Indian Classical Music in a post-AI world 

Generative AI is currently just pulling the rug under the feet of musicians. Still, it is poised to snatch away the ground on which the musicians stand. At least, many musicians believe so. Whether we accept it or not, AI is here and it’s going to stay. How would it affect the landscape of music and the musicians themselves? 

As a practitioner of Indian traditional music, am I scared of AI? How will it affect my music and my life as a musician? Here are some free-flowing thoughts. 

Technology Vs. AI 

Disruptions on account of technology are not new to classical music. Our legends embraced microphones, though with a bit of hesitation. Even though our music is built for extended explorations, maestros recorded 3-4 minutes long 78 RPMs. They accepted the harmonium, a new instrument thought to be not so conducive to our music. Almost every music student uses some App for Tabla and Tanpura and performs with them. In short, technology is something we are used to. But, AI is different from just ‘technology’. 

Technology hits only ‘craft.’ AI will hit art as well as craft.

Art and craft are closely related. Every great artist is also a great craftsman. Technology does wonders when it comes to taking care of the craft. Technology hits the craftsmanship first. Technology first takes over craftsmanship in any domain. That’s how it happens, from automated manufacturing assemblies and embroidery machines to electronic tanpuras and 3D printers. This means that one can become an artist without becoming a craftsman. If you can ‘imagine’ a lovely musical melody, you can sing it entirely out of tune and later bring it back to tune in post-processing. You can also completely transform your voice. We have digital sound samples that anyone can use to create ‘art music’.  In the word’s conventional meaning, though, technology never encroached on the art domain. AI is changing that very fast. AI can also think of a melody and then sing it in tune with all the instrumentation. Shortly, AI will be able to compose gats and bandishes in a specified Raag and Taal that depict a specific mood. This is probably the only time artists will truly sympathize with the pain and insecurity of the craftsmen.

Does that mean AI is going to take us all for a ride? 

To answer this question, we first need to create a distinction between productised and non-productised music. Anything that is productized is consumed first by the AI. ‘ Productised’ music is already affected by AI, as is productized writing, graphic design, video making, and, to some extent, architecture. 

Productized Vs. Non-productized Music 

Since this term will come quite often in this writing, let me begin decoding that first. People pay for three commodities – products, solutions, and experiences. A product is made and available to buy off the shelf. We buy soaps, cars, tanpuras, and Tablas – all products in some sense. Some can be totally off the shelf, whereas others are customized (like Tanpura). Music can also be productized. A song in a movie, a jingle for a podcast or an ad film, or a lullaby we might purchase to put our child to sleep – are all products. 

The next step is a solution. A solution does not exist; it is created by an expert who talks with you, understands your needs, etc. In that sense, a pre-fab home is a solution. The architects will speak to you, understand your needs, give you drawings, modify them per your requirements, and finally manufacture it through a vendor. Here are some examples of music as a solution – a large corporation is coming up with a brand new experience center, and they want music to be designed for each of the spaces in their experience center. This kind of assignment will need ongoing discussion with the client, diving deep into their minds, sharing samples, work with a group of musicians, etc. 

When we talk about music as an experience, it comes from an innate need to be in the environment, in the physical vicinity of musicians. We have heard Pt. Venkatesh Kumar sing Rang Shuddha Kalyan so many times, yet we go to his concert again and again. We go for the experience of listening to him live and being in his presence. 

All three forms mentioned above—a product, a solution, and an experience—are productized to a certain extent. A product is fully productized, whereas a solution and an experience have more personalization, contextualization, and a human element with some element of a product (we ultimately buy a ticket for the concert, for instance). For the sake of discussion, we call all these three categories ‘productized’ music. 

What is ‘non-productized’ music? 

To understand ‘non-productized’ music, let’s take cooking as an example. There are three kinds of a cook: 

  1. Who cooks out of necessity
  2. Who cooks as a ‘practice’
  3. Who cooks commercially

Let me elaborate on all these three categories. 

  1. Cooking out of necessity: You need to eat to survive. This simple fact makes many people cook. Parents who want their children to learn music result in many children learning music. We come across many adults who were forced to take a music class by their parents or schools. Some of them do end up taking it up more seriously, while in most of the cases, as the interest on the child’s side and the persuasion from the parents’s side drops, the journey ends. The expected outcome in such cases is not monetary compensation.
  2. Cooking as a practice: When someone cooks out of sheer necessity, they do not put their body, mind and soul into it. Such cooks are generally happy with half-baked, grossly chopped or over-fried stuff. There is no fuss around food. But look at our mothers. In a way, they cook out of necessity, but in many cases, they have given their life to cooking. They will plan in advance, wake up early to prepare a delicacy, and be happy if guests suddenly show up. For them, cooking is like a practice. They note what went wrong with a recipe and try to improve it next time. They will actively learn from other cooks in or outside the family. Occasionally, they might write a cookbook or conduct a workshop and even earn some money, but that’s not what they cook for. 
  3. Cooking commercially: This needs no explanation. Those who like cooking, have the required skills and temperament and can work in commercial establishments make celebrity chefs.

