“OK — now Ghostwriter is ready for us.”
For almost three hours, I have been driving an airport rental car to an undisclosed location — accompanied by an artist manager whose name I only know in confidence — outside the U.S. city we both just flew into. I came here because, after weeks of back-and-forth email negotiations, the manager has promised that I can meet his client, whom I’ve interviewed once off-camera over Zoom, in person. In good traffic, the town we’re headed toward is about an hour from the airport, but it’s Friday rush hour, so we watch as my Google Maps ETA gets later and later with each passing minute. To fill the time, we chat about TikTok trends, our respective careers and the future of artificial intelligence.
AI is, after all, the reason we’re in this car in the first place. The mysterious man I’ve come to meet is a “well-known” professional songwriter-producer, his manager says — at least when he’s using his real name. But under his pseudonym, Ghostwriter, he is best known for creating “Heart on My Sleeve,” a song that employed AI voice filters to imitate Drake and The Weeknd’s voices with shocking precision — and without their consent. When it was posted to TikTok in the spring, it became one of the biggest music stories of the year, as well as one of the most controversial.
At the time of its release, many listeners believed that Ghost’s use of AI to make the song meant that a computer also generated the beat, lyrics or melodies, but as Ghost later explains to me, “It is definitely my songwriting, my production and my voice.” Still, “Heart on My Sleeve” posed pressing ethical questions: For one, how could an artist maintain control over their vocal likeness in this new age of AI? But as Ghost and his manager see it, AI poses a new opportunity for artists to license their voices for additional income and marketing reach, as well as for songwriters like Ghost to share their skills, improve their pitches to artists and even earn extra income.
As we finally pull into the sleepy town where we’re already late to meet with Ghost, his manager asks if I can stall. “Ghost isn’t quite ready,” he says, which I assume means he’s not yet wearing the disguise he dons in all his TikTok videos: a white bedsheet and black sunglasses. (Both the manager and Ghost agreed to this meeting under condition of total anonymity.) As I weave the car through residential streets at random, passing a few front yards already adorned in Halloween decor, I laugh to myself — it feels like an apropos precursor to our meeting.
But fifteen minutes later, when we enter Ghost’s “friend’s house,” I find him sitting at the back of an open-concept living space, at a dining room table, dressed head to toe in black: black hoodie, black sweatpants, black ski mask, black gloves and ski goggles. Not an inch of skin is visible, apart from short glimpses of the nape of his neck when he turns his head a certain way.
Though he appears a little nervous to be talking to a reporter for the first time, Ghost is friendly, standing up from his chair to give me a hug and to greet his manager. When I decide to address the elephant in the room — “I know this is weird for all of us” — everyone laughs, maybe a little too hard.
Over the course of our first virtual conversation and, now, this face-to-masked-face one, Ghost and his manager openly discuss their last six months for the first time, from their decision to release “Heart on My Sleeve” to more recent events. Just weeks ago, Ghost returned with a second single, “Whiplash,” posted to TikTok using the voices of 21 Savage and Travis Scott — and with the ambition to get his music on the Grammy Awards ballot.
In a Sept. 5 New York Times story, Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason Jr. said “Heart on My Sleeve” was “absolutely [Grammy-]eligible because it was written by a human,” making it the first song employing AI voices to be permitted on the ballot. Three days later, however, he appeared to walk back his comments in a video posted to his personal social media, saying, “This version of ‘Heart on My Sleeve’ using the AI voice modeling that sounds like Drake and The Weeknd, it’s not eligible for Grammy consideration.”
In conversation, Ghost and his manager maintain (and a Recording Academy representative later confirms) that “Heart on My Sleeve” will, in fact, be on the ballot because they quietly uploaded a new version of the song (without any AI voice filters) to streaming services on Sept. 8, just days before Grammy eligibility cutoff and the same day as Mason’s statement.
