MBW Views is a series of exclusive op/eds from eminent music industry people… with something to say. The following comes from MBW founder Tim Ingham, and first appeared as the leader in the latest issue of MBW’s premium quarterly sister publication, Music Business UK, which is out now.
What’s your most embarrassing ever moment in the music industry?
For me, this probably has to be up there: It’s Midem 2011 or 2012, and my official enlistment into this business is still relatively fresh. I’m invited for lunch on La Croisette by Martin Mills. (If you don’t know who Martin is, Google him; suffice to say, he’s a Someone. Definitely a Someone that a then-unseasoned music biz journalist would do well to impress.)
I sit down alfresco with Martin in Cannes.
The sun’s peeping out, despite it being early in the year, and we delve into music biz topics of various shades of sophistication.
I’ve done my homework, the conversational ping-pong is hitting a decent pace, and I don’t disgrace myself in front of an individual that I’ve been pre-warned is “one of the music industry’s ‘thinkers’”.
Then, disaster: As we’re chit-chatting, gazing out over the Med, a waiter saunters towards us. He asks, accent every bit as thick as I’m about to feel: “Vous avez choisi?”
Oh, mate. Martin responds for what seems like 15 minutes in flawless French (complete with impressive Gallic intonation). I detect that he’s ordering sides, perhaps probing the provenance of ingredients; he even raises a polite titter from our server, who then turns his attention to me. Moi. An individual known in 2023 TV ad-land as “Gravalax bloke”.
I mutter “boeuf” and bluster the rest – nodding and “oui”-ing my way through the ordeal. But the waiter knows; Martin knows: they are in the presence of a uni-lingual nincompoop.
This sweaty-palmed experience came back to me recently when I read some knock-out news from HYBE Corporation, the Korean music company behind BTS.
This was, to my mind, the most consequential music x tech story for some time: On May 15, Fast Company reported that, using AI technology (that old thing), HYBE had convincingly manipulated the vocals of an artist called Midnatt (aka Lee Hyun), for a track, Masquerade, on which Lee had sung in Korean. What did HYBE do to Lee’s vocals? ‘Translated’ them, so that they sounded like Lee’s natural voice – but in six different languages.
Hey presto, as the Italians probably say: Six different versions of Masquerade were released, on day one, each in the language of its target audience: Korean, English, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese. All of them sounded like Lee, thanks to the wizardry of an AI voice-replication platform, Supertone, which HYBE acquired for $32 million in 2022.
Media coverage of HYBE and Lee’s innovation got a little distracted by the fact that Midnatt is a ‘virtual artist’. Instead, the headlines should have focused on what Supertone’s revolutionary tech might mean for the record business’s future.
“[My] goal has always been to reach a global audience,” Lee told Fast Company. “Rising above language barriers would be the first step in this journey.” Smart cookie.
So, two things: (i) If I’m an ambitious young artist in 2023, I’m signing with a record company that offers me both global reach, plus technological innovation that gives me an edge on the competition. So, mark it in your jotters, we should all be keeping a close eye on HYBE and how it fares in its quest to rival major labels on a worldwide basis; (ii) I keep hearing about how the rise of pop music in various languages, from various parts of the world, is a growing threat to the international dominance of ‘Anglo American’ hits. Question: Why does this ‘Anglo’ music, be it by UK or US artists, have to be delivered in only one language? And if it’s not, doesn’t that somewhat change the game?
In a globalised music market, even a linguistic numpty like me can seemingly now lean on technology to overcome this historical hurdle. In the best possible way, the world just got smaller.
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