The world of Indian classical music: Why do we ‘cook’? 

Why do musicians sing? This is an exciting question to answer. We have musicians who come from all three categories and even a combination of them. Let me share some examples. 

He is the the son of one of the greatest Sitar players. From the age of four, he was forced to wake up at four in the morning and undergo rigorous Riyaz. His journey started out of necessity. He started liking it and is now doing it commercially. In this one example, we have elements of all three categories. 

He ran away from his house to ‘learn’ music and receive authentic Tāleem. He did music full time and commercially, though he often compromised the commercial aspect of his music for the practice aspect. 

His father was a full-time musician. He was interested in music and very talented. He started learning at a young age. For most of his life, he worked in a bank. He taught many disciples but never took a penny as a fee. But he performed at many reputed concerts and festivals and is known as a musician par excellence. 

He played an instrument. After the partition, his family lost their patronage. The impact was so devastating that he had no instrument to play. He was forced to start a small bakery. He ran the bakery for a few years, and when got the money, he bought himself the instrument and emerged as a performing musician. 

I can keep adding to this list, but the sheer variety will boggle our minds. 

The point is (or are!)

  • Indian classical music has been propagated not by just performers but by practitioners. For example, Pt. Ulhas Kashalkar’s Guru, Pt. Gajananbuva Joshi was a hardcore practitioner. The same is the case with Pt. Venkatesh Kumar, Smt. Ashwini Bhide Deshpande, Dr. Pournima Dhumale, late Pt. Rajan Mishra and many other ace performers. Many of today’s great performers were created by practitioners of yesteryears who were not necessarilly recognised as great performers. A few of the many practitioners emerged as great performers. 
  • ‘Full-time musicians’ is a comparatively new breed: Even among the ‘full-time’ musicians, many of them earn a majority of their income from teaching, which is a form of propagating practice. We have very few ‘celebrity’ performers who are full-time musicians in true sense. In their case, most of the people appreciating their music are not always connoisseurs. More often than not, they are just fans who like to click selfies with them or attending their concerts and flaunt them on social media. 

Where is it going? 

AI will hit productised music very hard: Jingles for commercials, background scores, music for lobbies and receptions, healing tracks… it’s all gone into the AI’s mouth. AI might be able to generate Raag based tunes etc. which were earlier commissioned to human musicians. But as I said earlier, it’s really a small piece and will not have much of an impact. In this context, folk artists (I don’t like the term but using it as it is well recognised) will suffer much more badly than classical musicians simply because folk music is more productised than classical. 

From products to solutions to experiences: Since product space is the lowest hanging fruit for the AI, it will occupy that very fast. To be honest, Indian classical music is already at the stage of ‘experience’. No one comes to a concert to listen to a particular song or Bandish. People come for the total experience it offers. That being said, the changing systems of patronage and support are forcing artists to productise their music. This is validated by the increasing number of ‘productions’ that classical musicians are coming up with. They are slowly moving away from abstraction and coming towards more productised version. Food for thought – If musicians move towards productised music now and are forced by AI over next 10 years to move towards more experiential and abstract music, will they be able to do so? Will we still remember the practice? I think this is the biggest threat AI poses to classical music. 

We will have more enthusiasts: Technology always leads to increased number of enthusiasts. Take camera as an example. With the rise of digital cameras, the number of  photography enthusiasts who started calling themselves ‘photographers’ shot up. As cellphones got better cameras, everybody has become a great photographer. Though the number of enthusiasts has increased, we should also accept the fact that most of them are casual practitioners. They won’t necessarily invest in deepening their practice.  As a result, that particular art becomes a flatland. Work of a master photographer and an enthusiast might look similar to laymen and the understanding of depth goes for a toss. What we get is a top view of a crowded marketplace where experts and novices struggle or benefit equally, both situations leading to bitter frustration for the experts. 

Audiences will connect with music on a deeper level: Though a very small percentage of the total majority, we will have a very small portion of audience that will get tired and bored of the AI non-sense. Practising and giving life to the practice of an art form will be valued even more. Like craftsmen suddenly got attention from patrons and government, artists will be in somewhat similar position. Which also means they will have many more temptations to productise their art and make it a commodity. 

Conclusion 

AI will force us to embrace the ‘practising’ aspect of music or any art for that matter. This could prove to be a blessing in disguise for Indian classical music which is truly a ‘practising’ art form. That being said, full-time practitioners will have to invest their efforts in creating ‘experience’ rather than just products. 


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One response to “Indian Classical Music in a post-AI world ”

  1. Santosh Avatar
    Santosh

    Excellent article mandar.. liked the clarity with which you have dissected the subject and have been quite spot on.

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