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New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

ASCAP Challenge looks to the future of music with AI-powered solutions

The annual 12-week program is co-run by the NYU-based NYC Media Lab, and the ASCAP Lab and provides teams with guidance and funding.
Daniel Yee
(Daniel Yee for WSN)

In recent years, artificial intelligence has sent shockwaves to the music industry. From artificially intelligent DJs to the creation of songs that eerily resemble real ones, it has brought both excitement and fear. Embracing this disruption, the 2024 ASCAP Challenge: AI and the Business of Music seeks to harness the technology’s potential while positively impacting music creators and professionals. 

The program is a partnership between the NYC Media Lab in the Tandon School of Engineering and the ASCAP Lab. The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers — a performance rights organization that represents nearly a million songwriters, composers and music publishers — established the ASCAP Lab in 2019 as “an innovation program.” 

Since 2020, the ASCAP Challenge has guided startups and university teams in developing innovative AI-driven products. This initiative aligns with the mission of the NYCML, striving to be “at the forefront of media, digital culture and technology,” according to its director, Robert Clauser.

The challenge brings the teams together over a 12-week period. with a series of mentors that the Media Lab and ASCAP have sourced. At the end of the 12-week period, there is a demo day where the teams demonstrate what they’ve accomplished at the program.

“One of the things we require when somebody comes into the challenge is that they create something,” Clauser said. “We really want to see the process of starting with an idea and coming out with something that is tangible.”

This commitment to innovation and growth resonates with ASCAP. Brooke Eplee, Senior Vice President of Strategy and Business Development at the organization, said that the ASCAP Challenge embodies the spirit of the ASCAP Lab and was one of its first initiatives since forming in 2019.

“Each year that we’ve run the program we’ve really evolved it in its own unique direction,” Eplee said. “ASCAP is a 100-year old organization, and I think the only way to last that long is really to be flexible and to lean into change. We’re constantly thinking about how ASCAP needs to adapt to continue to serve songwriters and music publishers. With the ASCAP Lab we’re seeking to help continue to build the ASCAP for the next 100 years.”

Clauser said that the challenge has around 100 people show up to its information sessions. After narrowing applications from over 30 teams down to around five, the NYCML and the ASCAP Lab offer teams funding and mentorship.

“We fund each of the teams with a micro grant of usually somewhere around $5,000 so that they have a little bit of money,” Clauser said. “We do not take equity or any intellectual property rights, we do this so the teams have 100 percent control over everything. We just want to work with the folks and learn with them.”

He added that at least one of the teams always consists of at least one university student because they want to ensure there is “academic overlap.” In the 2023 challenge — themed around music and artificial intelligence — the student-based team was “Samplifi,” created by Xander Brewer, a graduate student in studying music technology at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.

Brewer told WSN that he applied for the program after receiving an email from the NYC Media Lab last year. As a musician with hearing loss, he wanted to create a product that used artificial intelligence to upsample — or increase the quality of — audio in hearing aids to reduce the frustration he experienced while listening to music.

After going through the 12-week program, Brewer decided to focus his idea on using machine learning to transform audio files so that the music is highlighted, instead of other noises such as static or a person coughing in the background.

“There have been a number of studies that show that hearing impaired individuals and people who have hearing aids and cochlear implants prefer what’s called spectrally simple, which just means less things going on,” Brewer said. “The fewer things that are going on in an audio signal, the easier it is for somebody with hearing loss or with hearing aids or cochlear implants to perceive what’s going on. My idea is we take this musical information, mix it back into the original signal so that the musical stuff is emphasized and everything else is, as a consequence, de-emphasized.”

The other four teams in last year’s challenge were all small companies. Overture Games offered an AI-assisted music practice tool to help beginner musicians hone their skills. Meanwhile, Sounds.Studio provided a browser-based music production platform with AI-powered features. DAACI and Infinite Album both focused on adaptive, AI-generated music, specifically tailored for video games.

Clauser told WSN that ethical considerations are factored into the decision-making process for the challenge and claimed that at least two of the weekly sessions were dedicated to discussions on AI and ethics.

Although his idea, which eventually became his graduate thesis, does not use generative AI, Brewer also acknowledged the significance of the ongoing conversations surrounding artificially generated music.

“A lot of these models are trained on datasets that people didn’t agree to be part of and it can produce things based on ideas that people did not license,” Brewer said. “These are murky ethical issues that we are going to continue to try and wrestle with and I don’t think we should let the benefits of AI prevent us from wrestling with these consequences.”

The 2024 challenge is set to launch on June 20, with the selected teams being notified at the end of May. While this year’s challenge is also centered around artificial intelligence, its focus is shifted onto the business side of the music industry — a move which Clauser claimed is “potentially more constructive and less controversial.” 

Eplee, though, said the shift for this year’s challenge was made because AI has evolved to a point where it can “clean up some of the existing pipelines for data flows in the music industry” and help creators with building a business around their craft.

Reflecting on his experience with last year’s challenge, Brewer said that his most meaningful learning experiences came with the opportunity to learn from the other, more established teams.

“I was the only university student as a part of this cohort, every other member of the cohort was a startup trying to take AI and music and productize it,” Brewer said. “They were 400 steps ahead of me, which was really valuable because I got to think about things like, ‘What would a market think about this, what’s the minimum viable product?’ And, as a consequence of just meeting weekly, I had to have updates, which lit a fire under my butt and encouraged me to stay on a schedule.”

Eplee, who joined ASCAP in part to help start the ASCAP Lab, agreed with Brewer and also said that the most rewarding aspect of the challenge is the opportunity to work with — and learn from — the participating teams.

“I love interacting with the teams. They have groundbreaking, brand new ideas and are trying to find ways to apply them and solve problems — it is such a great energy,” Eplee said. “There’s a joy that comes with helping someone without expectation for something coming back and to see teams succeed and to have helped a little bit along the way.”

Contact Krish Dev at [email protected].

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About the Contributor
Krish Dev
Krish Dev, Multimedia Editor
Krish is a first-year planning to major in Computer Science and Linguistics at CAS. In his free time, he enjoys posting photos on @krish_dev.creations, obsessing over geography, watching new films with friends, taking public transport to new places and letting Arsenal make or break his week.

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