In 2019, Herndon released PROTO, a collaboration with an AI created by Herndon and her regular group of collaborators, including her partner Mat Dryhurst. They called it Spawn and they saw it as an “AI child that we were training with farm-to-table data,” Herndon says. “We were thinking, ‘What would we want to feed our baby?’” Herndon and her crew then started using the verb spawning “to describe the ability to generate media based on a training set.” Now Spawning is an organization focused on creating a “consent layer” for training data. It’s behind, which seductively lets you search billions of images to see if your data has been used in AI art models. 

“There’s this idea that ‘all open-source everything’ is good,” Herndon says. “That’s more complicated when you can create infinite generative work in someone else’s likeness. We have to make sure that there’s not an insane power imbalance where whoever has the the strongest computer can dominate everything.” 

From her experiences communicating and collaborating with AI companies like Stability and LAION, Herndon has come away optimistic. “It’s often pitted as if it’s us versus”—she whispers—“these evil companies.” But, Herndon believes, “they want this problem to be solved. They want to have consensual training sets. It’s just a very difficult thing when there’s no way to opt in or out. That’s why we’re focusing on tools for artists to be able to consensually participate in this ecosystem.” 

For Herndon, Holly+ is a great way to “hammer home how personal it can be” to have yourself used in a training set. “The only IP that I really feel comfortable playing around with to that degree is my own.”

It’s interesting to contrast the DIY AI Holly+ with something like FN Meka, a virtual musician created by the major label Capitol Music Group and billed as an AI rapper. At its height, according to the BBC, FN Meka garnered “more than 500,000 monthly Spotify subscribers and more than 1 billion views on its TikTok account.” 

As FN Meka became more prominent, a backlash grew. The group Industry Blackout, which pushes for reforms in the music industry, wrote an open letter calling FN Meka an “amalgamation of gross stereotypes, appropriative mannerisms that derive from Black artists, complete with slurs infused in lyrics.” They added, “While we applaud innovation that connects listeners to music and enhances the experience,” the FN Meka project was “a direct insult to the Black community and our culture.” 

This summer Capitol canceled FN Meka and wrote a statement offering its “deepest apologies to the Black community for our insensitivity.” In an op-ed for Variety, Industry Blackout made it clear that the FN Meka debacle, while strange, wasn’t actually anything new: “At some point, every person who works in the music industry has to grapple with the fact that it’s not-all-that-distant past is rooted in racism and financial exploitation.” 

Which underlines Herndon’s point. It’s artists, not companies, that should be dictating the future use of AI in music. But as much as Herndon hopes Holly+ encourages musicians to learn how to best maneuver through the coming future, she ultimately sees it as an ambitious creative project. “I love digital processing. I love vocal processing,” she says. “And for me, it’s a total dream come true to have this, like, weird disembodied voice that I can have do insane vocal gymnastics that I would never be able to do.”

Or that someone else can utilize it, in whatever way they choose—with her blessing, of course. It’s all so mind-blowing to Herndon. “Someone can, like, literally be you,” she says. “If you want them to be.”

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