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The Tragedy of MNQN: the AI Gone Rogue

Six years ago, Dustin Bates shared a copy of a cease and desist order that he issued against Ohio-based tech company, The Sentience Corporation, due to complications with one of its AI projects, MNON (later called ‘MNQN’). In his letter, Bates alleges that this AI project, and thus the company who created it, was guilty of “stealing and advertising the likeness of [his] voice in music works and marketing materials.”

The offending songs not only contained unauthorized use of the STARSET frontman’s voice, but were also distributed to all major streaming platforms without his knowledge, thus “intentionally violating [his] rights and the rights of [his] songwriting business.”

He goes on to explain that these actions “constitute theft, conversion, misrepresentation, and unfair competition”… sound familiar?

Generative AI is not a new problem, yet protections against deepfakes and other kinds of copyright infringement are still yet to be implemented on a meaningful scale. Some organizations have taken it upon themselves to develop their own protective measures, like The University of Chicago’s Glaze Project, which is “a research effort that develops technical tools with the explicit goal of protecting human creatives against invasive uses of generative artificial intelligence or GenAI.”

But what about musicians?

The AI Era and the music industry: a very brief overview

Many cite 2022 as the start of this ‘AI Era’ that we currently find ourselves in, but Dustin Bates was allegedly dealing with the ramifications of the technology as far back as 2018.

This isn’t surprising: in 2016, Google DeepMind released software (WaveNet) that allowed users to generate music. Two years later, DeepMind successfully used this technology to clone real voices. This software, and others like it, would lead to all sorts of deepfakes popping up on the Internet in the years to come, including the infamous song, “Heart on my Sleeve,” which was created by TikTok user ghostwriter977 and features the cloned voices of Drake and The Weeknd.

Like the unauthorized songs containing Bates’ voice, “Heart on my Sleeve” was also distributed to major streaming platforms without consent from the artists whose voices were stolen or their label, Universal Music Group. Legal actions were later taken by UMG in order to get the song removed from all platforms.

However, despite the label’s strong response to “Heart on my Sleeve,” UMG may be looking to profit off deepfakes after all.

In 2023, MixMag reported that UMG was in talks with Google regarding “licensing and expertise so they can create new deep fake songs from their deceased artists.”

Similarly, Grimes, an electronic music producer, released her own website that would empower fans to create music using her voice, offering a 50/50 royalty split on their creations.

Culture journalist Thomas Hobbs, whose work is hyperlinked above, has been reporting on this topic for a while. His work includes this excellent piece about deepfakes: “‘It’s Fan Fiction For Music’: Why Deepfake Vocals of Music Legends Are on the Rise,” which was published by Billboard in 2021.

We highly encourage you to explore Hobbs’ work in order to better understand the developing relationship between AI and the music industry.

Did Dustin Bates predict the future with MNQN?

While it’s been known that Dustin Bates’ legal problems with The Sentience Corp was a marketing tactic to launch his new solo project, it was honestly a great campaign–although, tragically, it was a bit ahead of its time.

Back in 2018, generative AI was still this lofty, foreign concept that many people had difficulties wrapping their heads around. OpenAI and ChatGPT were not yet common household names; the technology still seemed like something straight out of science fiction, not something that could cause real, measurable harm to people–especially working creatives.

Like with his other ambitious projects, Bates really went all out with MNQN: not only did he release that fake cease and desist letter, but he also fabricated a two-page response from the fictious Sentience Corporation, created a website detailing their mission and projects, participated in an interview as MNQN, and took other measures to try and keep MNQN’s true identity a secret.

Unfortunately for Bates, STARSET fans, used to his tactics, were able to pick apart the marketing campaign rather quickly on platforms like Reddit and within their dedicated Facebook groups.

Had Bates chosen to unveil his MNQN project today, or at some point earlier on in this ‘AI Era’ we are in, then he likely could’ve committed to the bit for much, much longer–or at least until he decided to take the stage ‘with’ MNQN, like he did during the Wonderbus Music and Arts Festival in 2019.

MNQN Live:

Given how brilliant Dustin Bates is, we wouldn’t be surprised if he’s been hard at work developing another high-concept marketing scheme… or perhaps, even an AI program of his own.

After all, the man was an engineering PhD candidate during his Downplay days– and his 2007 research paper has been cited by others over 100 times.

Who knows what he’s truly capable of?

Check out the debut MNQN album:

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