One of the newest additions to the group of artists working with Warner Music Group — taking a spot alongside names like Ed Sheeran, Madonna, Coldplay and Camilla Cabello — is a bundle of code. It’s under contract to release 20 albums this year.
The creator of the algorithm is sound startup Endel, which uses artificial intelligence to make personalized audio tracks aimed at boosting people’s mood or productivity. Endel launched a little over a year ago in Europe, then became one of the up-and-coming companies chosen for Techstars Music’s startup accelerator program in 2018. Two months ago, Warner’s newly created Arts Music division signed Endel’s technology to the world’s first-ever record label contract with an algorithm, covering distribution and publishing. The record company has released five of the 20 albums so far, as a collection of “sleep soundscapes” (Clear Night, Rainy Night, Cloudy Afternoon, Cloudy Night and Foggy Morning) designed to reduce anxiety; they’re all available for listening on services like Apple Music and Spotify.
As a company, Endel — which counts Amazon’s Alexa Fund, Japanese conglomerate Avex Inc and Major Lazer’s Jillionaire among its investors — actually focuses on creating tailor-made “custom sound frequencies” based on personal user inputs such as time of day and location, as well as biometric details such as heart rate. “We want to understand the context of your day and rearrange the whole environment around you,” Oleg Stavitsky, co-founder and CEO of Endel, tells Rolling Stone. Endel’s core algorithm takes thousands of sounds and assembles them into different templates based on the user inputs. The company launched a feature within Amazon’s Alexa Skills Store this week that allows users to receive custom sounds through Alexa-enabled devices, and its ultimate ambitions are even bigger: Stavitsky says he envisions an interconnected hardware-software ecosystem through which Endel can keep tabs on the rhythm of users’ daily lives via metrics like their driving patterns and the number of events on their calendar, then automatically creates a custom soundscape at the end of the day that helps them best unwind.
The record deal is just a nice side gig. “Warner approached us and we were hesitant at first because it counters what we’re doing here,” Endel’s co-founder and sound designer Dmitry Evgrafov tells Rolling Stone. “Our whole idea is making soundscapes that are real-time and adaptive. But they were like, ‘Yeah, but can you still make albums?’ So we did it as an experiment. When a label like Warner approaches you, you have to say ‘Why not.'” The other 15 records on the contract are themed around focus, relaxation and “on-the-go” modes and will roll out over the course of the year. All 20 albums will come out of Endel’s core algorithm, so they were technically, as Evgrafov says, “all made just by pressing one button.”
In a press release earlier this year, Warner’s Arts Music president Kevin Gore said he first learned of Endel through Techstars Music, and was immediately interested in having the team work on something for Warner. “Their innovative compositions provide unique listening experiences that will be introduced to a larger audience through the extensive reach of the Arts Music division’s marketing and distribution resources,” Gore said.
That an algorithm served as the “artist” on the tracks presented some unique challenges for both Warner and the Endel team. “We had to hire a copyright lawyer to answer all these questions they were asking, like, ‘Who’s going to collect the mechanical royalties for you’ and ‘Whose names do we put on the copyright,'” Stavitsky recalls. “We are a collective of designers and sound engineers. We didn’t know these terms! We ended up putting in all the names of the software engineers as the songwriters.”
As AI technology grows more sophisticated — companies from IBM to Sony have debuted algorithm-based songwriting or music-making projects in the last few years — its presence in the music industry is increasingly a topic of intrigue, and, in some cases, worry. But Stavitsky wants to reassure musicians that his company won’t take their jobs. “We don’t see ourselves as competing with artists, or a replacement,” he says. “It’s flattering that Warner wanted to release our work as albums — but most of our sounds are not designed to be consciously listened to. They’re supposed to help you by blending with the background.”
Update, March 25th: Press materials incorrectly referred to the deal as a record “signing,” but the deal actually covers distribution and publishing, without the recording-artist aspect of a traditional record contract. This article has been updated to clarify the details of the deal.