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It took The Infamists about two weeks to scrub the impersonators from the web. Courtesy The Infamists/Bandcamp

I don’t know how much content you’ve consumed about the growing threat of artificial intelligence, but I am of the mind that we, as a species, are pretty much screwed. What can legislation do to halt a machine’s drive to achieve self-awareness? What can stop the ambitions of programmers and engineers who don’t care that a sentient computer’s goals and needs might be at direct odds with human survival? Probably nothing, and if that’s the case, then I’d prefer to just skip to the part of human history when the Terminators show up, because right now, it seems like AI is still being used for decidedly human, definitely scammy pursuits. Iron Man might be planning his vengeance, but until that comes, Meatbag Man is here to use the robots to rip off his fellow homo sapiens.

Many of the words I’ve read about AI portray the tech as something that is dangerous because it can easily fool a human mind that doesn’t pay a ton of attention to people’s fingers and titillate the imagination of anyone who does. That an AI might replicate a person’s voice or likeness is frightening on its own, but what makes that tech actually offensive is that rather than a machine initiating these kinds of ruses for some unknown, nefarious end, it’s still actually just some scuzzy human grifter pulling the proverbial strings to make a buck.

As a case in point, Dallas rock ’n’ rollers The Infamists recently discovered that new music attributed to them, that they did not record, that was decidedly non-Infamist-sounding, debuted on Spotify under the band’s own name.

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Perusing The Infamists’ social media, I got the impression that the baloney songs sounded terrible. In a phone interview, Infamists bassist Spencer Douglas Wharton told me how a couple weeks ago, when he opened his Facebook account, he was treated to a passel of messages and comments from his band’s fans, most of whom were confused about some new music they had allegedly released.

“People we know hit us up and were like, ‘Did you fire some members? That didn’t sound like [frontman] Riley [Rogers] singing. And the recording itself was bad.’ I would be ashamed if my band sounded that way. People were concerned with the drop in song quality. It was like a half-job done on somebody’s laptop in an apartment.”

The fake album, which Wharton described as unmastered, sloppily mixed, rife with autotune, and with lyrics that sounded like they were written by Chat GPT, was called Death Note. What happened is akin to how a cuckoo lays its eggs in another bird’s nest to be reared by the unwitting parents. In this case, rather than an interloping cuckoo chick stealing worms from a baby robin’s mouth or whatever, it’s a shady distribution company stealing plays and royalties from a small, independent band. Wharton declined to disclose the amount of monthly revenue The Infamists earn from streaming royalties, but he estimated they probably get 500 streams per week. Aside from whatever that money is, that level of streaming is important because the streamed songs put the band in the service’s algorithm, thereby exposing it to more listeners. This traction is presumably what put the band on the scammy distro company’s radar.

Then, using an existing artist ID, the distro company puts up some hastily crafted tunes under the existing artist’s name, hoping to siphon streams and revenue from that band’s listeners. Wharton was unsure as to how these rogue distro companies get ahold of the artist IDs, though not for lack of asking. Unfortunately, while his and his bandmates’ investigation provided some answers, it ended up causing a different issue.

“First, we started looking for the copyright,” Wharton said. “They couldn’t use our name for the copyright, so that was a dead end. Then we had to talk to support, told them, ‘Hey, this isn’t us. Can you take this off?’ ”

Spotify complied. After a fashion. The company separated Death Note from The Infamists’ profile, making the album its own profile. “People would search for us, and that would go to the [imposter] account because it was newer.”

This matters. “For a local band with no money behind it, 500 streams a week adds up. If you do what they did to us to, say, 10 or 12 bands, you can make money from it. … We did online digging, and we found other bands across the world — one was from Switzerland, another from Ghana — that this happened to.”

These other bands identified the company, a distribution racket in Spain. “I don’t want to name names because I don’t want to start any [legal wrangling], but we threatened legal action, consulted four or five different lawyers. Spotify doesn’t really look at the metadata to see if a song is AI generated. They don’t vet it. … Once we figured out who it was, it was easy to take it down. But bands who aren’t famous will face this. Realistically, it would be hard to afford a lawyer. And the company was in Spain, so I don’t even know how to go about legal action.”

Getting Death Note removed from Amazon, Apple Music, Deezer, Spotify, Tidal, YouTube, and all the rest took about two weeks, Wharton said, in part because the Barcelona-based distribution company at first denied any culpability until The Infamists threatened legal action.

“It was a big headache for two weeks,” Wharton said. “Just sitting at home fuming about fighting the robots. … AI is not a thing that is legislated and regulated, and it hurts small artists the most. This is never gonna happen to Taylor Swift or the [Rolling] Stones or Beyonce. It’ll just happen to artists who are generating just enough income. On scale, it’s not hard to steal money. That band in Ghana has over a million followers, and they don’t even have the resources for a lawyer.”

Though the whole episode didn’t cost the band much revenue — Spotify’s payouts are laughably meager when you aren’t Beyonce or the Stones — Wharton and his bandmates learned an ominous lesson. At the end of a Facebook post detailing their ordeal, they wrote this: “Having another artist searchable on the internet with our band name not only hijacks our identity/royalties on streaming platforms, but it also confuses our audience into thinking we have new music out, and it misinforms potential new fans or talent buyers that might discover us because AI-generated music SUCKS, and we do not want anyone discouraged from becoming an active fan by thinking it was made by us. We have been dealing with the fallout from this scam for two weeks. Sorry that we had to be the ones to pull the fire alarm, but artificial intelligence is most likely going to be the most challenging thing that creatives face in 2024. Not venue merch cuts and not pay-to-play ticket scams — it’s AI.”

I guess the only comfort here is that for now, because there are humans still responding to customer complaints at these companies, we can still sort of beat the machine. But if we are going to have to contend with the escalation of electronic cunning, I’d prefer that the machines just wipe us out rather than be used by humans trying to pick our pockets.

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