Surf music has been infiltrated by artificial intelligence, and it's probably going to get worse.

Shitty AI generated image using the prompt "an electric guitar is smashed by a computer comic styling"

I have a compulsion to check for new surf music on bandcamp using their tag system. It's how I find a lion's share of what I play and review on my show and website, and I monitor it closely enough that I sometimes have bands send me promo codes only to find that I've already bought their music before they got the chance.

In April I found a record by God of Surf. It's a presumptuous name, but I have to admit the music did feel ambitious and interesting.

I bought it. Days later they released another, then soon after another. I became curious, though not necessarily skeptical. Given the title of this post, you already know what's up, but this wasn't completely outside the realm of what I've seen before. Sometimes bands have albums saved up and release them close to each other. Sometimes they're just building out a bandcamp profile with their previous releases and not listing dates accurately (The Supertones recently did this). Some bands are very prolific; Amphibian Man had a remarkable streak of a new release every two months or so, and they similarly didn't provide much contextual info with the release. I could tell God of Surf were using AI generated art, but I've already noticed plenty of legitimate surf artists doing this.

So I messaged them. Who are you? Is this the work of one person, or a band? Are these saved up releases?

I got a response from someone claiming to be their manager. This person is at the heart of this entire article, I'm extremely frustrated with them, but I don't like internet naming and shaming, so I'm going to leave the name out of it and call them The Manager. The Manager said that it is indeed a band that's just very active and has a lot of ideas saved up. I asked if they had been in any previous bands, he said no.

This was when I felt like something wasn't right. First of all, while there are some surf bands with managers, they're usually the ones you already know about. More importantly, I bet those managers would actually supply you with useful information when asked. I would expect that those managers would, I don't know, at least prop up some basic social media for these groups. So now I was skeptical.

AI was an immediate thought, but I wasn't convinced. First of all, I'd heard about ChatGPT writing lyrics, I'd heard voice replacement songs, but I really had no idea how capable artificial intelligence was at making songs from scratch. Listening to God of Surf, I heard guitar tones I'd never heard before, but isn't that fun? If somebody could make those sounds through some weird combination of gear, they should! I heard a few drumming inconsistencies, but is that a sign of a flawed algorithm or fallible humanity? Later, friends on facebook mentioned that the music sounded soulless, but unfortunately I have to disagree. There was interesting instrumentation, clever hooks, dramatic touches that genuinely worked on me. The thing I hate most about all of this is that I like the music. And to be clear, if this was purely synthetic music masquerading as surf that was still composed, arranged, ultimately created by a human, I'd be open to that.

However, there was no smoking gun musically. The biggest potential giveaway was drums that sounded kinda low-bitrate, and a vocal song that sounded a little robotic and with generic lyrics that really felt ChatGPT. Enough that I was pretty sour on this band, but not ready to dismiss the possibility of this being human-made.

But there were other indicators outside the music. More bands popped up. The Beach Bunnies released three albums in a week. Faceless group claiming to be from California.

A group called Space Surf.

Later a group called Surf Pirates.

These groups had two especially suspicious things in common beyond their music and AI generated art. The Manager was posting about each of them to surf music groups on facebook, and each of them would eventually be posted under the roster of a new label called .

There was another thing that popped up that I found suspicious. A compilation of Soviet "garage rock" with the description "My father was recording those bands illegally in his studio. Now i remaster and publish those rarities. Rock n Roll is freedom!"

Again, the music is a lot of fun. Lo-fi and ragged, in a way that, again, I didn't think AI could pull off. But there were were a number of red flags here -- not just the one with a hammer and sickle on it. None of these bands were remotely googleable, which I suppose could be explained away by these being illegal recordings. But they're also very homogeneous in sound, which is generally lo-fi instrumental surf punk, and if you've heard Soviet rock & roll (check out the compilations), this really doesn't fit in with them. And most crucially, this would be a GIGANTIC find if it were real, and we don't even get so much as a picture of a record? No liner notes?

Well a volume two and three come out that were even looser with the ruse, including .

Predictably I eventually saw The Manager posting about that on facebook too.