When the interview concludes, Ghost’s manager asks if we will stay for the takeout barbecue the owner of the house ordered for everyone before the manager and I arrived. At this, Ghost stands up, saying his outfit is too hot and that he ate earlier anyway — or maybe he just realizes that eating would require taking his ski mask off in front of me.
When did Ghostwriter first approach you with this idea, and what were your initial thoughts?
Manager: We first discussed this not long before the first song dropped. He had just started getting into AI. We wanted to do something that could spark much needed conversation and prep us so that we can start moving toward building an environment where this can exist in an ethical and equitable way. What better way to move culture forward around AI than to create some examples of how it can be used and show how the demand and interest is there?
As the person in charge of Ghostwriter’s business affairs, what hurdles did you see to executing his idea?
Manager: When anything new happens, people don’t know how to react. I see a lot of parallels between this moment and the advent of sampling. There was an outcry [about] thievery in 1989 when De La Soul was sued for an uncleared sample. Fast-forward to now, and artist estates are jumping at the opportunity to be sampled and interpolated in the next big hit. All it took was for the industry to define an equitable arrangement for all stakeholders in order for people to see the value in that new form of creativity. I think we agreed that we had an opportunity to show people the value in AI and music here.
Ghostwriter’s songs weren’t created with the consent of Drake, The Weeknd, Travis Scott or 21 Savage. How do you justify using artists’ voices without their consent?
Manager: I like to say that everything starts somewhere, like Spotify wouldn’t exist without Napster. Nothing is perfect in the beginning. That’s just the reality of things. Hopefully, people will see all the value that lies here.
How did you get in touch with the Recording Academy?
Manager: Harvey reached out to Ghostwriter over DM. He was just curious and interested. It’s his job to keep the industry moving forward and to understand what new things are happening. I think he’s still wrapping his head around it, but I thought it was really cool that he put together an industry roundtable with some of the brightest minds — including people in the Copyright Office, legal departments at labels, Spotify, Ghostwriter. We had an open conversation.
I don’t know if Harvey has the answers — and I don’t want to put words in his mouth — but I think he sees that this is a cool tool to help people create great music. [Ultimately,] we just have to figure out the business model so that all stakeholders feel like they have control and are being taken care of.
I think in the near future, we’re going to have infrastructure that allows artists to not only license their voice, but do so with permissions. Like, say I’m artist X. I want to license my voice out, but I want to take 50% of the revenue that’s generated. Plus users can’t use my voice for hate speech or politics. It is possible to create tech that can have permissions like that. I think that’s where we are headed.
“Heart on My Sleeve” is Grammy-eligible after all, but only the version without AI voice filters. Why was it so important to keep trying for Grammy eligibility?
Manager: Our thought process was, it’s a dope record, and it resonated with people. It was a human creator who created this piece of art that made the entire music industry stop and pay attention. We aren’t worried about whether we win or not — this is about planting the seed, the idea that this is a creative tool for songwriters.
Do you still think it pushes the envelope in the same way, given that what is eligible now doesn’t have any AI filter on it?
Manager: Absolutely, because we’re just trying to highlight the fact that this song was created by a human. AI voice filters were just a tool. We haven’t changed the moment around the song that it had. I think it’s still as impactful because all of this is part of the story, the vision we are casting.
Tell me a little about yourself, Ghostwriter. What’s your background?
Ghostwriter: I’ve always been a songwriter-producer. Over time, I started to realize — as I started to get into different rooms and connect with different artists — that the business of songwriting was off. Songwriters get paid close to nothing. It caused me to think: “What can I do as a songwriter who just loves creating to maybe create another revenue stream? How do I get my voice heard as a songwriter?” That was the seed that later grew into becoming Ghostwriter.
I’ve been thinking about it for two years, honestly. The idea at first was to create music that feels like other artists and release it as Ghostwriter. Then when the AI tech came out, things just clicked. I realized, “Wait — people wouldn’t have to guess who this song was meant to sound like anymore,” now that we have this.
