Will K-pop’s AI experiment pay off?


By Megan LawtonBusiness reporter

Getty Images Members of the K-pop band Seventeen stand in a lineGetty Images

K-pop band Seventeen are now using AI, admits member Woozi, who is standing third from the right

There’s an issue dividing K-pop fans right now – artificial intelligence.

Several of the genre’s biggest stars have now used the technology to create music videos and write lyrics, including boy band Seventeen.

Last year the South Korean group sold around 16 million albums, making them one of the most successful K-pop acts in history. But it’s their most recent album and single, Maestro, that’s got people talking.

The music video features an AI-generated scene, and the record might well include AI-generated lyrics too. At the launch of the album in Seoul, one of the band members, Woozi, told reporters he was “experimenting” with AI when songwriting.

“We practised making songs with AI, as we want to develop along with technology rather than complain about it,” he said.

“This is a technological development that we have to leverage, not just be dissatisfied with. I practised using AI and tried to look for the pros and cons.”

On K-pop discussion pages, fans were torn, with some saying more regulations need to be in place before the technology becomes normalised.

Others were more open to it, including super fan Ashley Peralta. “If AI can help an artist overcome creative blocks, then that’s OK with me,” says the 26-year-old.

Her worry though, is that a whole album of AI generated lyrics means fans will lose touch with their favourite musicians.

“I love it when music is a reflection of an artist and their emotions,” she says. “K-pop artists are much more respected when they’re hands on with choreographing, lyric writing and composing, because you get a piece of their thoughts and feelings.

“AI can take away that crucial component that connects fans to the artists.”

Ashley presents Spill the Soju, a K-pop fan podcast, with her best friend Chelsea Toledo. Chelsea admires Seventeen for being a self-producing group, which means they write their own songs and choreograph them too, but she’s worried about AI having an impact on that reputation.

“If they were to put out an album that’s full of lyrics they hadn’t personally written, I don’t know if it would feel like Seventeen any more and fans want music that is authentically them”.

Ashley Peralta Ashley Peralta (left) and her friend Chelsea ToledoAshley Peralta

Ashley Peralta (left) and her friend Chelsea Toledo make a K-pop podcast

For those working in K-Pop production, it’s no surprise that artists are embracing new technologies.

Chris Nairn is a producer, composer and songwriter working under the name Azodi. Over the past 12 years he’s written songs for K-pop artists including Kim Woojin and leading agency SM Entertainment.

Working with K-pop stars means Chris, who lives in Brighton, has spent a lot of time in South Korea, whose music industry he describes as progressive.

“What I’ve learned by hanging out in Seoul is that Koreans are big on innovation, and they’re very big on ‘what’s the next thing?’, and asking, ‘how can we be one step ahead?’ It really hit me when I was there,” he says.

“So, to me, it’s no surprise that they’re implementing AI in lyric writing, it’s about keeping up with technology.”

Chris Nairn  Chris Nairn Chris Nairn

Chris Nairn says that K-pop bands generally like to keep up with technology

Is AI the future of K-pop? Chris isn’t so sure. As someone who experiments with AI lyric generators, he doesn’t feel the lyrics are strong enough for top artists.

“AI is putting out fairly good quality stuff, but when you’re at the top tier of the songwriting game, generally, people who do best have innovated and created something brand new. AI works by taking what’s already been uploaded and therefore can’t innovate by itself.”

If anything, Chris predicts AI in K-pop will increase the demand for more personal songs.

“There’s going to be pressure from fans to hear lyrics that are from the artist’s heart, and therefore sound different to any songs made using AI”.

Seventeen aren’t the only K-pop band experimenting with AI. Girl group Aespa, who have several AI members as well as human ones, also used the technology in their latest music video. Supernova features generated scenes where the faces of band members remain still as only their mouths move.

Podcaster and super-fan Chelsea says it “triggered” a lot of people.

“K-pop is known for amazing production and editing, so having whole scenes made of AI takes away the charm,” she adds.

Chelsea also worries about artists not getting the right credit. “With AI in videos it’s harder to know if someone’s original artwork has been stolen, it’s a really touchy subject”.

Getty Images Girl group AespaGetty Images

K-pop girl group Aespa are also experimenting with AI

Arpita Adhya is a music journalist and self-titled K-pop superfan. She believes the use of AI in the industry is demonstrative of the pressure artists are under to create new content.

“Most recording artists will put out an album every two years, but K-pop groups are pushing out albums every six to eight months, because there’s so much hype around them.”

She also believes AI has been normalised in the industry, with the introduction of AI covers which have exploded on YouTube. The cover tracks are created by fans and use technology to mimic another artist’s voice.

It’s this kind of trend that Arpita would like to see regulated, something western artists are calling for too.

Just last month megastars including Billie Eilish and Nicki Minaj wrote an open letter calling for the “predatory” use of AI in the music industry to be stopped.

They called on tech firms to pledge not to develop AI music-generation tools “that undermine or replace the human artistry of songwriters and artists, or deny us fair compensation for our work”.

For Arpita, a lack of regulations means fans feel an obligation to regulate what is and isn’t OK.

“Whilst there are no clear guidelines on how much artists can and can’t use AI, we have the struggle of making boundaries ourselves, and always asking ‘what is right and wrong?’”

Thankfully she feels K-pop artists are aware of public opinion and hopes there will be change.

“The fans are the biggest part and they have a lot of influence over artists. Groups are always keen to learn and listen, and if Seventeen and Aespa realise they are hurting their fans, they will hopefully address that.”

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