And I should add that The Manager's online presence added both fuel and water to the fire. There were plenty more releases that weren't surf. A lot of downtempo electronica, ambient, chillout, some psych etc. This guy was churning out more music than most people have time to take in. Surf was clearly just a dabble. On the other hand, his personal website clearly shows him to be a creative person, a musician even (though not with a history of surf that I could find). And an amateur filmmaker. Does that mean anything? Not in a concrete way, but it does make you wonder if he really is just a busy dude. I'll add that I made no further contact with The Manager after that initial email. I suppose I could just ask him point-blank. Instead I wrote a few thousand words.

There was one big thing missing: is this something AI can actually do? At a level where a random guy could make it? When I first looked into this I found a tool that , and while it did deliver a surf instrumental as requested, it was crude, clumsy, and ultimately garbage. It sounded like if you described what a surf song sounded like to a robot. The songs we were investigating here could have qualitative feelings attached to them, moments of suspense and mystery, and demonstrated interesting touches like balkan-influenced rhythms. Sometimes it felt a little too filled with these riffs, with not enough structure to arch over the full song, but these are complaints I could certainly levy at a human band.

Then I found , an AI music platform for whatever reason backed by rappers and Common. I gave it a basic prompt of "modern-sounding surf instrumental" and it spat out two 30 second clips that felt like all I needed to hear. Convincing, punchy, surf music. It sounded like God of Surf.

I think that's it right there. If The Manager isn't using this specific tool, which I have a hunch he is, it's something similar (for instance gave pretty good results).

What does all this mean?

Nobody really knows, but there are certainly a lot of concerns that pop up immediately. But before that, I want to address one question that a lot of people are asking.

"Why Surf?"

I mean, we all know that this genre sits and thrives at the far edge of the music world. We've made memes such as "Tens of dollars can be made in surf music". The answer is, we're the low-hanging fruit. Without vocals there's less to give away AI origins. This is a genre that doesn't demand much from its fans to like it, and it's probably for similar reasons that he's also doing certain types of electronic music. Those tens of dollars don't feel like chump change when you spent seconds of work generating the result, and your monetary expenditures weren't studio gear, instruments, gas money, album art etc. but just a subscription. I can see by how many bandcamp users have purchased God of Surf records that he's already easily made that back.

And I want to be clear, this isn't just surf. A friend pointed out that had a number of people fooled as a lost archival recording. That one did have vocals. And they're only going to get more frequent and more sophisticated. I'm writing about surf because that's my microcosm.

"Why should I care?"

For many of you, this question might make you scream, but I guarantee that some will shrug this whole thing off.

  • "If I like it, I like it."
  • "I'm going to keep playing my music."
  • "They can't do live shows."

These are legitimate viewpoints. If you're playing surf, it's likely because you feel like you need to play surf. There's always a better guitarist out there, a better band, and you know this will never be a career, might not even break even on it. The score remains the same. You do it because you like it. I think that purity of purpose is baked into the music, it's part of what I love about it. I don't want you to give a shit about AI! I want you to keep doing your thing!

Just put yourself in the listener's shoes. Listening to music was simple: hear music, like music, consider buying music. It's now: hear music, like music, scrutinize music to determine humanity, consider buying music. It SUCKS to being a Turing test subject when you just want to hear new music. And you might think "Is that new step necessary? Does it actually matter if a human made it? I just like what my ears like." But then consider the purchasing step. Is it worth buying music made by a machine? Those God of Surf albums are (somewhat mercifully) priced at 7 Euro each. Do I really want to pay The Manager that just for writing a prompt? Wouldn't I rather that money go to a person that put the effort into creating and recording a song?

Consider this: this is only the first instance I've seen. There will be more. It's easy, it's low-barrier. It may well be a flood. Real surf bands will be fighting to be noticed, and fighting for listener dollars amidst a sea of impostors instead of other surf bands.

Most listeners have a solution. It's kind of the old way, really. Don't be the first person to hear a band. Wait to hear about them from The Continental, Pipeline Magazine, Fiberglass Jungle, Paradise Cove, or if you're really desperate, Storm Surge of Reverb.

But I don't have a solution. Of the people that saw me talking about this, the ones that seemed especially doomy were Sean of Double Crown/The Continental, and Dorthy of the Paradise Cove radio show. They're other people listening to the new stuff, reviewing it, and putting it on their radio shows and zines for others to enjoy. I like being one of those people. I love finding new music, it's not a thing that I make myself do, it's what I find myself doing. But I am not interested in artificial music, and I'm especially not interested in determining what is artificial music. And there's going to be a lot more of it, and it's going to get harder to tell. I'm going to burn out with my music discovery. And I think the rest of us will too.