I did write and produce “Heart on My Sleeve” thinking that maybe this would be the one where I tried AI to add in voice filters, but the overall idea for Ghostwriter has been a piece of me for some time.
Why did you decide to take “Heart on My Sleeve” from just a fun experiment to a formal rollout?
Ghost: Up until this point, all of the AI voice stuff was jokes. Like, what if SpongeBob [SquarePants] sang this? I think it was exciting for me to try using this as a tool for actual songwriters.
When “Heart on My Sleeve” went viral, it became one of the biggest news stories at the time. Did you anticipate that?
Ghost: There was a piece of me that knew it was really special, but you just can’t predict what happens. I tried to stay realistic. When working in music, you have to remind yourself that even though you think you wrote an incredible song, there’s still a good chance the song is not going to come out or it won’t do well.
Do you think that age played a factor in how people responded to this song?
Manager: For sure. I think the older generations are more purists; it’s a tougher pill for them to swallow. I think younger generations obviously have grown up in an environment where tech moves quickly. They are more open to change and progression. I would absolutely attribute the good response on TikTok to that.
Are you still writing for other people now under your real name while you work on the Ghostwriter project, or are you solely focused on Ghostwriter right now?
Ghost: I am, but I have been placing a large amount of focus [on] Ghostwriter. For me, it’s a place that is so refreshing. Like, I love seeing that an artist is looking for pitch records and I have to figure out how to fit their sound. It’s a beautiful challenge.
This is one of the reasons I’m so passionate about Ghostwriter. There are so many talented songwriters that are able to chameleon themselves in the studio to fit the artist they are writing for. Even their vocal delivery, their timbre, where the artist is in their life story. That skill is what I get to showcase with Ghostwriter.
You’ve said songwriters aren’t treated fairly in today’s music industry. Was there a moment when you had this revelation?
Ghost: It was more of a progression…
Manager: I think the fact that Ghost’s songs feel so much like the real thing and resonate so much with those fan bases, despite the artists not actually being involved, proves how important songwriters are to the success of artists’ projects. We’re in no way trying to diminish the hard work and deserving nature of the artists and the labels that support them. We’re just trying to shine a light on the value that songwriters bring and that their compensation currently doesn’t match that contribution. We owe it to songwriters to find solutions for the new reality. Maybe this is the solution.
Ghost: How many incredible songs are sitting on songwriters and producers’ desktops that will never be heard by the world? It almost hurts me to think about that. The Ghostwriter project — if people will hopefully support it — is about not throwing art in the trash. I think there’s a way for artists to help provide that beauty to the world without having to put in work themselves. They just have to license their voices.
The counterpoint to that, though, is that artists want to curate their discographies. They make a lot of songs, but they might toss some of them so that they can present a singular vision — and many would say songs using AI to replicate an artist’s voice would confuse that vision. What do you say to that?
Ghost: I think this may be a simple solution, but the songs could be labeled as clearly separate from the artist.
Manager: That’s something we have done since the beginning. We have always clearly labeled everything as AI.
Ideally, where should these AI songs live? Do they belong on traditional streaming services?
Manager: One way that this can play out is that [digital service providers] eventually create sort of an AI section where the artist who licenses their voice can determine how much of the AI songs they want monetarily and how they want their voices to be used.
Ghost: These songs are going to live somewhere because the fans want them. We’ve experienced that with Ghostwriter. The song is not available anymore by us, but I was just out in my area and heard someone playing “Heart on My Sleeve” in their car as they drove by. One way or another, we as the music industry need to come to terms with the fact that good music is always going to win. The consumer and the listener are always in the seat of power.
There’s 100,000 songs added to Spotify every day, and the scale of music creation is unprecedented. Does your vision of the future contribute to a scale problem?
Manager: We don’t really see it as a problem. Because no matter how many people are releasing music, you know, there’s only going to be so many people in the world that can write hit songs. The cream always rises to the top.
