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Universal Music Group signs deal with AI-music startup Endel

Yes, THAT Universal Music Group. The major label whose senior executives have spent much of 2023 thus far delivering public warnings about generative AI’s potential to erode human artistry and/or violate copyright.

But wait. That’s an oversimplification of UMG’s stance on AI music. Those executives have also made it clear that they see potential benefits in this technology too.

They just want proper deals with the companies developing it, and through those deals, the ability to steer the sector in what UMG believes is a music and artist-respecting direction.

“We’re open for business with businesses which are legitimate, which are supportive, and [with] which we can create a partnership for growth,” is how chairman and CEO Sir Lucian Grainge put it in April.

With that in mind, today’s announcement of a deal between UMG and Endel, one of the most prominent AI music startups, is big news.

The two companies are describing it as a “strategic relationship to enable artists and labels to create soundscapes for daily activities like sleep, relaxation, and focus by harnessing the power of AI”.

These soundscapes will use both new music and older catalogue tracks, with the promise that artists will be fully involved in the process.

Endel has built a musical AI capable of generating this kind of ‘functional’ music, but the company has also been focusing for some time on partnering with artists, feeding their music into its system to create the seeds for its mood-music soundscapes.

The company has worked with musicians including Grimes, James Blake and Richie ‘Plastikman’ Hawtin in the past. Music Ally interviewed Hawtin and Endel CEO Oleg Stavitsky in April 2021 about the latter collaboration, to understand how it worked.

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Since then, Endel has raised a $15m funding round and teamed up with Amazon – one of the startup’s earliest investors – to launch an eight-hour ‘Sleep Science’ playlist on its Amazon Music streaming service.

We interviewed Stavitsky again at the time of that deal and asked him about the recent comments by UMG boss Grainge about AI music and its potential harms.

“The future I’m imagining – and hopefully that Lucian Grainge and the other music labels are going to see – is that this is a big opportunity for them,” he said. “Generative AI has evolved to a point where it can process pre-existing stems and export them as functional soundscapes.”

“So you might imagine that a new Taylor Swift album is coming out, and it exists in the form of an album, and you listen to it in the form of an album. But then there is a companion functional soundscape of it, almost released as a b-side,” continued Stavitsky.

“You can sleep to this album, work to it, focus… It extends the universe of the album, and by extension the music universe of that artist.”

Stavitsky noted that while “there’s no framework for licensing AI music at this point” his company was “in active conversation with all the big three music labels”, aided by the fact that some of the artists it had worked with were signed to their subsidiaries. Blake, for example, is on UMG’s Republic Records.

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Now it has a full deal with UMG, with the first set of soundscapes produced under it due to be announced in the coming months. And yes, that means we don’t know yet if Stavitsky’s earlier pitch was enough to win over Taylor Swift as well as the label she works with.

“At UMG, we believe in the incredible potential of ethical AI as a tool to support and enhance the creativity of our artists, labels and songwriters, something that Endel has harnessed with impressive ingenuity and scientific innovation,” said UMG’s EVP and chief digital officer Michael Nash in a statement today.

“We are excited to work together and utilise their patented AI technology to create new music soundscapes – anchored in our artist-centric philosophy – that are designed to enhance audience wellness, powered by AI that respects artists’ rights in its development.”

In his own statement today, Stavitsky described Endel as acting “more as a collaborator than a tool, giving artists control and freedom while satisfying a real market need for more music that can support their wellbeing”.

We expect there to be a knock-on effect from today’s deal, in terms of further partnerships between music rightsholders and AI music startups, including Endel but also its peers.

AI music may be hot news in 2023, but Music Ally has been writing about it since 2014! You can find our most recent primer on the sector and its key startups here; our analysis of its main talking points in 2022 here; and our archive of AI music news stories here.