And it's true that they can never take away live shows. That's a genuine positive. But I love records. For one, they're a lot easier for me to hear considering most surf bands don't play in New Orleans. But I also love a controlled, single product that everybody hears. I love the sounds a studio can make. I don't want to shrug off recorded music and cling to live music.

One thing that I've seen mentioned with all forms of creative AI is that this is mostly leveled at the stock asset industry. Why pay $60 for a generic image of a businessman when you can just have AI generate a royalty-free one that does the job? Sync licensing is one of the better ways for a musician to make money, and surf musicians have done OK in this category thanks to things like Spongebob Squarepants and, unexpectedly recently Stranger Things. Surf music is a stand-in for lighthearted thrills. We kind of ignore it, but there's some pretty good surf music out there in the stock asset world. What I'm saying is, there's this attitude of "don't worry, it's just the stock music industry", and having been in a marketing job before I understand where that sentiment comes from, but maybe stock artists are people too? Maybe it's nice to pay them? And I think we're seeing that whole opportunity dry up.

Let me throw in this one possibility: low opportunity cost, no real regulation of AI, the anonymity of the internet to me says ripe opportunity for a scam. I think there's a decent chance you'll see a new album claiming to be from Dick Dale. It'll sound like Dick Dale, it'll have archival pictures of Dick Dale, but it'll be AI. And it'll be a decent amount of time before Dick Dale's estate notices, and a decent amount of time more before they manage to get it taken down, and chances are they'll never find the people that managed to run away with a few hundred dollars under Dick Dale's name. It didn't cost them much of anything, and they'll probably still be making money on their fake Link Wray, Bo Diddley and Takeshi Terauchi accounts. They'll probably even try Messer Chups, Los Straitjackets and Surfrajettes.

What can we do?

So I haven't seen any hint of a policy from Bandcamp about AI generated music. Spotify removed some AI generated music, but seemingly only because they . If it's not infringing copyright, these platforms currently don't seem to care.

Udio has a policy that any music created on udio that's sold for profit must state that it was created on udio. But it didn't feel serious to me, and I doubt that they would pursue people that skirt it. They want to get out there and attract users, not scare them away with harsh policy.

So there's not much. I've rallied facebook surf group admins to ban The Manager. Some of them have. But this feels like closing a door to keep a volcano from enveloping your house.

I'm asking for you musicians to help me. Just let me know that you're people. Manage the mystery.

And I GET the mystery. You don't choose surf to make press packets, band photos, lofty paragraphs about artist intent. You perform in masks, you adopt pseudonyms, you say as little as you can between songs. I'm just asking for basic blurbs, boring photos, links to social media, even just bland details about the recording. These are things that aren't worth the effort for an AI band.

And ditch the AI generated album art. It doesn't mean you're AI, but it trips the alarm. And it's already gotten old.

And what if you actually are interesting? I've met many surf musicians and haven't regretted it yet.

Throughout this, I've kept thinking about Amphibian Man. In 2015 Amphibian Man released , then continued to release roughly every 2 months for a year and a half. These album pages had no information, no photos of the "band", just unceremoniously appeared out of nowhere.

By these AI standards releasing multiple LPs in a week, 2 months is a standstill, and in 2015 AI was still mostly stupid. So I wasn't necessarily suspicious, but it was unprecedented, and I needed to know what the heck is going on here?

So I did what I did with God of Surf. I emailed. But in this case .

Over time, the story of Amphibian Man ended up being more compelling than I could have thought. It started as a one-man project from a music teacher with a lot of pent-up ideas. Then he formed a band, and the sound changed a bit. Amphibian Man lives in Kiev, Ukraine. When Russia attacked, their sound , and their music became charged with meaning and weight.

People are interesting, bands are interesting. Don't assume that you won't be. Admittedly I'm just asking for information so that I can bypass an obnoxious humanity verification process, but I think this is a win-win.

But look, there is no strategy. AI has been pushed on the public's lap before anybody was ready, and it's only accelerating as tech companies fear being left behind. It was built on existing creative works without consent of the creators, and just as they disrespected the input of their system, they show little regard for what the output may result in. I'm actually not that worried about surf music. We've proved pretty hard to kill. And truth be told, the landscape of music discovery has changed many times over, and I've adapted each time. I'll find more music. They can't invade a box of 45s.


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