Practical or “parasitic”? Examining the impact of AI on album artwork and music videos

With artificial intelligence starting to permeate the alternative space, we meet two musicians on either side of the argument to hear how and why their own work has been impacted – and if this is the beginning of the end for some artists…

Practical or “parasitic”? Examining the impact of AI on album artwork and music videos
Isabella Ambrosio
The human-made cover for Reconciler’s Art For Our Sake

Artificial intelligence threw the creative hemisphere a curveball in early 2023. Despite warnings from its creators, for nearly a decade before its eventual release, it has since become one of the most diverse technological tools to exist. Arguably, it was developed to learn from and help humans, but there’s the danger that the skills they learn can replace the humans themselves.

Full-time artist Joseph Lazzari – also of the punk band Reconciler – points out that creative minds finding themselves being replaced isn’t necessarily a new thing. “The industry, particularly under capitalism, is always trying to find a way to eliminate the artist,” he tells Kerrang!. “There’s always some work-around of, ‘We don’t have to hire a creative to make this for us, because we have this ability to make it.’ The creative person, the artist, the brain behind the ideas, is trying to be eliminated by technology. Because the industry thinks, ‘We don’t need someone whose brain we don’t understand, because the technology will just do it for us. And we can control [technology] and commodify that.’”

Pictured above: Joseph Lazzari

In the alternative scene, the beginning of the end for some artists is already starting. Northlane came under fire for their Mirror’s Edge EP artwork in April, while Periphery used AI in their music video for Atropos early last year. And though it could be argued that the latter was tongue-in-cheek, it does beg the question: with its toe in both artwork and music videos, what – or who – will AI replace next?

“I think album art is becoming wildly homogeneous right now,” Joseph says, recounting the covers he’s been looking at in his own time. “Working digitally is the preferred mode of professional people who are getting hired to make artwork for albums right now.” And it shows in the homogeneity that he so clearly sees.

But, working digitally has its limitations, and that is being limited by applications, devices and technology, and what it can provide you. There’s only so many brush packs, design apps, and paid options available for artists in these sectors. Instead of being limited by your medium or your own imagination, you’re placing your limitations elsewhere. But Joseph is convinced it doesn’t need to be like this. “There are ways of branching out with analogue forms that can get you [album artwork] without relying on AI,” he stresses.

After all, he continues, art and music bleed together pretty seamlessly “because they’re pure forms of expression. It’s distilling emotion down into something pure… [because] art is a reflection of life.” Indeed, he explains how “all of my life experiences are what my art is made out of” – so how is a computer supposed to live life experiences for you, and convey that in art? How does an artificial intelligence system know what it’s like to love, to be loved, and to be heartbroken? It doesn’t. It only knows from our experiences.

And yet, even with the threat of artists going extinct due to AI, it continues to be employed. Why? Convenience. Since it can learn from humans and adapt its skills to best suit the user, people are no longer required. This eliminates the need to pay-per-hour, or rather, the actual price of what human labour should cost. Very much on the ‘for’ side rather than against, guitarist Harrison Alley reasons that he switched to using AI for artwork “because it allows me to easily generate unique, visually interesting covers that would be difficult and expensive to produce manually”.

Pictured above: Harrison Alley

The musician continues that the tool enables him specifically to “describe the vibe and themes of [his] music”, and AI generates a variety of cover art to choose from. His process for creating album artwork is rather simple. He listens to his latest tracks, picking out the “emotions, concepts, and imagery” he wants it to convey. He then “inputs those details into an AI art generator like DALL-E or Midjourney”. He can pick his favourite from what they generate, or he can choose elements of each piece to combine together for the final product. “The whole process only takes a few hours now compared to days or weeks commissioning an artist,” Harrison says.

And in a world where time is money, it can assist in more timely production of artwork. When on a tight schedule, Harrison elaborates that AI has the ability to “enable more musicians, especially independent artists, to afford high-quality, custom cover art that matches their music”. He also argues that AI could “lead to more experimental, surreal visuals as the AI isn’t limited by human imagination”. Yet, artificial intelligence is based on what humans instruct the system. How can AI not be limited by human imagination when it doesn’t necessarily have one – it repeats what it’s been told by millions of users?

Joseph points out another glaring problem with AI – it’s beyond plagiarism. “I would consider AI to go further than just plagiarism, I would call it parasitic,” he says. AI learns from the art of others and uses thousands of images to piece together a picture. This, broken down in simpler terms, means that each piece of artwork is based off the backs of many artists, photographers and creatives. And no matter what Joseph does to try and equip himself to combat it, it’s just continuing to learn from his upskilling. “The better I get at making art, the better ‘it’ gets,” he sighs. “I can’t stay ahead of it, because it learns from me. Like, no matter what you do, when your content hits the internet, it’s learning from you.”

Harrison doesn’t see it that way. If anything, he’s concerned with AI tools being properly credited. To him, “As long as [he’s] transparent that AI was involved, [he] doesn’t see an issue with using it as a musician.” Particularly, “[He] still [has] creative input in art directing the process.”

Whatever side of the fence you fall on, however, it’s clear that there’s plenty still to be ironed out. It’s a relatively new tool, after all, and even considering its apparent benefits, no-one can yet predict how artificial intelligence will impact these corners of the music industry. One thing that can be said for certain, though, is that artists need to be protected – no matter the cost.

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