Should there even be a new Beatles song? We ask the experts
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Overnight, The Beatles dropped their first new music in almost 30 years, Now and Then. It’s billed as their final song and is released more than 20 years after the death of George Harrison, and more than 40 since the death of John Lennon.
The song features Lennon’s vocals from a 1978 demo tape, guitar recorded by Harrison in 1996, and new contributions of bass, guitar and drums from surviving Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr.
The Beatles “final song” was released on Friday morning.Credit: Universal Music
It’s a project that sat on the shelf for almost 30 years; an attempt was made to record the songs in the 1996 sessions that produced Real Love and Free As a Bird, but the band was unable to isolate the piano and vocal parts in Lennon’s demos. The evolution of AI technology, hastened by Peter Jackson’s The Beatles: Get Back documentary in 2021, finally made it possible last year.
Talking to BBC Radio 1 on Friday morning (AEDT), McCartney said the Beatles were always drawn to technology that was a little offbeat: “Like the first time we heard a tape go backwards by mistake we went, ‘Oh, what’s that?’ and we wanted to put that on our record whereas other people would just go, ‘Oh come on get the tape on the right way and let’s get on with it’. But we always grabbed little things like that.”
But is there appetite for a new Beatles song in 2023? And does the release of a song made using AI raise ethical questions? We asked some music experts.
Musician Darren Middleton
Darren Middleton has performed in tributes to Let It Be and Abbey Road.
Darren Middleton of Powderfinger and Australian Rock Collective, who have performed Let It Be and Abbey Road tribute shows, is excited about Now and Then. “I think it’s incredible that the technology exists to let fans get to hear John, George, Paul and Ringo again on the same track,” he says. “We have the actual voice of John, the guitar of George – that is what makes it interesting and incredibly appealing.”
Songwriting and technology are both constantly evolving, Middleton says. “These things are all tools,” he says. “At the end of the day, we are always trying to find connection in life through song and songwriting and if the tech helps, then OK.”
Academic Jadey O’Regan
Dr Jadey O’Regan is an academic at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.
The Beatles often made use of new technology, says Dr Jadey O’Regan, a lecturer in contemporary music practice at Sydney Conservatorium of Music and the co-author of Hooks in Popular Music.
She points specifically to the reverse guitars on Taxman and the way Lennon’s vocals were fed through the Leslie speaker cabinet (usually used for an organ) on Tomorrow Never Knows. “The Beatles are really inspired by the technology of the studio; they used it like an instrument,” she says. “This is an extension of that.”
But the release of a new Beatles song comes at a time when local musicians are finding it especially difficult to cut through, and very few are making it onto the charts.
O’Regan says: “There’s a tension between younger, newer artists trying to carve out space for their own original music when these giants in the canon of rock are still making music and still taking up that space.”
Still, O’Regan notes that not everyone is across the Beatles’ substantial catalogue, and Now and Then and the Get Back documentary offer an entry point for younger audiences.
She has seen that firsthand in her work. “I can’t use the Beatles as a touchstone as much as I could maybe 10 years ago,” she says. “They’re now discovering the Beatles in a way they didn’t growing up.”
Critic Jane Gazzo
Jane Gazzo is concerned about the impact of AI on music.
The music fan in award-winning journalist, presenter and broadcaster Jane Gazzo thinks a new Beatles song is fantastic. “It could be said, ‘John’s raised from the dead! George is back from the dead!’” she says with a smile. “In some ways, it’s really exciting. But I do worry AI will take over.” She likens the new song to the holograms of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. “There’s part of you that knows that it’s not real, but you’re carried away,” she says.
The use of AI raises a number of ethical questions for her: “How much AI is involved? At what point does it stop being the Beatles and does it become something completely manufactured? Should the Beatles be left alone for us to enjoy the back catalogue? Is this something we should embrace?”
Now and Then’s release is happening when the music market is saturated and Spotify is changing the way it pays artists, with the introduction of a minimum number of streams before a song starts generating royalties. Gazzo sees that in this landscape people are turning to nostalgic music for comfort: “People are looking for something that’s nostalgic, that’s wholesome, that brings a smile to your face.”
Industry stalwart Alli Galloway
Alli Galloway has been working in the music industry for almost 20 years.
Alli Galloway, who has been working in the music industry for almost 20 years, most recently as a marketing executive at Warner Music and now as chief marketing officer at music credits database Jaxsta, thinks the song is “a really wonderful thing for Beatles fans”.
Like Middleton, Galloway sees the use of AI in the song as part of the “natural progression” of music technology. “There’s a world of difference here between what the Beatles are doing with John’s demo vocals versus other examples of music AI where the music is completely created, manipulated by AI. I don’t necessarily agree with that.”
She thinks there’s potential for this technology to add to the catalogues of more than just the Beatles. “That’s really exciting from the perspective of music fans,” Galloway says. “As a 90s R&B fan, wouldn’t it be amazing to hear another TLC song?”
Academic Alan Hui
Dr Alan Hui is the co-author of a recent report into AI and the creative industries in Australia.
“It will be interesting to see what fans, musicians and creators will do [with AI],” says Dr Alan Hui, director of policy at think tank A New Approach and co-author of a new report into AI’s impact on the arts and cultural industries.
He points to the Grimes AI, Elf.Tech, as one example of musicians using the technology. “There are already a handful of examples of generative AI trained to mimic or ‘recreate’ the sounds of particular singers,” he says. “At least one Australian musician has used the Grimes AI to make music.”
Hui thinks that Now and Then raises fascinating questions about the future of songwriting, including: “How does using generative AI affect our incentives to create? How does it affect our connection with arts and culture, and with each other?
“It’s still early days for AI in music. To use a music metaphor, we’ve probably only heard the debut single, but we’ll know a lot more when the album drops.”
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