Ghost: My concern is that a lot of that cream-of-the-crop music is just sitting on someone’s desktop because an artist moved in a different direction or something beyond their control. My hope is we’ll see incredible new music become available and then we can watch as democracy pushes it to the top.
Can you explain how you think AI voice filters serve as a possible new revenue stream for artists?
Manager: Imagine singing a karaoke song in the artist’s voice; a personalized birthday message from your favorite artist; a hit record that is clearly labeled and categorized as AI. It’s also a marketing driver. I compare this to fan fiction — a fan-generated genre of music. Some might feel this creates competition or steals attention away from an artist’s own music, but I would disagree.
We shouldn’t forget that in the early days of YouTube, artists and labels fought to remove every piece of fan-generated content [that used] copyrighted material that they could. Now a decade or so later, almost every music marketing effort centers around encouraging [user-generated content]: TikTok trends, lyric videos, dance choreography, covers, etcetera. There’s inherent value in empowering fans to create content that uses your image and likeness. I think AI voice filters are another iteration of UGC.
Timbaland recently wrote a song and used an AI voice filter to map The Notorious B.I.G.’s voice on top of it, essentially bringing Biggie back from the dead. That raises more ethical questions. Do you think using the voice of someone who is dead requires different consideration?
Manager: It’s an interesting thought. Obviously, there’s a lot of value here for companies that purchase catalogs. I think this all ties back to fan fiction. I love The Doors, and I know there are people who, like me, study exactly how they wrote and performed their songs. I’d love to hear a song from them I haven’t heard before personally, as long as it’s labeled [as a fan-made AI song]. As a music fan, it would be fun for me to consume. It’s like if you watch a film franchise and the fourth film isn’t directed by the same person as before. It’s not the same, but I’m still interested.
When Ghostwriter introduced “Whiplash,” he noted that he’s down to collaborate with and send royalties to Travis Scott and 21 Savage. Have you gotten in touch with them, or Drake or The Weeknd, yet?
Manager: No, we have not been in contact with anyone.
“Heart on My Sleeve” was taken down immediately from streaming services. Are you going about the release of “Whiplash” differently?
Manager: We will not release a song on streaming platforms again without getting the artists on board. That last time was an experiment to prove the market was there, but we are not here to agitate or cause problems.
You’ve said that other artists have reached out to your team about working together and using their voices through AI. Have you started that collaboration process?
Manager: We’re still having conversations with artists we are excited about that have reached out, but they probably won’t create the sort of moment that we want to keep consistently with this project. There’s nothing I can confirm with you right now, but hopefully soon.
Why are you not interested in collaborating with who has reached out so far? Is it because of the artist’s audience size or their genre?
Manager: It’s more like every moment we have has to add a point and purpose. There hasn’t been anyone yet that feels like they could drive things forward in a meaningful way. I mean, size for sure, and relevancy. We ask ourselves: What does doing a song with that person or act say about the utility and the value of this technology?
Ghost: We’re just always concerned with the bigger picture. When “Whiplash” happened, we all felt like it was right. It was part of a statement I wanted to make about where we were headed. This project is about messaging.
After all this back-and-forth about the eligibility of “Heart on My Sleeve,” do you both feel you’re still in a good place with Harvey Mason Jr. and the Recording Academy?
Manager: For sure, we have nothing but love for Harvey … We have a lot of respect for him, the academy and, ultimately, a lot of respect for all the opinions and arguments out there being made about this. We hear them all and are thinking deeply about it.
Ghostwriter, you’ve opted to not reveal your identity in this interview, but does any part of you wish you could shout from the rooftops that you’re the one behind this project?
Ghost: Maybe it sounds cheesy, but this is a lot bigger than me and Ghostwriter. It’s the future of music. I want to push the needle forward, and if I get to play a significant part in that, then there’s nothing cooler than that to me. I think that’s enough for me.