seeing demand in other areas such as reality TV and advertising.”
The WGA strike ending means there will be a heavy swing back into creating shows and films. As such, there will be a lot of music deals happening. That is one issue that is (for now) resolved; but another – much more existential – issue rolls on with no firm resolution in sight.
Art or artificial: solving the AI conundrum
While there can be a tendency to slip into dystopian discourse when discussing generative AI – that, in a worst-case scenario, it will replace most, if not all, human creativity – many in the production music world are more sanguine about it.
Clifford says that it is impossible to accurately predict what AI will mean for creators here and, as such, perspective is needed.
“Clearly AI-generated music proposes some level of threat, but how much of a threat is really yet to be seen,” he proposes. “Legislation around AI generally will be key. As I have said, the production music business has always been 18 months away from imminent disaster, so I don’t think all the current discussion around AI will be any different. I hope I’m right.”
There is a need to not view AI + music in homogeneous terms and understand that it can take many forms and have many uses. There are risks and challenges around AI as a music creation tool, but it is already proving its worth under the hood in terms of sourcing and licensing music.
“I think there are opportunities to use AI, which is really just computer software, to impact music,” says Taylor. “We use it for tagging, harmonic analysis, audio manipulation, for changing speeds, tempo and duration, automatically creating stems and being able to have an easier way that somebody can take a track and they could fit their needs. What we are not doing is generating new music with it – new copyrights.”
Clifford expands on this. “It presents great opportunities particularly in revolutionising the way editors can now search for music,” he says. “I am proud to be a part of FreshTracks Music, which is the first company worldwide to introduce large language AI-powered search to our website and the service we provide to clients.”
Wachtler adds that there are benefits around AI, but that regulatory safeguards must also be put in place to ensure that the negatives do not wash out the positives.
“We believe AI can provide benefits for our composing teams in various ways,” he says. “We hope that governments around the world will put up strong guardrails and policies to protect copyright by humans versus machines.”
This can be all part of a wider technological shift within production music, spotting and harnessing the tools that can streamline, grow and benefit the business.
Speaking to Synchtank in May, Alec Sharpe, head of business development & operations at Warner Chappell Production Music (a Synchtank client), said, “We’re in the process of transitioning to being a much more tech-focused business, and we’re excited about the changes ahead for Warner Chappell and Warner Music Group with Robert Kyncl as CEO [having previously been at YouTube]. We want to simplify our production music business and be better equipped to adapt to the changing needs of the marketplace. Tech innovation provides the tools to do so.”
Taylor says the copyright uncertainty around AI-generated music actually plays into the hands of human creators and gives them new advantages.
“In terms of my viewpoint right now, I think that companies are going to continue to want music by humans when, right now, at least [with regard to] copyright law, you can’t get a copyright on AI generative music,” he suggests. “I think that corporations won’t want to use music that they can’t be indemnified on and protected from […] I also think there’s a human aspect: people want music created by humans or they want art created by humans.”
“I think that corporations won’t want to use music that they can’t be indemnified on and protected from […] I also think there’s a human aspect: people want music created by humans or they want art created by humans.”
– Adam Taylor, APM Music
He adds that it is impossible to turn the AI tide back and, as such, the sector needs to work with the technology rather than try and will it out of existence.
“We’re learning that AI is here to stay, and we need to partner with people who are doing it so we can learn,” he argues.
There are a multitude of AI tools out there to create music (and most boast of being cheap and royalty free), such as Beatoven.ai, OpenAI’s Jukebox, AIVA, Boomy and Riffusion. They will become more commonplace and this is where production music libraries will have to emphasise their own USPs and focus on both their quality of catalogue and their quality of service.
This is not necessarily death by a thousand AI cuts, as there are plenty of AI tools that can help streamline search, tagging, metadata and curation, allowing clients to make sense of the millions of library options open to them. AI-powered platforms like AIMS and Cyanite (both Synchtank partners) as well as FreshTracks Music point towards a frictionless future where AI can add to the power of production music libraries rather than erode them.
Upping the quality threshold: why this is a golden age for production music
Even with all the challenges in recent years and the coming years – Covid, strikes, AI – Taylor refers to today as “the golden age of production” because the market, to his mind, remains strong.
He says that the rise of budget music options – what he calls the “crowdsourced or cheaper credit card models or subscription models” – is actually benefiting the more bespoke offerings as this has “really reinforced the importance of quality”.
The dexterous nature of production libraries can also work to their advantage, he believes.
“Libraries are nimble,” he says. “We control all rights. Every track is the same price. You don’t have to check with us before you use it. We don’t have any requirements to check with an artist. And it’s very, very simple. That’s the whole idea of library music.”
Taylor has faith in the centrality of music – quality music – always having a place in film and TV productions as they can elevate what is on the screen like nothing else.
“Fundamentally, people need stories and video is the way to tell stories and need music in order to animate those stories,” he concludes. “To me, everything is good.”