Despite what the recording industry may say, it doesn’t matter how many times you copy a digital file — nothing about the original is being “stolen” as a result of the duplication. In some ways, it’s great that physical media has given way to digital distribution: Expenses have shrunk to the cost of maintaining a website or allowing a digital marketplace to have a cut of the profits. But if digital files are identical and can be infinitely replicated, how can they still be worth anything? A clever answer has recently come from one electronic music ensemble: Make music that generates differently every time it’s downloaded.
Limited to 1,000 iterations, downloads of “Fake Fish Distribution,” a new album from London-based electronic group Icarus, aren’t “copies” at all: Each purchase generates a unique version of the album based on an algorithm written by the group’s members. So if I had download #145, it’d be an entirely different product than numbers 143 and 146. As CDM’s Peter Kirn points out, this solves a number of problems inherent in the digitally distributed album: “one, that digital files can’t be released as a “limited edition” in the way a tangible object can, and two, that recordings are identical copies of a fixed, pre-composed structure.”
Excepts from Edition 500 / 1000 of Icarus’ generative album “Fake Fish Distribution”
In each of the 1,000 variations, you’re hearing the results of a carefully orchestrated generative process. Musician/software engineers Ollie Bown and Sam Britton explain in an interview how they configured the work using Max for Live to introduce variation with each digital “pressing.” Each unique digital copy sells for 12 GBP, a heavy toll slightly offset by the fact that it bestows the buyer with 50% royalties in the event that their version is ever licensed.
But from every clever solution arises more questions, some of which we have asked once before: Does use of generative processes distance an artist’s relationship with the product itself? Does the added layer of abstraction cause a kind of collaboration between machine and human? Or can the machine’s procedural qualities constitute a kind of musical authorship? “Music seems to cluster around a few fixed points but with many dimensions of flexibility,” wrote the duo in a guest column for Q magazine. “One example would be how a soloist is free to interpret a score, another would be the stylistic traits that we use to classify genres.”
Since our transition to a digital medium causes the idea of “scarcity” to only exist artificially, Icarus’ method seems like it could be the next step for music and art to become a natural component of the internet’s ecosystem. You can get your own beautiful, Eno-inspired MP3 snowflake from their website. While “supplies” last, of course.